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Conference told Pakistan blasphemy laws 'equated to ethnic cleansing'

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A conference on Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws was told that the legislation has been equated to ethnic cleansing. The blasphemy laws, while purporting to protect Islam and the religious sensitivities of the Muslim majority of Pakistan, are "vaguely formulated and arbitrarily enforced by the police and the judiciary". As such they permit, even invite, abuse and the harassment and persecution of minorities in Pakistan, the event at Brussels press club was told.

But, despite such concerns, the European Union is "failing to help” victims and pressure must be put on Pakistan to repeal its laws. The conference on Pakistan’s highly controversial and widely condemned blasphemy laws, took place under the auspices of the Alliance internationale pour la défense des droits et des libertés.

The legal basis of the blasphemy law, the use of the laws to justify ethnic cleansing and the particular effects on females were all discussed. Opening the debate, Paulo Casada, a former MEP, founder and executive director of the South Asia Democratic Forum, said: “This is a very important topic and one we have been dealing with for a long time. People are being accused of blasphemy without any foundation at all. This results from attacks on lawyers and the quite fanatical and absurd atmosphere in the country.

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“The EU needs to do more to highlight this issue which has got worse, not better.”

Jürgen Klute, former MEP and a Christian theologian, said: “I think Christianity and Islam have a lot in common: the belief that you have to appear in front of divine judgement at the end of your time so we must strongly argue against these blasphemy laws. How can a human being decide or estimate what a blasphemy is? You have to leave such decisions to your God. We can argue against these laws on human rights grounds and also religious grounds.”

Manel Msalmi, international affairs Advisor of MEPs of the European Peoples’ Party in the European Parliament, said: “The parliament and significantly the commission and council have each condemned persecution in Pakistan.Hundreds have been charged under these laws which seek to limit speech which could be seen as offensive. These laws have always been a problem but the situation has got worse. It is important to note that such laws are being used against religious minorities in states like Pakistan. Such attacks are also common online particularly against journalists. Pakistan has even called for the introduction of such laws in other Muslim countries with a boycott of states where blasphemy happens. This practice goes hand in hand with targeting religious groups. Human rights are being abused in Pakistan.”

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Another keynote speaker, Willy Fautré, director, Human Rights Without Frontiers, thanked the organizers for highlighting the issue. He focused be on the case of a Christian couple imprisoned since 2013 on blasphemy charges before being declared innocent by the Supreme Court of Pakistan and released a few months ago. Despite a resolution of the European Parliament in April focusing on their case, no EU country is ready to grant them political asylum.

He said that in the HRWF database of FORB prisoners, “we have documented 47 cases of believers of all faiths in Pakistan who are in jail on the basis of the blasphemy laws.” These include 26 Christians, 15 Sunni Muslims, 5 Ahmadis and 1 Shia Muslim. Fautre added: “There are certainly more.”

Some 16 have been sentenced to death, 16 have been sentenced to life imprisonment, 10 have been in prison for years and are still waiting for trial and in four cases the status of the prisoner is unknown. The case of Asia Bibi who was sentenced to death by hanging in 2010 and was finally acquitted for lack of evidence by the Supreme Court of Pakistan after spending many years on the death row is well known. When she was released, she went into hiding to avoid being killed by extremist groups.

She tried to apply for asylum in France and to other EU member states but to no avail. She was finally welcome in Canada. Fautre said: “I would like here to focus on this point."

On 29 April 2021, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on blasphemy laws in Pakistan, in particular the case of Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel, saying in its very first point:“Whereas Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel, a Christian couple, were imprisoned in 2013 and sentenced to death in 2014 for blasphemy; whereas they have been accused of sending “blasphemous” text messages to a mosque cleric insulting the Prophet Muhammad, using a sim card registered in Shagufta’s name; whereas both the accused have consistently denied all allegations and believe that her National identity card was purposely misused.”

The European Parliament said it “strongly condemns the imprisonment and sentencing of Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel, as well as the continued delay of their appeal hearing; calls on the Pakistani authorities to immediately and unconditionally release them, and to provide them and their lawyer adequate security now and upon release; calls on the Lahore High Court to hold the appeal hearing without delay and to strike down the verdict in accordance with human rights”.

Some 681 MEPs voted in favour of the resolution and only three MEPs opposed it. Fautre added: “The Christian couple was finally released after spending 8 years in prison. They live in hiding for their security.They would now like to find a safe haven in an EU member state but they have not received any proposal from them and their applications for a visa through various European embassies have mostly remained unanswered or have been turned down because they are in hiding for their safety, they have no job and no proof of income. The diplomatic missions have not proposed them an alternative process to get aslum.”

He told the conference: “Up to now, Germany was the only embassy to officially answer Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel but they said they could not be of any assistance. This possibility is narrowly limited to exceptional cases that are of particular exemplary political significance, for example, persons who have been active in human rights or opposition work in a particularly outstanding and long-standing manner and are thus directly exposed to a massive threat to their physical integrity and can sustainably avoid such a threat solely by being admitted to Germany.

“The only way to ask for political asylum would be to illegally cross several borders and arrive in an EU country where they could apply for asylum. They do not envisage such a dangerous solution.

“Again, in this case, EU member states are failing to concretely help persecuted Christians looking for a safe haven and turn a deaf ear to their requests. They are neither proactive nor reactive. Their obstacle race which started in 2013 in Pakistan is far from over.

“General Pervez Musharraf succeeded Zia with the support of the US and its allies. Musharraf not only failed to bring change in the country’s blasphemy laws, he also allowed extremist groups to continue working under new names.”

Pakistan

EU urged to act over 'continued rights abuses' by Pakistan

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Coalition spokesman Andy Vermaut

The EU institutions have been urged to act urgently in the case of Pakistan’s alleged continued human rights abuses.  A coalition of respected human rights NGOs, coming together under the umbrella of Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF),delivered a letter to the EU’s High Representative Josep Borrell, calling for the suspension of Pakistan's GSP+ status, which gives the country preferential trading rights with the EU, on the basis of “continued human rights abuses” .  

In the letter, delivered by hand to the Brussels offices of Borrell, a former Spanish MEP, on Wednesday, the NGOs particularly highlighted the abuses of Pakistan's blasphemy laws.  This has recently seen an eight year old child charged with blasphemy “against the prophet” an offence carrying a mandatory death sentence.     The letter follows a recent conference on the matter, also hosted by the Press Club in Brussels, which was addressed by former European Commissioner Jan Figel, MEP Peter van Dalen and others.  

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A UK parliamentary group has since declared its support for the campaign, headed by HRWF.  One of the organisers of the letter told this site that there is particular concern about Pakistan’s current country’s blasphemy laws, and the lack of respect for the presumption of innocence.  The letter handed to Borrell, the EU’s foreign affairs chief, cites article 12 of a European parliament Joint Motion For A Resolution, dated April 28 and passed by 681 votes.  This pledges “to immediately review Pakistan’s eligibility for GSP+ status in the light of current events and whether there is sufficient reason to initiate a procedure for the temporary withdrawal of this status and the benefits that come with it, and to report to the European Parliament on this matter as soon as possible”.  

The recent conference heard that of the benefits given as a result of the current agreement with Pakistan, around 20% only accrued to the EU, causing, in the opinion of the conference, no significant potential detrimental economic impact on the EU or the member states.  The imposition of the mandatory death sentence for those found guilty of blasphemy against the prophet, particularly in the context of such charges having recently been levelled at an eight year old child, makes, in the opinion of the conference, the current GSP+ status enjoyed by Pakistan “morally and politically untenable.”  

During the conference, the names were read out of 47 prisoners who are currently held on blasphemy charges in Pakistan.  They are: Mubashir Ahmed; Gulab Ahmed; Ahtesham Ahmed; Zahid Ahmed; Ahmed Waqar; Anwar; Islam; Mailik Ashraf; Anwar Ashgar; Ahmed Ashgar; Noor Ashgar; Malik Ashraf; Kausar Ayub; Amud Ayub; Taimur; Siya; Raza; Zafar Bati; Md. Safi; Md. Shehzad; Rehmat Ali; Asif; Md. Aslam; Arif Mehdi; Junaid; Hafeez; Abdul Hamid; Md. Faruq; Hayai Bin; Malik; Md. Humayan Faysal; Aftab Mastargil; Nadeem James; Arif Massih; Saudi Issaq; Abdul Karim; Imran Massih; Yakub; Ishfaq Massih; Saba Massih; Bashir; Mastan Mushtaq; Shamsuddin; Md. Yussaf; Inayat Rasool; Iqbal and Md. Aslam.

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The list comprises Ahmediyyas, Shias, Hindus, and Christians.  Sixteen of these have been handed a death sentence.  The letter sent to  Borrell on Wednesday states that “Accordingly, we wish to ask the High Representative - who has previously stated that suspension of Pakistan’s GSP+ status is a measure of last measures - what his current position is in this regard?”  The letter, seen by this site,  goes on to say that “given that Pakistan’s behaviour clearly contravenes the requirement for GSP+ beneficiaries to ratify 27 international conventions, numerous it is clearly in breach of, we respectfully ask how the High Representative can justify the continuation of Pakistan’s GSP+ status?”  No one from the EEAS was immediately available for comment to this website on Wednesday (15 September).  

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Kashmir

Kashmir: A festering dispute

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Our government came into office in 2018, focused on fulfilling the promise of delivering Naya Pakistan to our voters. We wanted to provide education, jobs, and better health care by leveraging our connectivity infrastructure to foster regional trade and investment. We knew that this would require a peaceful neighborhood, writes Pakistan Foreign Minster Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi.

Accordingly, shortly after his election, Prime Minister Imran Khan declared that Pakistan "will take two steps towards peace, if India takes one." He hoped that Pakistan and India would fight poverty instead of each other.

Unfortunately, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India has no interest in peace. India's ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, is steeped in the racist, hate-filled Hindutva creed of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary organization whose founding fathers wrote admiringly of Hitler and Mussolini.

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The BJP government thrives on inciting hate and violence against religious minorities - especially Muslims - and builds political capital by saber rattling against Pakistan. Indeed, India's penchant for brinkmanship brought our two nuclear-armed countries to the brink of war in February 2019. If tragedy was averted, it was only because of Pakistan's restraint and no thanks to India.

We thought that a close brush with war would have sobered the Modi government. But we had underestimated the extent to which RSS ideology had infected the Indian government's DNA.

New Delhi continued to spurn Pakistan's offer for dialogue on the core dispute of Jammu and Kashmir as well as other issues that bedevil our relationship. Prime Minister Modi, it appears, confused Pakistan's desire for peace with weakness.

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On Aug. 5, 2019, India imposed an armed siege and communications blackout on Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu & Kashmir (IIOJK). Since then, thousands of Kashmiris, including minors, have been arrested and tortured. Popular Kashmiri leaders, like the 91-year-old Ali Shah Geelani, have always been at the receiving end of Indian state repression. This time India did not even spare those political leaders, including three former chief ministers, who are seen by ordinary Kashmiris as enablers of the Indian occupation.

More than 8 million Kashmiris remain inmates in the largest open-air prison camp in the world today, with 900,000 Indian military and paramilitary forces standing watch over them. No credible observer or human rights organization can visit them lest their voices be heard. India has forbidden U.S. Senators from visiting Kashmir. It has detained and deported a sitting British Member of Parliament because she had criticized Indian human rights violations in Kashmir.

Since August 5 last year, the first anniversary of India's military siege and lockdown in IIOJK, its security forces have killed 390 Kashmiris. In 2021 alone,

some 85 Kashmiris have been murdered in extra-judicial killings. Indian security forces routinely stage fake encounters to kill young Kashmiri protestors, and use pellet guns against women and children, blinding and maiming hundreds.

As Pakistan had warned, the Indian government is proceeding with the enactment of illegal measures to effect demographic change in Kashmir. The displacement of the local population by non-residents in an internationally disputed territory is a violation of international law and, in particular, the Fourth Geneva Convention. The entire spectrum of Kashmiri political leadership has rejected these moves by the Indian government to create "settler colonies."

Mr. Modi's actions have landed India and the region in a cul-de-sac. Baffled with its inability to crush the Kashmiris' struggle for self-determination, India is looking for a new generation of collaborators from among the Kashmiri leadership to lend a gloss of legitimacy to its occupation. Meanwhile, a systematic campaign to erase the Kashmiri people's religious, cultural, and linguistic identity continues apace.

This, too, shall fail -just as all other attempts at quashing the Kashmiris' demand for independence have failed.

What will the Indian government do then? Will it resurrect the familiar bogey of "cross-border terrorism" to smear the Kashmiri freedom struggle? Will it manufacture another crisis with Pakistan to deflect attention from the never-ending stream of scandals (including the recent revelations about India's attempts to spy on Prime Minister Imran Khan) that keep rocking the BJP government?

India harbors ambitions to be a great power. Indeed, it has powerful champions who want to help India become a great power, but look the other way when India makes a mockery of the democratic values and human rights that they espouse.

It is incumbent on the international community to call India out on its atrocities against the Kashmiri people and push it towards a peaceful resolution of the Kashmir dispute. While a tenuous ceasefire has held across the Line of Control since February, the situation remains tense. And with the situation in Afghanistan rapidly deteriorating, renewed regional tensions over Kashmir are in no one's interest.

There is only one solution. India needs to reverse its actions of August 5, 2019, and create conditions for a result-oriented dialogue with Pakistan and the legitimate representatives of the Kashmiri people towards the resolution of this long standing dispute.

The people of South Asia - one of the poorest regions in the world - yearn for peace, prosperity, and a better future for their children. They should not be held hostage to India's stubborn refusal to face reality: that there can be no peace in South Asia without the peaceful settlement of the Jammu and Kashmir dispute in accordance with the relevant UN Security Council resolutions and the wishes of the Kashmiri people.

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Pakistan

Fintech revolution at Pakistan’s doorstep

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The silver lining that came with the coronavirus pandemic was the rapid move towards digitalization in different sectors of the economy that had previously been moving at a tortoise pace. Financial inclusion of the rural areas is, in particular, crucial for a faster pace of economic growth that the country needs to develop, and the Fintech revolution is offering opportunities to bring in many of these previously unbanked people, reports Global Village Space.

Pakistan’s fintech revolution: Sounds cool but do you understand what it means?

In essence, it refers to technology supporting banking and financial services. Ok, well, that’s a start! But what’s new about this – don’t we all know tellers have computers that they tap into when we deposit or take out cash from the bank.

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At its simplest, it may have meant that, but in essence, the fintech we are referring to more correctly refers to all technology that helps you conduct your banking needs generally without the assistance of a person. So it could be as simple as checking your balance or transferring your funds in your telephone app.

What does it mean for Pakistanis?

Huge Deal. Seventy-seven percent of the country is still physically unbanked and not financially included due to several reasons, including that bank branches cannot cover every part of the country; at 10 branches per 100,000 adults, Pakistan’s banking coverage is shallow as compared to the average of 16.38 in Asia.

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That means that a large number of people do not have access to finance, and all that comes with it including, agricultural loans, tractor loans, machinery loans, car loans, mortgages, farmers insurance, and SME development is hindered by a lack of access to capital and so on.

This prevents individuals from engaging in economic activities that could change their lives and overall inhibits economic growth. According to the Access to Finance Survey, the country is still predominantly cash-based.

Only 23% of the adult population of Pakistan has access to formal financial services, and even less, only 16% of adult Pakistanis have a bank account. The Black Swan event known as COVID-19 rapidly transformed countries like Pakistan into the digital twenty-first century in the financial sector.

Banks that were plodding along and been talking about digital wallets, branchless banking were pushed into immediate action as they encouraged consumers to ‘stay safe and stay home’ and use their internet banking services; it acted as an extraordinary catalyst for digitization and e-commerce.

PTI government has launched a “Digital Pakistan initiative” covering all sectors, including agriculture, health care, education, trade, commerce, government services, and financial services.

Huge money that was spent under the Ehsaas program was sent as digital payments, and the government used this (government to person payments (G2P)) as an opportunity to get the previously unbanked populations into the financial sector.

Pakistan’s digitization did a logarithmic acceleration, as digital solutions became necessary, especially during the lockdown. The State Bank of Pakistan is also driving through faster change with the availability of instant payments through their Raast system.

Fintech has impacted many fields like Banking, Insurance, Loans, Personal Finance, Electric Payments, Loans, Venture Capital, and Wealth Management, to name a few. Many new startups have started in the field and have taken on established players head-on, often creating a competitive environment that benefits consumers.

According to MarketScreener, the global financial sector is expected to be worth $26.5 trillion in 2022, and the Fintech industry is worth around 1 percent of the industry.

According to a Goldman Sachs study, it was estimated that the global fintech industry might eventually disrupt up to $4.7trn of revenue from brick-and-mortar financial services. PwC estimated in 2020 that up to 28% of banking and payment services would be at risk of disruption due to new business models brought about by fintech.

Fintech in Pakistan

According to Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, a whopping 101 million people use the internet in Pakistan, 46% has access to broadband services and 85% of Pakistan’s population has mobile connections that account to 183 million mobile subscriptions, a high penetration in the population.

Pakistan offers immense business opportunities in the payments sector for banks and other fintech entities, including startups and telcos, to capitalize on the high mobile penetration in the country by offering financial services through mobile devices, apps, and web services.

An electronic wallet could be used for various payment transactions such as receiving payments including remittances, wages, and paying bills along with phone top-ups. According to McKinsey Consulting, the cost of offering customers digital accounts can be 80-90 percent lower than using physical branches.

Neobanks hit the country several years ago once the telecom giants realized they could enter this industry and challenge the traditional banks. Neobanks are basically internet-based banks that are virtual banks that operate exclusively online without traditional physical branch networks and any of the costs attached with this.

According to a 2019 World Bank report, Pakistan’s Digital Financial Services will see a boom reaching $36 billion, contributing 7% to the GDP if a real-time retail payments gateway is introduced.

Currently, branchless banking, even with the telecom companies, has not made a big jump; as of March 2021, the average daily transactions remain around 6,604,143, and the total number of transactions during the quarter were only 594 million, with the value of transactions around Rs. 1.8 trillion.

Who will serve the unserved?

According to a 2016 World Bank report, 27.5 million Pakistani adults say that distance to a financial institution is a significant barrier to accessing financial services. The arrival of branchless banking providers into the market has added around 180,000 active agents since 2008 to the existing 100,000 bank branches, but this only slightly helps with the scarcity of financial touchpoints for the populace.

Moreover, a Karandaz report shows that banks still offer 80 percent of the existing financial services whilst serving only 15 percent of the population. Increasingly, in markets where this shortage of financial service providers exists, we see startups entering to provide this need for faster, efficient, no-frills attached payment services, especially amongst small and medium-sized businesses and unbanked individuals.

Since the introduction of Electronic Money Institute (EMI) regulations by the SBP in April 2019, several Pakistan-based startups have approached the SBP for approval— including Finja, Nayapay, Sadapay, and AFT— all are at different stages of approval from obtaining a pilot approval to an in-principle approval from the SBP.

More fintech startups and other companies are preparing to acquire EMI licenses to unlock the potential of digital financial services. The EMI license only allows fintechs to provide customers with an account with daily and monthly transactional limits.

They are not allowed to deliver any lending or savings products; companies that wish to also do that have to opt for branchless banking or apply for non-banking financial institution (NBFI) at the Securities and Exchange Commission of [1]Pakistan (SECP).

Finja recently became the first fintech to obtain both regulatory licenses: an EMI license under the ambit of the SBP and a lending license for an NBFC (non-bank financial company) under the SECP. Not all fintechs are looking to compete with banks.

Finja, for example, is building partnerships with banks by collaborating with them and creating lending and payment products to serve a segment they may not have targeted earlier.

Recently, HBL invested $1.15m into Finja, stating that this would proactively reinvent the bank to become a “technology company with a banking license”. The bank noted that investment in Finja would serve two of the bank’s strategic priorities, namely, making investments into digital financial inclusion and in development finance companies involved in agriculture and SMEs.

Since April 2020, Finja has increased its digital lending portfolio by 550%, disbursing out over 50,000 digital loans to micro, small, and medium enterprises. There is no doubt that the SBP is keen to ensure that fintech companies help in its goal of increasing financial inclusion through new and often innovative digital payments frameworks.

The 2019 regulations provide a clear framework for EMIs looking to service the public and stipulate minimum service standards and requirements for these companies to ensure that payment services are given to consumers robustly and cost-effectively and provide a baseline for customer protection.

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