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Selected news/columns/editorials: 18.03.2016

ISLAMABAD: Moscow believes that there are still not enough reasons to justify Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Islamabad.

“The problem is that usually the purpose of the visit is not participation in ceremonies. The visit should have some substance,” Russian Ambassador Alexey Dedov said at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI), where he was delivering a lecture on Pak-Russia relations.

“As soon as the substance is ready we can discuss the visit,” he said.

Mr Dedov defined the substance as “signing of documents” for cooperation, “preparation of plans” for expanding ties, and “declarations”.

No Russian or even Soviet president has ever visited Pakistan. President Putin had planned a visit to Islamabad in October 2012 for attending a quadrilateral summit between Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan, but cancelled it at the eleventh hour.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was then hastily dispatched to Islamabad to explain the cancellation.

Lately, there was renewed talk of Mr Putin visiting Islamabad after Russia agreed to invest in the $2 billion North-South gas pipeline project for carrying liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Karachi to Lahore. It was being speculated that he could visit Pakistan for performing the groundbreaking ceremony of the project.

Despite the perceived lack of incentive for taking the relationship to a higher plane, Moscow has, nevertheless, kept Pakistan engaged because of strategic and political compulsions, particularly the evolving situation in Afghanistan, terrorism concerns and anti-narcotics collaboration.

The ambassador rued the “unrealised potential” of the ties, but noted that Pakistan was “seen (in Russia) as an important and reliable partner with whom relations could be developed”.

He cited the geostrategic position of Pakistan and challenges and interests shared by the two countries as the motivation for Moscow to work for better and stronger bilateral relations.

Over the past few years, the two countries have signed important agreements for military-to-military cooperation, and technical military cooperation, besides regularising meetings of the Inter-Governmental Commission and initiating a business and investment forum.

The two countries are also close to resolving a longstanding economic dispute that led to freezing of Russian assets worth $120 million in Pakistan. A draft agreement has been initialled and a final accord is likely soon. The row was a major obstacle to economic cooperation between the two countries.

“Pre-requisites have been met.… the foundation has been laid and there are chances of success,” Mr Dedov observed.

In a landmark defence deal, Russia last year agreed to sell Mi-35 helicopters to Pakistan.

“Technical issues related to delivery of helicopters are being discussed now, which may require time,” Mr Dedov said about the helicopters’ sale describing it as a “pilot deal”. He hoped that the cooperation (military hardware export) would develop. Russia is also supporting Pakistan’s entry into Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).

The diplomat said that Moscow was also focusing on creating a positive atmosphere in South Asia (in a reference to India-Pakistan ties) and believes that the SCO could provide the platform for fostering confidence and cooperation between Delhi and Islamabad.

Mr Dedov said that the upcoming SCO meeting in Tashkent would provide a good opportunity for a meeting between President Putin and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

The two leaders last met on the sidelines of the SCO summit in Ufa in July 2015. 

Published in Dawn, March 18th, 2016

A monument erected in memory of Farkhunda Malikzada, who was beaten to death by a mob last year, in Kabul.—Photo by writerA monument erected in memory of Farkhunda Malikzada, who was beaten to death by a mob last year, in Kabul.—Photo by writer

KABUL: When news first spread last year that a young woman had been beaten to death in one of the Afghan capital’s most famous shrines, it left many in the nation with conflicting feelings of anger and confusion.

In the initial hours, the woman — still anonymous in her black chador — had been accused of burning pages of the Quran in central Kabul’s Shah-Do Shamshira shrine. This left many, including the mullah of one of the capital’s most famous mosques and a female deputy of the ministry of information and culture, praising the mob of angry men and women who beat her to death.

Know more: Afghan women carry body of lynched woman to burial

By the evening, the family of the woman identified as Farkhunda Malikzada had been coerced by security officials to claim their daughter suffered from an unspecified mental illness, leading to further confusion among the public.

The next day saw the spread of false rumours that Malikzada had run away from home and came to the shrine with 20 verses of the holy book in her hand.

However, by the following evening security and religious officials had declared that the papers Malikzada — a 27-year-old student of Islamic Studies — was accused of burning were in fact Dari-language tawiz, charms, and not pages of the Muslim holy book.

Suddenly, the conflicted feelings of the people turned to outright anger.

A young woman who dared to speak out against the commercialisation of religion and traditional superstitions had been viciously murdered after the guardian of the shrine — whom she accused of being a charlatan — falsely claimed she had desecrated the Quran.

In the following weeks, a massive public outcry, including a protest of nearly two thousand people outside the Supreme Court, was supposed to mark a red line in the sand.

No longer would the Afghan people stand for the abuse and harassment of women across the country.

Explore: Love, rage and silence: The secret lives of Afghanistan's female poets

However, in the year since her death, activists and politicians deride the trial that was meant to punish the dozens of people who beat Malikzada and dragged her dead body from a car before ultimately setting it on fire in one of Kabul’s most-trafficked areas.

What’s more, attendees at an event meant to inaugurate a monument in Malikzada’s honour say the impunity of people accused of abuses against women persist.

The red line quickly faded and the status quo has been maintained.

“It should have set a precedent, but what we’ve seen is that nothing has changed,” said one young woman in attendance at the gathering.

The woman, who would not disclose her name due to security concerns, said what happened to Malikzada is the ultimate embodiment of failed Western efforts to help Afghan women.

“In the 15 years since the US occupation we’ve seen small changes, but nothing meaningful or foundational,” said the 20-something who hid her face with a blue surgical mask.

When the US-led coalition first set out to topple the Taliban government in 2001 the condition of women during the group’s six-year rule was often heralded as one of the main impetuses behind the invasion.

“Rather than helping the Afghan people, including women, the foreign presence shows that the West has only driven our own people apart and led to more death and destruction.”

Others say the government itself failed to do their duty and protect Malikzada at the time of her murder.

“There’s no way a dozen or so police could have controlled a crowd of hundreds by themselves, but why was there no backup sent, why didn’t the higher ups intervene and send re-enforcements,” said Selay Ghaffar, spokeswoman for the Solidarity Party of Afghanistan, who organised the gathering.

Looking at the dozens of police in riot gear standing watch over the 200 attendees, Ghaffar said the police failed to do their jobs on that day.

Last year, a court handed 11 police officers one-year sentences for dereliction of duty and acquitted eight others.

The police sentencing once again ignited anger among the public as amateur mobile phone footage captured at the scene seemed to show police doing little to stop the mob who beat Farkhunda with large stones and sticks and ran over her body twice with a Toyota hatchback.

The verdicts for the men accused of taking part in her death — including the guardian of the shrine who initially provoked the mob — proved even more disenchanting.

Initially, the three-day trial resulted in death sentences for four of the men and 16-year terms for eight others. However, earlier this month it was confirmed that the death sentences were commuted to three 20-year terms — including an intelligence agent who had bragged about his role in the killing in a now deleted Facebook post — and one 10-year term.

A police commander, who did not want to be named because he was not allowed to speak to media, said it was a tragedy that never should have happened and it showed how stretched the police are everywhere. “At that time they were especially under pressure because there were preparations for Nowroz, the Persian New Year, the following day.”

For Ghaffar the verdicts along with other cases of violence and abuse against women in the last year — including the public stoning of a 19-year-old woman accused of adultery in the central province of Ghor — prove the situation for the nation’s women has only gotten progressively worse.

Though cases like Malikzada’s received massive public attention, thousands of other cases of abuse against women go unreported each year.

According to the United States Institute for Peace, 87 per cent of Afghan women have been subject to domestic abuse at least once in their lifetime.

“Afghanistan has become a hell for women.”

Published in Dawn, March 18th, 2016

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