Politics takes another turn in AJK
Political stability is still a dream as four prime ministers have come and gone since the 2006 elections
By Ershad Mahmud
Azad Kashmir, once again, is going through a political turmoil after nine months due to resignation of Prime Minster Raja Farooq Haider. As politics make strange bedfellows, archrivals Muslim Conference and Pakistan People's Party joined hands to oust Farooq Haider and pave way for Sardar Atique Ahmad Khan to stage a comeback after staying out of power for 18 months.

A year after the Gojra tragedy
The wounds are fresh and the communities insecure
By Waqar Gillani
It's been a year since Gojra tragedy occurred; and 57-year-old Mehnga Masih, whose house was destroyed by miscreants, continues to live in a tent with his wife and 9 children.
"We are still waiting for the government to help us," says Masih. "And the local Muslim elders continue to harass us to withdraw the case." Masih's house was supposed to be reconstructed under Phase-II of the Punjab government's promised project to rebuild the houses destroyed by the local extremists. No help has headed his way yet.

revenge
On the hit-list
The murder of Mian Iftikhar's son shows that the militants are out to eliminate those challenging them
By Rahimullah Yusufzai
A number of Awami National Party (ANP) leaders are on the hit-list of the militants, but they seem to hate Mian Iftikhar Hussain the most. Unable to get him, they assassinated his only son Mian Rashid Hussain in his hometown Pabbi in Nowshera district on July 24 in an obvious case of target-killing.

Down and out
The number of homeless and jobless people is drastically increasing in Islamabad
By Shaiq Hussain
Standing under the shade of a fruits and vegetables kiosk, Jalal Khan, 34, looks out gladly at the heavy downpour that finally broke the sweltering heat of July in Islamabad, but he is uncertain where he will sleep at night -- as the lush greenbelts of the nearby road, his abode, is underwater.

Jalal, a labourer from Bajaur Agency, who decided to test his fate in the capital city a couple of years ago when intense fighting broke out between the government forces and Taliban militants, spends his whole day doing small labour jobs in different parts of the city and when night falls, fatigued, he returns to the pavements of Islamabad's 9th Avenue, which also serves as home for dozens of other homeless people like him.

Billing acid criminals
Acid Crimes Prevention Bill comes a little too late for acid crime victims, but better late than never
By Alefia T. Hussain
Throwing acid is a cruel way of dealing with rivals in love and even business in Pakistan. And shamefully enough, it is a crime which often goes unpunished.
That perhaps is about to change as activists, lawyers and parliamentarians are actively pursuing legislation on acid crimes. The final draft, titled Acid Crimes Prevention Bill, informs Yasmeen Rehman, adviser to the PM on Women Development and a PPP parliamentarian, will be submitted to the Ministry for Women Development this week, which subsequently will be sent to the Ministry for Law for approval.

 

 

Out of course

It's drought when it doesn't rain and floods when it does rain

By Mazhar Khan Jadoon

Monsoon floods have played havoc with areas in Punjab, Balochistan and lately in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, killing hundreds and displacing thousands of people. It is painful to watch images beamed by TV channels of poor people wading through flood water leaving behind their houses, crops and valuables.

It is a common sight during monsoon every year when media is flooded with news of people waiting for rescue and relief after losing lives and properties to flash floods. Marooned people standing in long queues sometime fight over food supplies out of sheer desperation -- leaving one wondering if the government will ever wake up to reality and deal with floods effectively.

Normally, we hear everyone from top to bottom -- from rulers devising policies in Islamabad to small farmers in rural areas and poor men in urban centres -- clamouring day and night for drinking as well as irrigation water.

During summers, we hear about people and livestock dying of drought in parts of the country, and then come monsoons, we hear of people and cattle dying of floods and torrential rains in other parts of the country. We also have our provinces bickering over distribution of water, and are quick at pointing finger at India for all the water-related woes we suffer. One wonders, can our rulers and policymakers order building dams and reservoirs to channelise and store water that gets drained in sea after leaving destruction behind -- and not bash India for our water-related miseries?

Former project director Pakistan Planning and Management Institute and expert on water management, Arshad Abbasi, tells TNS that the loss could have been minimised had there been more dams and reservoirs. "Much of this issue hinges on Pakistan's poor ability to store water. The country's current water-storage capacity is barely 12 million acre-feet (an acre-foot refers to the amount of water necessary to cover an acre of land to a depth of a foot, a bit more than 1230 cubic metres). This figure represents only 10 percent of the country's annual river flow. The world's average for storage capacity, on the other hand, is 40 percent of a country's annual flow. The two large dams in the Indus Basin Irrigation System, the Mangla and Tarbela, originally offered a cumulative storage capacity of 17.5 million acre-feet. But this figure has been reduced by almost a third due to silting over the past half a century, and will go down further in the near future. This 'lost' water courses through Pakistan and on into the Arabian Sea.

"The simple conclusion is big dams -- controversial from a number of perspectives, both warranted and not -- cannot be relied on as the only answer to Pakistan's water woes. While these large projects may eventually be able to play a significant role in the country, efforts should be made to improve groundwater recharge, to construct economically viable smaller dams that are less threatening politically and environmentally, and to foster a significant system of rainwater harvesting. None of these are taken into account by Water Vision 2025 in anyway," says Abbasi.

Engineer Saulat Raza, expert in water management, tells TNS small dams and reservoirs help avoid undue destructions during monsoon season and store water for irrigation and drinking. "However, these floods also help replenish the underground water resources and enrich soil for farming," Raza opines.

A senior official of Wapda says, "The government has started various projects to channelise and store water to overcome the shortage of water in dry seasons." The official website of Wapda lists many future projects and under-construction dams that include Gomal Zam Dam, Mirani Dam, Mangla Dam raising project, Sabakzai Dam and Satpara Dam. It says work is also underway on canals, drainage systems and small dams throughout the country.

Diamer Bhasha Dam project ran into trouble when the World Bank conveyed to the government that it would not release funds after India raised objections to it claiming that the project was located in Gilgit-Baltistan which it considered a disputed territory. The Asian Development Bank linked the release of funds to the adoption of a resolution by a joint sitting of parliament in the favour of the project.

Politics takes another turn in AJK

Political stability is still a dream as four prime ministers have come and gone since the 2006 elections

By Ershad Mahmud

Azad Kashmir, once again, is going through a political turmoil after nine months due to resignation of Prime Minster Raja Farooq Haider. As politics make strange bedfellows, archrivals Muslim Conference and Pakistan People's Party joined hands to oust Farooq Haider and pave way for Sardar Atique Ahmad Khan to stage a comeback after staying out of power for 18 months.

Politics in Azad Kashmir took a dramatic turn in January 2008 when a faction of Muslim Conference, led by Raja Farooq Haider with backing of the Pakistan People's Party and tacit support of the federal government, showed the then Premier Sardar Atique Khan the exit door while Sardar Yaqoob Khan emerged as a consensus prime minister candidate.

Within few months Sardar Atique and Raja Farooq Haider ditched Sardar Yaqoob Khan. However, they too could not develop lasting political partnership and eventually had to stand against each other. In this political wrangling, members of the assembly got badly discredited in the eyes of masses as they had become a selling commodity since they had ditched three prime minister candidates and then voted for the forth one.

The Muslim Conference's internal power politics paved the way for the formation of Muslim League-Nawaz chapter in AJK. Muslim Conference was regarded as a local branch of the Muslim League during the last six decades, but relationship between Sharif brothers and Sardar Atique's family got in trouble when Atique and his father Sardar Abdul Qayyum Khan supported the former military dictator Pervez Musharraf at the cost of traditional ties with the Sharif family and Muslim League. Interestingly, Musharraf rewarded Sardar Atique by putting him in the top slot of premiership in the 2006 controversial local elections. He tried to introduce strange doctrine of military democracy which alienated him further from the Muslim League and annoyed Nawaz Sharif in particular.

Muslim League Nawaz seems determined to support Raja Farooq Haider in local elections against PPP-Muslim Conference coalition. It has reasonable influence in the Mirpur division and also nine assembly seats (Kashmiri refugees), spreading in the entire Punjab. On the other hand, Raja Farooq Haider has also tremendously increased his personal stature by raising key issues related to public interest and directly confronting Islamabad during his brief stint in power. He has taken up matters related to ownership of mega projects which are being built by the federal government in the area, royalty rights and constitutional and political empowerment of the people of Azad Kashmir. He was outspoken in criticising Islamabad's attitude and its 'carrot and stick' policy in dealing with the internal political dynamics of AJK that obviously was unpleasant to policy-making authorities based in Islamabad.

There are several conflicting issues between Islamabad and Muzaffarabad which were long ignored by the local political elite. However, Raja Farooq had shown immense courage to open a debate on the uneven political and constitutional relationship between AJK and the government of Pakistan. He held the view that brushing these issues under the carpet would make them more complex.

According to Javed Hayat, a local research scholar, Raja Faqooq wanted resolution of these issues. Moreover, Farooq Haider refused to oblige Minster for Kashmir Affairs, who acts like a viceroy of Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, by not making any cut for him in the intra-Kashmir trade, said Javed Hayat. President Asif Ali Zardari was also unhappy with Farooq Haider as he was a regular visitor to Raiwind and never hid his personal affection for Sharif brothers and apathy for Zardari-led PPP leadership.

Observers believe that Pakistan People's Party played its cards well and successfully divided Muslim Conference in the context of upcoming AJK elections due in July next year. The PPP game plan is to divide the vote bank of Muslim Conference and the Muslim League.

"The last years' Gilgit-Baltistan elections result shows that PPP's central government would devote its energies and resources to win the forthcoming AJK elections to strengthen its flanks before national elections," observed Zulfiqar Abbasi, president of a civil society organisation, Centre for Peace, Development and Reforms (CPDR). "It can turn AJK into a political battlefield between PPP and PML-N," he added. Probably, the local political groups such as Muslim Conference or Barrister Sultan Mahmood's party People's Muslim League would be politically marginalised unless they join mainstream PML-N or PPP.

Since the 2006 elections, four prime ministers have changed the office. The recently established government by Sardar Atique would not be different from previous ones as the same members of assembly and cabinet ministers have frequently been switching their loyalties from one group to another without any solid ideological or political reason just to promote their vested interests. Subsequently, Azad Kashmir is going through its worst financial crisis nowadays. Islamabad has not only slashed its 35 percent budget, but also transferring funds on monthly basis. It has brought local economic activity and functioning of the administration to a grinding halt.

Additionally, Sardar Atique risked his political career by joining hands with the PPP as both represent different political ideologies and constituencies. Muslim Conference has always been either an ally of Muslim League or military-led governments in Islamabad. The upcoming elections will be a big challenge for Sardar Atique as his party has to face the Muslim League-N for the first time in AJK history and People's Party also might not let him advance his political ambition at its cost or goodwill.

 

A year after the Gojra tragedy

The wounds are fresh and the communities insecure

By Waqar Gillani

It's been a year since Gojra tragedy occurred; and 57-year-old Mehnga Masih, whose house was destroyed by miscreants, continues to live in a tent with his wife and 9 children.

"We are still waiting for the government to help us," says Masih. "And the local Muslim elders continue to harass us to withdraw the case." Masih's house was supposed to be reconstructed under Phase-II of the Punjab government's promised project to rebuild the houses destroyed by the local extremists. No help has headed his way yet.

Following provocation by certain religious organisations and local groups, some 9 people were killed and more than 150 houses were torched in the clustered Christian colony in Korian Gojra, a town in central Punjab, last year over an alleged blasphemous act of 'desecrating' the holy Quran.

It all happened on Friday July 30, 2009 in Korian, a village five kilometres from Gojra, when Yousaf Masih's children allegedly tore pages of the holy Quran and threw them in the air at a wedding ceremony.

Things started to heat up in Gojra when the local clerics incited Muslims to unite against the Christians. Soon after, a large crowd gathered, got violent and torched most of the Christian colony. One Muslim was also killed in the cross fire between the two communities.

According to police reports, masked hardliners of defunct Sipah-e-Sahaba, Pakistan (SSP) played a dominant role in this mob violence by firing arms and spraying chemicals on the Christian houses. The tragedy caught the attention of international community. The federal and provincial governments pledged to compensate the depressed minority community by rebuilding their houses, providing security and ensuring justice.

But, the case is yet to be heard in sessions court. "We have submitted challans of all arrested and proclaimed offenders in the related cases -- and now the court has to start hearing," says Muhammad Khalid Malik, Deputy Superintendent Police Gojra.

According to some senior police officials, some wanted SSP hardliners have recently been picked by the security forces. Out of the 78 people nominated in the Korian incident, 59 are under arrest, four are acquitted and 15 are on the run. And from the 800 unknown attackers in the Gojra tragedy, 89 are nominated, 42 arrested and 29 are still wanted. "Others have been declared innocent and granted bail," informs Malik.

"The main road is yet to be constructed. Our houses are incomplete -- with no stairs, no grills and no parapet," says 60-year-old Nageena Masih, a labourer by profession. "The Punjab government had announced Rs300,000 compensation per house. But we have received only Rs100,000 so far," he claims. Some 25 people sitting around him agreed with him.

"We have given them whatever compensation was announced. The government has done even more than that. Now, their demands are increasing. They want extra construction and compensation which is up to the government to approve," says Amaanullah Khan, District Coordination Officer Toba Tek Singh.

"Till date, the government has distributed Rs200 million among the community. The compensation promised by the government was Rs100,000 per household," says Muhammad Amin Owaisi, In charge Revenue, Punjab government. "Most of the grant has been given to MPAs and political leaders of the community. Compensation to only a few houses is pending with the concerned government authorities," he adds.

The Gojra Christian community, though divided politically, is unanimous in their demand for justice -- despite pressures from the Muslim community to close the case. "Our communities have undergone massive transformation. We are attending interfaith meetings and religious festivities and gatherings held by the two communities. But we are insecure about the future," says William Babar Parkash, one of the 13 members of a committee constituted to address Christian concerns at the local level. "Another committee actively working with the United Front of Muslims and Christians formed by the city administration is also working to ease the situation," he says.

"We are keeping a close watch on the suspicious elements. The clerics are fully cooperating -- and we hope a compromise will come soon," thinks Malik.

A committee called Mutahida Muslim Mahaz Committee, comprising members of civil society, notables of Gojra and representatives of different organisations and religious groups, is active in the city to ensure peace. The committee, headed by Maulana Israr-ul-Bahaar, is holding regular meetings to restore peace and create cordial environment for a compromise between Christians and the Muslims with the objective to quash court cases against each other.

"There are serious efforts to ensure peace in the city and pacify the minority community," Maulana Israr-ul-Bahaar tells TNS. "The main complainant from the Christian community, Alamaas Hameed, is out of country, otherwise a deal would have been struck by now."

"The Christians have received the compensation money and they have to live here in the society, so it is better to live peacefully. If they have received compensation and the culprits have been arrested then there is no harm in resolving the issue amicably," he views.

"Presently, the situation is calm," says Bishop John Samuel. "The pressure is of course on us to compromise. We are also warned of consequences if a Muslim is sentenced in the case. Every month at least one violent incident takes place in the surrounding area."

He adds that the Muslim community thinks we are western agents and wants us to leave the locality -- "We are Pakistanis and want to live here. We want a peaceful society."

The writer visited Gojra on July 24 as a member of the HRCP fact-finding team. He can be reached at vaqargillani@gmail.com

 

 

revenge

On the hit-list

The murder of Mian Iftikhar's son shows that the militants are out to eliminate those challenging them

By Rahimullah Yusufzai

A number of Awami National Party (ANP) leaders are on the hit-list of the militants, but they seem to hate Mian Iftikhar Hussain the most. Unable to get him, they assassinated his only son Mian Rashid Hussain in his hometown Pabbi in Nowshera district on July 24 in an obvious case of target-killing.

This didn't quench the militants' thirst for revenge as they sent a young suicide bomber the next day to Pabbi to kill somebody important. It is possible that strict security blocked his attempt to attack the two places where local men and guests were offering fateha for the deceased. Instead he exploded his explosives-packed jacket in the street leading to Mian Iftikhar's house, killing himself and nine other people including four policemen and causing injuries to 25 others. Mian Iftikhar later alleged that the bomber was trying to reach his residence where a large number of women had gathered to offer condolences to his family on the death of his son.

Everyone knew that Mian Iftikhar was a marked man. He had been receiving threats because the Pakistani Taliban militants rightly considered him their fiercest critic. As the articulate spokesman for the ANP-led provincial government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and its information minister, he spoke against the Taliban almost every day and fearlessly criticised their campaign of suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism. At times, the emotional Mian Iftikhar went far in condemning the militants by using tough language. It was obvious that the militants would attempt to eliminate him because no other politician in the ruling party was so categorical in condemning and challenging them.

Despite the obvious threats to his life, Mian Iftikhar hasn't been very careful about his security. He and another provincial minister Bashir Ahmad Bilour, both belonging to the ruling ANP, have been regularly visiting sites of bomb explosions and hospitals. He is often the first one to arrive at the scene, motivating the affectees and consoling the aggrieved. His presence has been a source of encouragement for the people in difficult situations.

Unlike certain other ANP leaders who mostly stay out of militancy-hit Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and have shifted their families to Islamabad or even abroad, Mian Iftikhar opted to remain in the province and confront the militants. ANP head Asfandyar Wali Khan is still being criticised for abandoning his village in Charsadda district and also his native province and shifting to Islamabad after surviving the suicide bombing targetting him in Wali Bagh on the occasion of Eidul Azha in 2008. He rarely comes to Peshawar and mostly holds meetings at the Frontier House, the residence of Chief Minister Ameer Haider Hoti. Other party leaders also play it safe, taking care not to venture into the open and avoiding public gatherings.

The ANP leaders and activists have reasons to be cautious in their movements. According to figures compiled by the party, it has todate lost 485 members in the fight against militancy in the province. Most died in Swat, where the military operation was publicly owned and enthusiastically backed by the ANP leadership. The slain ANP activists included Alamzeb Khan and Dr Shamsher Ali Khan, members of the provincial assembly from Peshawar and Swat, respectively. Besides Asfandyar Wali, other party leaders who survived bombings and assassination attempts include Afrasiyab Khattak, Bashir Bilour, Mohammad Afzal Khan alias Khan Lala, Alamgir Khalil, Aurangzeb Khan and Mian Iftikhar.

Compared to the ANP leaders, those from their coalition partners, PPP, are circumspect and mild while criticising the militants. They generally support the military campaign against the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), but are less strident in their criticism of the militants and careful in the choice of words. Not many PPP activists have lost their lives at the hands of the militants, who have been publicly threatening the ANP leadership and blaming it for waging war against them at the behest of the US. For that matter, more PML-Q activists have been killed by the militants than that of the PPP. In fact, a number of PML-Q activists have raised lashkars, or tribal and village armed force, to tackle the militants in different parts of the province and the party's provincial president and former federal minister Amir Muqam has survived a suicide bombing at his Peshawar residence in which his colleague and relative Pir Mohammad Khan was killed.

Target-killings have claimed lives of several hundred political workers and tribal elders in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the adjacent Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) since 2003-2004 when the Pakistan Army began military operations in South Waziristan and then extended the action against the militants to other tribal agencies. Exact figures aren't available but a few hundred tribal elders have been slain by the militants for opposing them and siding with the government and the security forces in Fata. It has been a Taliban strategy to eliminate all tribal elders who could become a hurdle in their bid to control the area. Many elders who were slain were dubbed as spies for the US and Pakistan military. In Swat, Buner and other parts of Malakand division and elsewhere in the districts, mostly political activists and pro-government elders were target-killed by the militants as part of their tactic to intimidate the population.

However, it needs mentioning that the militants and their families too have been subjected to revenge killings, primarily in Swat districts but also elsewhere where military operations evicted or weakened the Taliban. A number of militants made prisoner by the security forces and the police were allegedly executed while in custody. In some cases brothers and fathers of wanted militants have been detained and tortured. The militants' houses have been demolished. Around 3,000 suspected militants are being held by the security forces for more than a year or even longer and awaiting trial in anti-terrorism courts. Lashkars and pro-government peace committees formed with government and military support have also been accused of carrying out witch-hunt of militants and their families and revenge killings. The militants know they stand little chance of getting amnesty and returning to a normal life after having made enemies while controlling the area and by running blood-feuds. In the do-and-die battle, they have been desperately trying to attack and eliminate anyone standing in their way.

The target-killing of Mian Iftikhar's son won't be the last of its kind as the militants would target not only the politicians and personnel of the security and law-enforcement agencies but also their family members.

 

Down and out

The number of homeless and jobless people is drastically increasing in Islamabad

By Shaiq Hussain

Standing under the shade of a fruits and vegetables kiosk, Jalal Khan, 34, looks out gladly at the heavy downpour that finally broke the sweltering heat of July in Islamabad, but he is uncertain where he will sleep at night -- as the lush greenbelts of the nearby road, his abode, is underwater.

Jalal, a labourer from Bajaur Agency, who decided to test his fate in the capital city a couple of years ago when intense fighting broke out between the government forces and Taliban militants, spends his whole day doing small labour jobs in different parts of the city and when night falls, fatigued, he returns to the pavements of Islamabad's 9th Avenue, which also serves as home for dozens of other homeless people like him.

"I have been living on the 9th Avenue for months now and this is because I have no money to rent a place. After a long day's hard work, I don't earn more than Rs200 and even if I buy a simple meal it costs 30 to 40 rupees," he said. "Now it's the rainy season and I have no place to sleep for days. I cannot think of a proper living place in my wildest of imagination because I have to support my four children and wife who live back home and wait anxiously for money every month", Jalal said while sipping tea.

"The teashop owner was generous to give me this cup of tea," he said pointing his finger towards a nearby tea stall.

Despite all the economic woes, Jalal is yet one of the few 'better-off' homeless people because of his ability to find work almost every day.

There are hundreds others like him -- take Nazir Ahmed for instance. He came to Islamabad in search of work but ended up as a beggar roaming about the city streets. "I came to Islamabad five years ago from Chakwal to find employment -- and find a decent lifestyle for my two daughters and wife back home. I visited almost every market and business centre of capital and Rawalpindi to become a salesman, but no one was ready to give me a job."

Middle-aged Nazir said, "I was forced by circumstances to become a beggar. My family at home does not know what I do here."

The exact number of homeless people living on the 9th Avenue, I.J Principal Road and other roads and parks of Islamabad is not known, but there is a gradual increase in their ranks with the passage of time. In the adjacent city of Rawalpindi, thousands of homeless people are spending nights under the open sky.

The figure of homeless people in Islamabad in comparison to larger cities like Lahore and Karachi is far low, but their growing presence in almost every nook and cranny of the capital city leaves one wondering about the rise of poverty across the country.

The federal capital acts as a magnet for people seeking jobs across the country, especially for those from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and nearby cities of Punjab including Chakwal, Fateh Jang, Attock, Talagang etc. In addition, fighting and militancy in the tribal areas have also forced people to move towards Rawalpindi and Islamabad.

Pakistan's ever increasing population coupled with poor economic conditions has led to widespread poverty and poor standard of living in rural areas. Poverty and lack of job opportunities in rural areas have resulted in massive displacement of rural populations towards the urban centres.

Another appalling fact is the huge number of homeless children, with no apparent family links. These children are mainly engaged in jobs at auto workshops, shops and restaurants working 12 to15 hours daily to earn a meagre amount of around Rs100. Some of these ill-fated children resort to prostitution and stealing, while some become transporters and carriers for drug traffickers.

Many of them resort to drug addiction. "I sniff heroin to go to sleep every night, which I couldn't do otherwise because of the bitter past memories," said Farooq Faisal, 28, who spends his days and nights roaming different parks of Islamabad and Rawalpindi. He said that three years ago he came to Islamabad from Attock to find a job. "Instead of getting a job, I fell in the hands of a drug dealer who used me as a carrier between Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab and left me on the street when I was of no use after months of heroin-inhaling," he recalled.

Eminent human rights activist, Tahira Abdullah, tells TNS that with 40 percent of absolute poverty and the ratio of people living with 2 dollars a day rising to 73 percent, the fast spreading homelessness was unfortunate but not unexpected. She said that the right to home or shelter was a part of Pakistan's constitution. Besides, she said, Pakistan was signatory to international human rights conventions, but despite that nothing had been done for homeless people.

Tahira said the government should come up with free housing units for homeless people on the pattern of Scandinavian states. While Pakistani rulers only used the name of Islam, it was countries like Norway, Sweden and Britain that were following Islamic principles for provision of shelter to homeless people.

 

Billing acid criminals

Acid Crimes Prevention Bill comes a little too late for acid crime victims, but better late than never

By Alefia T. Hussain

Throwing acid is a cruel way of dealing with rivals in love and even business in Pakistan. And shamefully enough, it is a crime which often goes unpunished.

That perhaps is about to change as activists, lawyers and parliamentarians are actively pursuing legislation on acid crimes. The final draft, titled Acid Crimes Prevention Bill, informs Yasmeen Rehman, adviser to the PM on Women Development and a PPP parliamentarian, will be submitted to the Ministry for Women Development this week, which subsequently will be sent to the Ministry for Law for approval.

The bill, drafted after exhaustive consultations with lawyers and civil society organisations, including UNIFEM, proposes amendments to the Sections 332 and 336 of Pakistan Penal Code and to the Poisons Act 1919. It recommends strict punishment for the perpetrators of this crime which could range between life imprisonments to a fine up to Rs500,000 -- depending on the severity of the crime.

Also, the bill prompts restrictions on manufacturers, distributors and retailers of acid. Their license may be revoked if the practices are found to be threatening public health.

Though this bill comes a little late for hundreds, if not thousands, of victims of this heinous form of violence against women but, as they say, better late than never. This will energise activists long-demanding laws to prevent such attacks and pressing for justice for acid burn survivors -- such as Yasmeen who was attacked by her husband last week in Karachi because she demanded khula; Sultana, whose husband burnt her with acid while she was asleep one night last month as he suspected her of having an affair; or two sisters, aged 13 and 11, in Dalbandin, Balochistan in April followed by another attack on three sisters, aged 20, 14 and 8, a couple of weeks later in Kalat for stepping out of the house unescorted by a male member of the family.

The list of women who have been disfigured, blinded and maimed by acid crimes is long. According to statistics collected by Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF), an NGO advocating laws on acid crimes, about 400 women fall victim to acid attacks every year but due to underreporting, only 1500 cases have been documented over the past 10 years. Such attacks are usually triggered when the perpetrator's ghairat (honour) is presumably threatened, or refusing a marriage proposal, failing to give birth to a son -- or even something as frivolous as cooking badly.

More exact statistics collected by ASF reveals family disputes lead to some 48 percent of attacks, 25 percent for refusal to accept a proposal, 12 percent for collateral damages and the rest for various other reasons such as land and money disputes, robbery and professional jealousies.

These findings account for a fraction of the overall incidents of violence against women. The fact is, acid attacks are most heinous. The victims' life becomes worse than death. They are mutilated, maimed and socially isolated. In most cases people carry out such attacks because they know they will go scot-free. They are either not arrested or their trials linger on, thus encouraging others to use acid as a weapon too.

"If passed," opines Valerie Khan, Executive Director ASF, "this bill will definitely be an essential element in preventing acid attacks -- by not only limiting access to acid but also by instilling fear among the perpetrators; as the security of impunity will not be there anymore."

On a more pessimistic note, she adds, "The bill will face the challenge of implementation which is why we are introducing the implementation mechanism in the bill, and why we are also proposing to some donors to help in the monitoring of the implementation."

But she is certain the bill must not stay in the books -- "We are going to fight for it to become a reality at the grassroots level. This is our commitment."

The fight for survivors' rights and the prevention of future attacks must continue -- not only on the legal but also the social front. The greatest challenge undoubtedly is to build public opinion against such crimes -- and shift the focus from the victims' character and behaviour as a cause of violence to an attempted murder.


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