Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Late Sultan Qaboos’s Legacy And What’s Next For Oman

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Vanshita Banuana

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Late Sultan Qaboos’s Legacy And What’s Next For Oman


Global Views 360

Publication Date

July 22, 2020


Late Sultan Qaboos of Oman

Late Sultan Qaboos of Oman | Source: U.S. Department of State via Flickr

On the morning of January 11, 2020, the citizens of Oman awoke to the news that Sultan Qaboos Bin Said, the monarch of the small Gulf nation, had passed away the previous day after a 49-year rule.

The late Sultan Qaboos came to power in 1970, after he overthrew his conservative father in a palace coup with the help of the British. He then set about modernising his impoverished country, using Oman’s newfound oil wealth to fund its infrastructure. When he took over the throne, Oman had only three schools and harsh laws banning electricity, radios, eyeglasses and even umbrellas. By the time he left, Oman developed a good education system, a robust economy, and has become a tourist destination.

Apart from bringing about this ‘renaissance,’ Qaboos also gained worldwide fame for championing neutrality and constructive diplomacy. Despite being located in the Strait of Hormuz in the turbulent Middle East, he maintained relations with countries ranging from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, Israel, and Palestine, and also with the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Perhaps the greatest result of this long-standing policy was enabling backchannel talks between the US and Iran which led to an international nuclear deal.

Sultan Qaboos also introduced democratic institutions in Oman, issuing the country’s first constitution, granting universal suffrage to all citizens above 21, and allowing the country’s first municipal elections in December 2012. However, he also suppressed dissent to the extent of shutting down news outlets and arresting protestors, journalists and activists, sometimes for opinions expressed on social media.

Oman experienced ripple effects of the Arab Spring in the form of months of protests against corruption and unemployment; and eventually Sultan Qaboos relented by giving more legislative powers to the Council of Oman and promising to increase wages and create jobs. While this satisfied the protestors, it did not mean life under ‘Baba Qaboos’ was all roses and no thorns for everyone. As detailed in this 2020 Periodic Review by Human Rights Watch, Sultan Qaboos revised Oman’s penal code in January 2018, which included “increasing punishments for offenses that relate to the peaceful exercise of freedom of expression.

The last few years of Qaboos’ rule saw economic stagnation and a crash in global oil prices which resulted in high youth unemployment rates  in a country where a significant portion of the population is under the age of 25. The large budget deficits and high debt have prompted the rating agencies such as Moody’s to downgrade Oman’s credit rating to ‘junk’ status. In an attempt to reduce the dependence on oil, Sultan Qaboos launched ‘Vision 2020’ to encourage innovation in other areas. This initiative failed to meet the objective and got renamed as ‘Vision 2040.’

This was the scene laid out for the new Sultan Haitham Bin Tarik, who was designated the new ruler of Oman as per a secret envelope containing late Sultan Qaboos’ choices for his successor.

Haitham bin Tarik was the Minister of Heritage and Culture before his accession to the throne, and also happens to have been the Chairman of the ‘Vision 2040’ committee, among other posts. In his first royal speech, he vowed to continue in the footsteps of his predecessor, especially in regards to the state’s foreign policy. In another royal speech in February, he charted a ‘future roadmap’ for Oman and claimed that he will prioritize education and youth employment. He has been active in these past six months, having issued 70 Royal Decrees concerning appointments, amendments, and new laws, among others.

Sultan Haitham is already being put to the test as Oman battles the COVID-19 along with the rest of the world. Omanis are looking at a new vision with renewed hope, one of the new sultan who brings with him great promises and perhaps a renaissance of its own kind. Will Oman be able to maintain its tradition of neutrality? Will the fight for a progressive and inclusive Oman find its voice? Will Oman be able to save itself from the consequences of a glut in crude oil economy? The citizens of Oman hope and wish that their new sultan will get the right answer and steer the country towards a more secure and prosperous future.

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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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