Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Yemen's Multilayered War: The Houthi Rebellion

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Yemen's Multilayered War: The Houthi Rebellion


Global Views 360

Publication Date

August 4, 2020


Houthi rebels protesting the airstrike in Sana

Houthi rebels protesting the airstrike in Sana | Source: Henry Ridgwell (VOA) via Wikimedia

This is the 3rd part of a short explainer article series on the current crisis in Yemen.

To read the 1st part of the series click on the link.

To read the 2nd part of the series click on the link.

After the overthrow of the monarchy in 1968,  Yemen existed as two countries — North Yemen and South Yemen.  These two countries united in 1990, after several years of conflict with one another.

This unity could not remain for long and the North-South divide resurfaced which led to the first civil war of unified Yemen. This civil war was short-lived and ended in 1994 after the decisive victory of the pro-unification governing faction over the Southern saperatist faction.

On the other hand a major dissatisfaction with the central government was simmering in the region dominated by a local branch of Shia Muslims known as Zaidi. They are the decendent of Prophet Muhamma and believe that Muslims should be ruled only by a descendant of Prophet Muhammad whom they call an Imam. They have ruled Yemen for more than 1,000 years which ended in 1962.

Zaidis are a minority sect in Yemen but have much ideological affinity with the Sunni Shafi'i majority. They lived together harmoniously and prayed in the same mosques for hundreds of years.

A new element was also getting added to the dangerous mix of sub-nationalism, intra religious division, and tribal loyalty in Yemen. The Yemeni veterans of Soviet-Afghan war who fought with the mujahideen were battle hardened and well versed in guerilla warfare. They started a low level insurgency and also tried to impose a hardline interpretation of Islamic religious and social practices in Yemen.

In order to counter the socio-economic and political marginalization by the central government as well as the growing influence of Salafism in their northern heartland, the Houthis formed a movement named Ansar Allah. President Saleh however accused them of attempting to overthrow the government and of seeking to revive the rule of the imamate in Yemen.

The Houthi Rebellion (also known as the Shia Insurgency):

The Houthi Movement in its current militant form began in 2004 by Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, religious, political and military leader, as well as former member of the Yemeni parliament between 1993 and 1997. Though he was killed in the action of very early in his fight with the government forces, his brother who took over the movement leadership made it politically and militarily a formidable force in Yemen.

Zaidis have had historical grievances against the Wahhabi, the dominant Sunni sect in Saudi Arabia, who assisted North Yemen in the First Yemen Civil War. The Zaidi fear they still have too much say in Yemeni politics. They have also fought against the Salafis, whom they accuse of implementing the hardline interpretation of Islamic religious and social practices in Yemen. In order to counter these forces, Houthis destroyed the schools run by them in Saada, Dar al Hadith in Dammaj and its sister school in Kitaf, claiming them to be “feeder schools”, for al-Qaeda.

It was the 2011 Yemeni Uprising (or Intifada), which catapulted Hauthis to the centre of Yemen politics. They sided with the common citizens of the country in demanding the resignation of President Saleh whom they charged with corruption and for being a lackey of Saudi Arabia and the USA. A Nesweek photo-essay reported that Houthis are fighting "for things that all Yemenis crave: government accountability, the end to corruption, regular utilities, fair fuel prices, job opportunities for ordinary Yemenis and the end of Western influence."

Later in 2011, President Saleh resigned, as per the Houthi terms, letting Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi step in as the President in exchange for immunity from prosecution. However the Houthis pressed on with their power grab which started resentment among other players.

In an ironic act, ex-President Saleh who was overthrown in an Houthi led public uprising, threw his weight behind Houthis in the power struggle. In 2015 he publicly announced his formal alliance with the Houthis, and hoped for ceasefires with the Arab Coalition.

In 2015, Hadi, the President of Yemen was placed under house arrest by the Houthis and forced to resign. He managed to flee to Aden, and rescinded his resignation. He fled to Saudi Arabia, and returned in September with the Arab Coalition at his support. Ever since, he has used Aden as his governing base.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia imposed severe restrictions on import, including air and sea blockades in Yemen, resulting in the shortages of food and medicine. Given the fact that Yemen is dependent on imports for food supply and medicine, it is no surprise that the blockades have led to a famine situation, compounded by an outbreak of cholera since 2016 caused by and worsened due to the air-strike bombed healthcare infrastructure.

After aligning with Houthis for many years, Saleh once again took an about turn in 2017 by publicly ending this alliance and stated his openness to talk with the Saudi-led coalition. Al Jazeera reported this was because the Saudi Prince had decided that Saleh, rather than Hadi, would help to win the war. However, the same year, Saleh was assassinated.

In September 2019, the Houthis claimed responsibility for drone attacks on Saudi Arabia's eastern oil fields of Abqaiq and Khurais, disrupting nearly half the kingdom's oil production.

In January 2020, the Houthi Special Criminal Court found Hadi guilty and sentenced him to death, for “high treason...and looting the country’s treasury”, over other things,

It is important to note that Saudi Arabia and the USA have also seen this war as a Sunni Saudi pitted against a Shi’ite Iran. This has been shown to be inaccurate - both nations likely intending it as an excuse for using extreme military might and sanctions that Saudi has engaged in with the backing of both, the Obama and Trump administration, to use Yemen for strategic purposes.

It is this war, between Saudi-backed Hadi at Aden and the Iran-led Houthis at Sana’a, that has prolonged for 5 years and displaced millions, prompting the UN to call it the worst man-made humanitarian disaster.

To read the 4th part of the series click on the link.

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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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