The Express Tribune Editorial 28 December 2019

New prisons

The growing number of prisoners in jails reflects the state of affairs prevailing in the country. According to a recent report submitted in the Supreme Court, there are more under-trial prisoners in Pakistani jails than convicts. In the jails of Sindh, there are 4,201 convicts and over 12,000 under-trial prisoners. Prisons in the province are overcrowded where 17,239 inmates are lodged against the capacity for 13,038. Now the Sindh government has decided to construct eight new prisons in the province. One of the reasons for overcrowding is that prisoners from districts where there are no prisons are lodged in jails outside their own districts.
The government also plans to add new barracks in the existing jails to reduce the pressure on overcrowded jails. New barracks are being built at the existing prisons in Malir. Seven of the new prisons will be built in Thatta, Nawabshah, Qambar-Shahdadkot, Mithi, Kandhkot, Jamshoro, and District West in Karachi
As per the recommendations of the federal ombudsman, several projects for the welfare of inmates of the province’s jails are underway. Besides providing vocational training in several trades to inmates, English-language courses are being conducted in prisons. It is a good step to teach English to inmates, but it would be better to make them proficient in Urdu and regional languages so that they could learn ethics, which is necessary to reform prisoners. This will enable them to learn that religion upholds the value of doing good. Prisons should be places for reforming prisoners, but at present what is happening is that after coming out of prison people become more experienced criminals after having lived in the company of hardened criminals. The authorities should rectify this situation. Sometimes people facing hard times prefer to be lodged in prison because there they are fed, clothed and provided shelter and medical care for free. But only at the cost of freedom.


Religious freedom


Pakistan has reacted to being listed as a violator of religious freedoms by the US State Department by saying the “unilateral and arbitrary designation” is detached from ground realities and also questioning the credibility and transparency of the entire exercise. The “conspicuous omission” of India from the list, as the Foreign Office called it, was a reflection of the “subjectivity and bias” of the US State Department. Pakistan’s listing was for “having engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing, [and] egregious violations of religious freedom”. It is inexplicable how India managed to stay off the list, given that this sentence defines what the country has become under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Modi’s rule has seen hate crime against Muslims soar. India’s own media routinely mentions the massive spike in religious hate crimes since Modi came to power. India’s recent actions in Kashmir and its legislative decisions have also been slammed by rights groups in India and abroad. But President Donald Trump likes Modi and dislikes Muslims, so India gets a free pass.
At the same time, calling the FO statement flawed would be an understatement. Pakistan’s defence is essentially an exercise in whataboutism. The FO mostly blames “selective targeting of countries” for its listing. While true, this would assume that we have not had sporadic reports of crimes targeting members of minority groups. But we have. Even speeches by members of many major political parties contain troubling language when referring to minorities. The government may use incidents such as Aasia Bibi’s acquittal to prove minorities have rights, but the aftermath of that judgment last year actually bolsters the case against us. She wrongfully spent eight torturous years on death row, yet none of her accusers faces punishment. Instead, she wound up staying in jail in ‘protective custody’ for months because the country could not guarantee her safety from her fellow Pakistanis.


Saudi FM’s visit

New Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan al Saud dropped in for a day-long stop in Islamabad earlier this week. The visit, coming on the heels of the Kuala Lumpur summit which Pakistan backed out of at the eleventh hour, has been called a damage control exercise by some analysts. The Saudi foreign minister met with his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Prime Minister Imran Khan during the short trip. Despite the significance of ties with the Saudis, very little substance could be found in the official statement regarding the visit. FM Qureshi commented on the “deep-rooted and longstanding fraternal relationship” between the two countries and the mutual intention to strengthen it. Hajj-related issues were brought up. The importance of Saudi investment was highlighted. India was criticised by Qureshi and Imran. From the Saudi side, there was only praise for the role played by Pakistan in maintaining regional peace and stability, without giving any specifics. This would support the claims made in some reports that the focus of the trip was on symbolism, not substance.
The purpose of the trip was apparently to thank Imran for withdrawing from the Kuala Lumpur summit and dispel the impression that the Saudis hold a patronising attitude towards Islamabad. The move had led to harsh criticism of Pakistan. The most prominent critique came from Turkey, where President Recep Tayyib Erdogan was reported to have said that the Saudis used economic pressure to force Pakistan to stay away from the moot, where Iran and Qatar also participated.
While the Saudis called the claim “baseless” and insisted that its relationship with Pakistan is beyond the realm of threats, Pakistan had to tread on a wire to avoid offending Turkey or Malaysia. The Foreign Office eventually put out a confusing statement that suggested that Pakistan pulled out of a meeting to discuss issues facing the Muslim world because more time and effort was needed to address the concerns of major Muslim countries, regarding possible division in the Ummah.

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