Pakistan News

Finance Minister Asad Umar on Tuesday rejected the notion that the country is facing an economic crisis, saying the "financing gap for the current fiscal year has been met", Radio Pakistan reported.

He said "those spreading rumours about the economy are not doing any favour to the country".

The minister's comments come a day after stocks suffered the worst single-day decline in 16 months as the KSE-100 index tumbled 1,335.43 points (3.30 per cent) and closed at 39,160.60.

While speaking at the 11th South Asia Economic Summit in Islamabad, Umar said that "all the fundamental economic indicators are improving as a result of effective policies of the present government".

He also pointed out that exports are increasing while imports and current account deficit are witnessing downward trend, Radio Pakistan reported.

Talking about the record rise of the US dollar against the Pakistani rupee in the interbank market, the finance minister pointed out the rupee has been witnessing depreciation since last year. He, however, said that the situation is now improving.

Umar, according to Radio Pakistan, also made it clear that no compromise will be made on the independence of State Bank of Pakistan (SBP).

A day earlier, during a meeting with TV anchors at PM House, Prime Minister Imran Khan had revealed that he was unaware of the SBP move [on Friday] to decrease the value of the currency against the US dollar and came to know about rupee depreciation through the media.

The prime minister said the SBP was compelled to depreciate the rupee in order to preserve the country’s foreign currency accounts, as the government inherited a $19bn trade deficit from the last PML-N government.

The premier said although the SBP was an autonomous body, he had asked the authorities that no such decision be taken without taking the government into confidence first.

Later at night, Minister of State for Finance Hammad Azhar told a private TV channel that the prime minister did not intend to roll back his commitment to an independent central bank, but only meant that he wanted greater “information sharing” between the bank and the government.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday acquitted Asia Bibi, a Christian woman condemned to death on blasphemy charges after accepting her 2015 appeal against her sentence.

A three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Mian Saqib Nisar, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa and Justice Mazhar Alam Khan Miankhel had reserved its ruling on Asia Bibi's final legal appeal against execution (Asia Bibi v. The State, etc) on October 8.

The appeal challenged the Lahore High Court’s October 2014 verdict upholding a trial court’s November 2010 decision sentencing Bibi to death for committing blasphemy in 2009.

"The appeal is allowed. She has been acquitted. The judgement of high court as well as trial court is reversed. Her conviction is set aside," said Justice Nisar in the ruling.

"Her conviction is set aside and she is to be relieved forthwith if not required in other charges," he added.

The 56-page detailed judgement has been authored by CJP Nisar, with a separate concurrent opinion note from Justice Khosa.

"It is a well settled principle of law that one who makes an assertion has to prove it. Thus, the onus rests on the prosecution to prove guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt throughout the trial," noted the top judge in the order. "Presumption of innocence remains throughout the case until such time the prosecution on the evidence satisfies the court beyond reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty of the offence alleged against him.

"[...] The expression 'proof beyond reasonable doubt' is of fundamental importance to the criminal justice: it is one of the principles which seeks to ensure that no innocent person is convicted.

"Keeping in mind the evidence produced by the prosecution against the alleged blasphemy committed by the appellant, the prosecution has categorically failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt," concluded the chief justice.

The court also noted that "it is not for the individuals, or a gathering (mob), to decide as to whether any act falling within the purview of Section 295-C has been committed or not, because as stated earlier, it is the mandate of the court to make such decision after conducting a fully qualified trial and on the basis of credible evidence brought before it".

The CJP ended the judgement with a hadith of the Holy Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) on the rights of minorities.

Bibi's lawyer Saiful Mulook told AFP: "The verdict has shown that the poor, the minorities and the lowest segments of society can get justice in this country despite its shortcomings. This is the biggest and happiest day of my life."

Bibi appeared to be in state of disbelief after hearing the decision from her lawyer.

"I can't believe what I am hearing, will I go out now? Will they let me out, really?" Bibi told AFP by phone from prison after the ruling. "I just don't know what to say, I am very happy, I can't believe it."

Bibi's husband also hailed the verdict. "I am very happy. My children are very happy. We are grateful to God. We are grateful to the judges for giving us justice. We knew that she is innocent," said Ashiq Masih.

Shortly after the ruling, hundreds blocked a key road linking Rawalpindi with Islamabad. People are also gathering for protests in Karachi and Peshawar. Similar rallies are being held elsewhere as police urge demonstrators to disperse peacefully.

High security

The decision to take stringent security measures in the capital was made after a number of meetings held to thrash out a strategy to deal with any unforeseen situation after the verdict.

On Oct 13 this year, the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan, a religio-political party headed by Khadim Hussain Rizvi, threatened to “paralyse the country within hours if the Supreme Court sets Asia Bibi free”.

Islamabad was put on high alert on Tuesday night. Extra contingents of police and law enforcement agencies have been deployed in the capital.

About 300 police personnel, along with paramilitary units, are guarding the SC building, adjacent to Parliament House on Constitution Avenue.

Sources in the administration told Dawn that Rangers and Frontier Constabulary had been called as part of measures to step up security in Islamabad. Security of the Judges Enclave and the Diplomatic Enclave has been handed over to Rangers.

The sources said security personnel had been asked to guard the Red Zone as it houses sensitive installations, including the Supreme Court.

According to the sources, when some senior police officers met officials of the apex court, the law enforcers were asked to adopt security measures for the Supreme Court and other key points.

Allegations against Asia Bibi

Asia Bibi was convicted for blasphemy under Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code for allegedly defaming Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him). The offence carries the mandatory death penalty under Pakistani law.

The allegations against Bibi were that she made three “defamatory and sarcastic” statements about the Holy Prophet on June 14, 2009 during an argument with three Muslim women while the four of them were picking fruit in a field in Sheikhupura.

She was asked to fetch water, but the Muslim women objected, saying that as a non-Muslim she was unfit to touch the water bowl.

The women later went to a local cleric and accused Bibi of blasphemy against the Holy Prophet, a charge punishable by death under legislation that rights groups say is routinely abused to settle personal vendettas.

Arguments on appeal

During the hearing of Bibi's appeal on Oct 8, the prosecution side, represented by Additional Prosecutor for Punjab Chaudhry Zubair, and Ghulam Mustafa Chaudhry from the complainant side had supported each other by arguing that the accused had not denied committing blasphemy or presence of the accused as well as the witnesses at the place of occurrence. Besides, they said, the allegation of a quarrel before the incident in which Bibi was first insulted for being a Christian had also not been proved.

Advocate Saiful Malook, appearing on behalf of Bibi, had argued that the prosecution’s case was replete with infirmities and subsequent improvements and, therefore, the benefit of the doubt should be given to the accused and the entire investigation be declared illegal and unwarranted.

Meanwhile, CJP Nisar had observed that committing blasphemy was the most appalling and spiteful offence, and not only “our laws but the fundamentals of our religion also place strict standards of proof to prove the crime”.

Case history

The prosecution had claimed that Bibi “admitted” making the blasphemous statements at a “public gathering” on June 19, 2009 "while asking for forgiveness".

A trial court convicted Bibi for blasphemy in November 2010 and sentenced her to death. The Lahore High Court (LHC) had upheld her conviction and confirmed her death sentence in October 2014.

She had then challenged the LHC verdict in the Supreme Court, which stayed her execution in July 2015 and admitted her appeal for hearing.

The top court had first taken up the appeal in October 2016, but had to adjourn the matter without hearing after one of the judges recused himself from the SC bench. Two years later, the appeal was heard earlier this month and the CJP Nisar-led bench reserved its verdict.

Bibi's supporters maintain her innocence and insist it was a personal dispute, and the Vatican has called for her release.

In 2011, former Punjab governor Salman Taseer, who spoke out in support of Bibi, was gunned down in broad daylight in Islamabad. His assassin Mumtaz Qadri was executed in 2016 after the court found him guilty of murder.

Additional reporting by Nasir Iqbal.

ISLAMABAD: The government on Saturday strongly denied that a private business jet flew to Islamabad from Tel Aviv (Israel) via Amman (Jordan) and went back, but opposition parties, dissatisfied with official clarifications, called for a “convincing explanation” on the matter.

The editor of Israeli newspaper Haaretz’s English edition, Ami Scharf, started the controversy by claiming in a tweet that the jet travelled to Islamabad from Tel Aviv and remained on ground in Pakistani capital for nearly 10 hours. He said the jet made a brief stopover in Amman on the way to Islamabad because of which it got a new call sign and became an Amman-Islamabad flight.

Govt denies Israeli journalist’s assertion but opposition seeks ‘convincing’ explanation

It is claimed that the aircraft bearing tail number M-ULTI landed in Islamabad on Oct 24 at 5:40am. The journalist, citing data of flight tracking website flightradar24, said the plane descended from 40,000 feet to 20,000ft near Islamabad before going out of coverage. The aircraft reappeared 10 hours later heading south-west from Islamabad. It followed the same flight path for the return journey making a landing in Amman and then taking off for Tel Aviv.

The mysterious trip happened a day before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made the first visit to Oman by an Israeli premier in over 20 years. That visit too was kept secret till Mr Netanyahu tweeted a video of a meeting and reception in Amman.

A spokesman for the Civil Aviation Authority rejected the claim about a private jet that originated its flight from Tel Aviv visiting Islamabad and said there was no truth in any Israeli aeroplane landing at any Pakistani airport.

Pakistan does not recognise Israel and, therefore, doesn’t have diplomatic relations with it. Therefore, the landing of an Israeli aircraft at a Pakistani airport, except for emergencies, would be highly unlikely. However, it is important to note that the aircraft is registered in the Isle of Man, but is operated out of Ben Gurion for chartered flights.

Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said the claim was a conspiracy to sabotage the Black Day being observed to condemn Indian atrocities in occupied Kashmir and discredit the Pakistan government and state institutions before the public.

That led to an exchange of interesting arguments on Twitter between Mr Chaudhry and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz leader Ahsan Iqbal when the latter asked the government to “explain the exact situation”.

The minister sharply hit back saying, “Imran Khan is neither Nawaz Sharif nor does his cabinet have fake Aristotles. We will not hold secret dialogue with Modi and nor would do so with Israel.” Mr Iqbal responded to the tweet saying the way information minister had angrily reacted showed “there is something fishy”.

In Multan, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi also said the Israeli plane story was baseless.

On the other hand, Pakistan People’s Party vice president Sherry Rehman said the government should explain who came in the aircraft. The decisions that would be taken without taking the nation into confidence would not be acceptable, she said.

Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (Fazl) chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman said the aircraft story vindicated their stance about the incumbent government.

As the government clarifications came in and the opposition criticism grew, Mr Scharf put out more details. “As my previous post caused uproar in Pakistan, here are all the details I have, and have not...” he tweeted. He then gave the time when the aircraft began it descent into Islamabad and the registration details of the jet.

He further said: “Pakistan government issues denial. I’m sure @flightradar24 can tell what was final altitude and when landed. But I assume they won’t”.

Analysts questioned the motives of the Israeli journalist behind making the claim.

At the end of the day, Mr Scharf himself put the authenticity of his own claim to question by saying he was not sure if the plane landed at Islamabad and might have just flown over the city. But, at the same time, he noted that there was no point in descending from 40,000 feet to 20,000ft over Islamabad if the aircraft were to continue its journey further north, where the mountains were very high.

Pakistan and Israel have long maintained undeclared contacts at lower level and the only known interaction took place on Sept 1, 2005 between the then foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri and his Israeli counterpart Silvan Shalom.

Published in Dawn, October 28th, 2018

 

Saudi Arabia has agreed to provide Pakistan $3 billion in foreign currency support for a year to address its balance-of-payments crisis, the government announced on Tuesday.

The Kingdom has also agreed to provide Islamabad a one-year deferred payment facility for import of oil, worth up to another $3 billion.

The agreements in this regard were signed during the visit of Prime Minister Imran Khan to Saudi Arabia to attend the Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference, a trip he undertook on the invitation of King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud.

According to a press release issued by the government, several far-reaching decisions on bilateral economic and financial cooperation were reached during the discussions held between Pakistani and Saudi officials:

  • It was agreed that Saudi Arabia will place a deposit of US $3 billion for a period of one year as balance-of-payment support. A memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed in this regard between Finance Minister Asad Umar and his Saudi counterpart Muhammad Abdullah Al-Jadaan.
  • It was also agreed that a one-year deferred payment facility for import of oil, up to $3 billion, will be provided by Riyadh. This arrangement will be in place for three years, after which it will be reviewed.
  • Saudi Arabia also "confirmed its interest" in investing in a petroleum refinery in Pakistan. An MoU for this project will be signed after obtaining the cabinet's approval.
  • The Kingdom also expressed interest in the development of mineral resources in Pakistan. In this regard, the federal government will hold consultations with the Balochistan government, following which a Saudi delegation will be invited to Pakistan to finalise matters.

 

During the visit, Prime Minister Khan held "detailed bilateral discussions" with the Saudi monarch and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a foreign ministry handout said.

Prince Mohammed agreed to the premier's suggestion for reduction of Saudi visa fee for Pakistani workers, "which is a significant step towards enhancing Pakistan’s workforce in [the Kingdom], as well as facilitating travel of people from both countries".

During his address at the investment conference in Riyadh, Prime Minister Khan had confirmed that Pakistan was also in talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) over a bailout.

However, Khan has in recent days sought to avoid going to the IMF and still wants to at least reduce the size of any bailout by appealing to “friendly countries” for bilateral financial support.

The prime minister's attendance at the FII comes as leading policy-makers and corporate chiefs shunned the conference in response to the death of journalist and Saudi government critic Jamal Khashoggi at the Kingdom's consulate in Istanbul — a scandal that has tipped Riyadh into a diplomatic crisis.

The Saudi pledge comes days after the State Bank warned inflation could double in the coming year — hitting 7.5 per cent — while the country's growth target rate of 6.2pc would likely be missed.

Finance Minister Umar had on Saturday warned the country was fast heading towards bankruptcy. However, he promised to end the country's reliance on IMF bailouts to shore up the shaky economy, as officials prepared to negotiate a new loan.

An IMF team is set to arrive in Pakistan in early November to begin negotiations.

THE decision to approach the International Monetary Fund provided comfort to economic stakeholders as the prospective bail-out package will help Pakistan dodge the immediate danger of a sovereign default. It is not expected, however, to automatically solve all problems weighing on future economic prospects.

A major challenge would be to contain the fallout of the economic slowdown on households and investors. The petrol, gas and electricity rate hike and their multiplier effect will significantly jack up cost of living and doing business. The slowdown has shrunk trading volumes in the market. Many brokerage houses, trading firms and mutual funds have already started cutting corners and firing staff on the fringes.

During a recent interaction with top businessmen in Karachi, Razak Dawood, advisor to the prime minister for commerce, articulated what he termed the major economic challenge. “Stopping deindustrialisation, which is an onerous task but not impossible. The industrial base needs to be reinvigorated. The government has focused itself on a doable export-led growth strategy and is working to remove duties for all imported raw material.”

“Sure. The million dollar question is: where is the new investment is going to come from?” commented a big gun privately.

ARTICLE CONTINUES AFTER AD
 

Austerity measures, tightening of the monetary policy, falling rupee dollar parity, upward revisions of utility rates and the growing wedge of confidence between the private sector and the government mean more challenging private investment prospects going forward.

No one in business circles expects the cash starved and debt ridden government, with a harsh lender breathing heavy on its neck to invest liberally in the current phase. At the same time it would be absurd to assume that the private sector can be mobilised unless it finds the activity sufficiently safe and financially rewarding.

The fact is that the risk-averse private sector did not respond when the past governments attempted to expand the base of the economy by offering a low credit cost environment unless returns were guaranteed.

The current economic downturn, reflected in depressing trends in capital, currency, commodity, retail and property markets, are symptomatic of a deeper malice. The indecisiveness of the ruling party, since it assumed power two months back, played a part in exposing the fact but even ardent supporters of the last PML-N government will not refute that the high growth it achieved was not well grounded.

Some businessmen, economists and officials were approached to pick their mind on the crucial step, in their opinion, that can steer the economy out of this tight corner. The responses were swift but reflected a lack of consensus in the relevant circles.

Mr Salim Raza, former governor, State Bank of Pakistan, responded in writing. “Setting the right agricultural choices is important. We have to subsidise wheat and sugar exports because of a production surplus. To this end the government set rates above world prices.” He advocated that land surplus be diverted to edible oil crops (rapeseed, canola, mustard, etc), which have been taken over by sugarcane and wheat, to curtail edible oil imports.

Mr Shaukat Tarin, former finance minister, admitted that there is no single ‘ready’ solution. “It is most important that we all start paying taxes judiciously,” he says.

Mr Muhammad Ali Tabba, chairman, the Pakistan Business Council and CEO Lucky Cement said that “the country needs expansion of tax base and an increase in exports.”

A senior official admitted that under the IMF’s guardianship growth will suffer in the short run. “In the medium- to long-term the only way out is to excite the private sector to invest in Pakistan. These non-debt creating financial flows will ease out the stringent balance of payments situation. This is possible through orderly, business-friendly structural reforms besides changing the bureaucratic mindset,” he said.

“I would recommend tariff and trade policy reforms to get exports moving. That’s what India did after their bailout in 1992. Nothing else will work. Other options include substantially reducing the defence expenditure and privatising state owned enterprises,” opined Dr Manzoor Ahmad, former Pakistan ambassador to the World Trade Organisation.

Shabir Ahmed, chairman Pakistan Bed Linen Manufacturers and Exporters Association wanted the government to focus on the economy. “Stop the witch hunt. The FIA involvement is scaring overseas joint venture partners”, he said. Terming public name calling of suspected tax evaders irresponsible he thought that the PTI is punishing the business class for its own failings (being ill prepared to deal with challenges on hand).

“Zero duties and taxes on import of machinery plus loans for plant upgradation machinery on a rate permissible under the export finance scheme can help,” responded Majyd Aziz, president Employers Federation of Pakistan.

Eizaz Sheikh, president Cement Manufacturers Association of Pakistan advised reducing imports and stay away from meddling in the housing construction business to avoid financial scandals.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, October 15th, 2018

ISLAMABAD: The Pakis­tan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and the Communist Party of China have signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to strengthen party-to-party relations.

During an event held at the Foreign Office, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Chinese minis­ter Song Tao signed the MoU.

PTI secretary general Arshad Dad, Senator Dr Shahzad Waseem and other party leaders were present on the occasion.

“Witnessed MoU signing ceremony between Communist Party of China and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf to further strengthen party to party relations,” Senator Shahzad Waseem tweeted after the event.

 

Mr Qureshi tweeted: “China is an all weather friend and strategic partner. We start a new chapter in our relations with the signing of an MoU between PTI and the Communist Party of China. A regular exchange of ideas will help both countries and political parties to combat the challenges we face today.”

The two parties also agreed to exchange high-level delegations to further understand each other, bring the two nations closer to each other and to address the issues.

Earlier on Saturday, the Chinese delegation visited the PTI secretariat where it was received by Arshad Dad.

China has been playing an important role in addressing the issues of Pakistan. Tens of billions of dollars have been in­­vested in Pakistan under the CPEC which is a framework of regional connectivity. The CPEC will not only benefit China and Pakistan but will also have a positive impact on Iran, Afghanistan, India, Central Asian Republics and the region.

Published in Dawn, October 15th, 2018

Prime Minister Imran Khan, via Twitter on Friday, announced that the government will announce a "special package of incentives" for overseas Pakistanis to encourage them to send remittances through banking channels.

PM Khan said that by "removing hindrances and procedural issues", the government will be able to increase the inflow of remittances from $20bn to "at least $30bn and perhaps even $40bn".

 

"The Philippines did this successfully," he added.

PM Khan also vowed to remove problems faced by overseas Pakistanis during the immigration process when they come to Pakistan. He added that Pakistani missions abroad had also been ordered by the government to "look after and deal effectively with the concerns" of overseas Pakistanis.

 

He assured that his administration will take steps to protect overseas Pakistanis' property and assets in the country, "especially from land mafias".

Overseas Pakistanis form a significant part of PM Khan's administration. Weeks after his party won the July 25 election, Finance Minister Asad Umar declared that the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf government will focus on growing home remittances to supplement foreign exchange inflows.

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