Thursday, August 13, 2020

Beirut Port Blast: What lies ahead for Lebanon?

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Charvi Trivedi

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Beirut Port Blast: What lies ahead for Lebanon?


Global Views 360

Publication Date

August 13, 2020


The smoke of the Beirut explosion spread over the sky of Lebanon

The smoke of the Beirut explosion spread over the sky of Lebanon | Source: via Wikimedia

The year 2020 will be remembered as the year of disasters in the history of humankind. A devastating tragedy struck Beirut, the capital of Lebanon on August 4, 2020, in the form of a massive explosion which occurred in the port area and ripped a large part of the town .

As per initial estimate the death toll stands at 157 with more than 5000 people severely bruised and thousands displaced from their homes. The incredible force of the blast could be felt as far as Cyprus, which is at a distance of 250 kms from the explosion site.

A giant red cloud of smoke erupted in the clear skies followed by a deafening ‘bang’ and smashing of windows. "First we heard one sound. Seconds later there was a big explosion. All hell broke loose and I saw people thrown five or six metres" said Ibrahim Zoobi, who worked near the port. Satellite images show that warehouses and buildings within a radius of 2km from the site of the blast were completely destroyed, ending up in debris.

The intensity of the blast was equivalent to almost ‘2.2 kilotons of TNT’, according to an analyst and weapons expert. The aftermath included scenes of jam-packed hospitals, running without proper electricity connection, increased demand of blood donations and generators and agonized cries of people searching for their loved ones amongst the rubble filled roads.

Michel Aoun, the President of Lebanon | Source: Wikimedia

American President Donald Trump was quick to tweet about calling the blast a ‘terrible attack’. However, according to Michel Aoun, the President of Lebanon, the actual culprit of the blast was the 2,750 tonnes of fertilizer, ammonium nitrate, stored in one of the warehouses in the port area which caught fire. This explosive material was reportedly confiscated from a Russian cargo ship, back in 2014, when it made an uninformed stop at the Lebanese port.

Ammonium nitrate is a white substance used as a fertilizer as well as an explosive. It cannot explode on coming in contact with air but can detonate immediately as it encounters a flammable substance like oil or fire. Being an oxidiser, it will accelerate the severity of the explosion and also lead to release of toxic gases like nitrogen dioxide.

Boaz Hayoun, one of the top bomb experts of Israel, states “Before the big explosion, in the center of the fire, you can see sparks, you can hear sounds like popcorn and you can hear whistles”, which is a strong indication of fireworks. This might point towards seemingly inadequate warehouse management issues in Beirut, as such substances might have come across the explosive nitrates and instigated the blast. The safety protocols were simply not followed, despite being aware about the presence of a ‘ticking time bomb’ in the warehouse.

As Beirut is fighting the COVID-19 pandemic and a financial crisis, it was definitely not ready for another blow. Beirut’s grain storage tower, the largest in Lebanon, was also engulfed in the flames, hampering the entire country’s food security. "It's an economic crisis, a financial crisis, a political crisis, a health crisis, and now this horrible explosion” says Tamara Alrifai, spokesperson for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

France, the US, Italy, Turkey, Iran, EU, and OIC came up with the offer of help and show support for the people of Beirut.  Emmanuel Macron, the President of France, was the first foreign leader to visit the crisis-hit Beirut. While he consoled the citizens, their grief turned into anger as they chanted the word ‘Revolution’.

There is great anger among the citizens against the government, whom they accuse of being corrupt, sectarian, unaccountable, and out of touch with the common people. The intense protest by the people on the street forced the Prime Minister Hassan Diab to resign along with his cabinet on August 10, 2020.

The economic cost of the Beirut blast, where over 300,000 people have become homeless after their homes get destroyed, is estimated to be $15 Billion. Lebanon, which was already on the verge of economic collapse before this disaster struck, may find it impossible to withstand such a blow to the economy. It will need the support from the world over to rebuild Beirut.

A donor conference for rebuilding Beirut received a total pledge of about $300 million. Though it is a minuscule figure as compared to the destruction in Beirut, it will help to tide over the immediate humanitarian crisis. Apart from this Turkey has offered to help rebuild the port of Beirut and many countries are sending relief supplies.

The days ahead for the citizens of Beirut are going to be challenging as the country navigates the sectarian divide during the formation of a new government. It will be keenly watched by the citizens as well as the international community, whether Lebanon will discard its entrenched ruling elite and reject the toxic sectarian divide to elect an inclusive government or continue to perpetuate the misery on the common citizens.

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July 19, 2021 12:00 PM

The Blasphemy Law of Pakistan and its Implications

In Pakistan, Blasphemy results in a capital punishment in majority of cases. It is perhaps considered a crime worse than terrorism. A crucial case in point is the fact that the Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Court gave around 15 years jail term to two close aides of Hafiz Saeed—chief of the terrorist organization—Lashkar-e-Taiba—and mastermind behind 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks—where at least 150 innocent people lost their lives.

Similarly, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi—Lashkar-e-Taiba’s operation commander and another important figure involved in the 2008 Mumbai attack—was sentenced to 15 years in jail period. Not to mention—this happened amidst the international pressure on Pakistan for letting terrorists to function and roam freely within their country.

While something as violent as terrorism is dealt with lenient punishments, there are draconian laws for blasphemy in the country. Moreover, one can be accused of committing blasphemy—doesn’t matter if they did it or not—and might not even face a fair trial.

This article discusses what are the blasphemy laws and what are their implications while looking at some specific cases.

What are Pakistan’s Blasphemy laws?

What's called Blasphemy law today has its origins in the colonial era. The “offences relating to religion” were introduced by British in 1860, and were later expanded in 1927. These were sections 295 and 295-A from the Indian Penal Code. The laws were made to avoid religious disturbances, insult religious beliefs, or intentionally destroy or desecrate a place or an object of worship. Under the 295 and 295-A, the convicted were to be given a jail term from one year to ten years—with or without a fine.

Pakistan ended up inheriting these laws after the partition of India in 1947.

The laws were amended in 1982 and another clause was added which prescribed life imprisonment for desecration of the Quran intentionally. Another clause was added in 1986 to punish blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad through imprisonment for life or death. These clauses, were added under General Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime, in an order to make the laws more “pro-Islam.”

Since then, this law has often been used to persecute people from minority communities—such as the Ahmadiyas, Shias, Christians, and Hindus—they have been accused of blasphemy without much evidence.

Infamous cases and implications of blasphemy in Pakistan

One of the famous cases was of Asia Bibi, which grabbed international attention as well. Asia Noreen—known as Asia Bibi—was a Pakistani Christan and a farm laborer in Punjab province. Her husband, Ashiq Masih, was a brick laborer. A dispute with her Muslim neighbours turned into an accusation of blasphemy—leading to her arrest and imprisoned. There were a lot of protests in Pakistan, demanding death penalty for Asia Bibi.

Two politicians—Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti—who supported and tried to help Asia Bibi, were murdered. Taseer was shot by his own bodyguard named Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri in broad daylight. Qadri was tried and sentenced to death. He was executed in 2016. Mumtaz Qadri became a hero for millions and hardliners praised him as a martyr. He is regarded as a saint and a mausoleum has been built over his grave in his village near Islamabad, where even devotees come to offer prayers.

Asia Bibi was first sentenced to death by a trial court in 2010, however was later acquitted by the Supreme Court in a historic judgement of 2018. In 2019, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled that she was free to leave Pakistan and was given asylum in Canada where she moved along with her family.

Although after a long struggle, Asia Bibi still got justice and was able to start a new life—unfortunately many others didn’t. Many met with Mob Justice.

In 2017, a journalism student at a Pakistani University was lynched to death by fellow students in Mardan—in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The student—Mashal Khan—was a Shia Muslim and was falsely accused of blasphemy. The mob was enraged by a rumour according to which he had promoted the Ahmadi faith on Facebook. In a similar instance, a man named Tahrir Ahmad Naseem was killed by vigilantes in July last year for blasphemy. He was a former Ahmadi, and was in Peshawar Central Jail since 2018 for claiming to be a prophet. He was shot dead inside the courtroom during trial in the Peshawar Judicial Complex.

Furthermore, in a case similar to that of Asia Bibi, a Christian couple—Shahzad and Shama Maseeh—were accused of blasphemy as well. They were then beaten and burned alive by a mob in 2014. Shama was four months pregnant. The mob, which also included a local cleric, believed that the couple had burned some pages of the Quran along with some rubbish, although the couple’s family still denies this. Five people including the cleric were sentenced to death, while the eight others were given two years imprisonment.

Last year, former Foreign and Defense Minister Khawaja Asif as well was accused of blasphemy for merely stating that “all religions are equal.”

Why is this happening?

According to data by Pakistan’s Centre for Social Justice, there have been 1549 known cases of serious blasphemy in the years 1987-2017, out of which 720 were Muslims, 516 Ahmadis, 238 Christians, 31 Hindus, and the rest 44 are unknown. 75 out of the total cases ended in the person being murdered before their trial.

There are 13 countries in the world which punish blasphemy by death penalty and Pakistan happens to be one of them. But unlike countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia where they are executed judicially—as mentioned earlier—accused in Pakistan are often killed in mob violence or assassination. While Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to top in terms of the highest number of executions, most of them for sacrilege or crimes against Islam, Pakistan’s total ‘judiciary’ killings stand at zero.

The problem of this mob mentality in Pakistan, especially when it comes to religion, is actually deeply rooted in its constitution. The country’s aspiration to become a democracy as well as an Islamic state is in itself contradictory. The people want the right to freedom and expression and the hanging of a person committing blasphemy at the same time. The constitution denies criticism of Islam while claiming to allow freedom of speech and religion. The elevation of one religion over others in itself is principally undemocratic.

Another interesting point is the fact that the people supporting these ideas haven’t been aware of how things can backfire. Muhammad Din Taseer—father of Salman Taseer—supported Ilam Din, who murdered a Hindu publisher over blasphemy in 1929. An ancestor’s support for radicalism ended up in his own offspring being assassinated in the name of blasphemy.

Mental illness and blasphemy

In Pakistan, often some mentally ill people are punished to death by mobs for unknowingly ‘committing’ blasphemy. In 2012, a man widely reported by the media and police as ‘mentally unstable’ was arrested for blasphemy in Bahawalpur district, Punjab province. A mob gathered outside the police station, dragged him outside, and burned him to death. There have also been cases of misuse where such vulnerable individuals were subjected to sexual abuse and later accused of blasphemy by the abusers to cover up their crimes.

Such abuses towards mentally unsound people would have been a criminal case and the abusers would have been punished—unless they use the blasphemy law—as the mentally unstable victim cannot defend themselves.

Role of Anti-Terrorism courts

Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism courts were set up to ensure quick justice in cases such as terrorism, sectarian violence, targeted political killings, hijacking, kidnapping, extortion and even arms trafficking. Earlier gang rape was also included in it—but removed later.

They are also key to controlling mob attacks on blasphemy accused as such trials are held here.

Yet, these courts have been facing several problems due to lack of basic resources and understaffing. The posts of judges often remain vacant for months, and the state prosecutors complain of poor working conditions—with no offices, stationery, clerical staff or legal resources. These problems may have risen due to the fact that there are not sufficient funds allotted for the ATC infrastructure, one of the major challenges in Pakistan’s legal system. Due to this, these courts are not able to fulfill their primary objective—to provide ‘quick’ justice.

Moreover, these courts lack independence and are vulnerable to political influence—the judges are held accountable to the executive. Sometimes the witnesses often refuse to testify against the accused, as they fear assassination by terrorist groups the accused belongs to. The judges, state prosecutors and others also have personal security concerns which also lead to delays in trials.

Also, these courts deny terrorism suspects the right to equality before the law. They are not even tried in a public place with full defense and are not presumed innocent. Peshawar High Court advocate Ghulam Nabi even challenged the Anti-Terrorism (Amendment) Ordinance 2009 under Article 199 of the constitution in December 2009, saying that it violated basic human rights.

The blasphemy laws of Pakistan need to be repealed in today's Global civic society. People are fighting for equality everywhere around the globe. And now it is up to Pakistan to choose—whether to become a democracy or continue with a pseudo-democratic authoritarian regime which is based on extremist interpretation of religion.

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