PAKISTAN: ‘The environment for civil society is suffocating’

Aasim SaeedThroughout 2018, the space for civil society continued to deteriorate in Pakistan, particularly in the context of July’s election. CIVICUS speaks about the increasing restrictions on criticism and dissent with Aasim Saeed, a Pakistani blogger who in 2017 was abducted and tortured for his online posts. After his release, Aasim was granted asylum in the UK, where he now lives.

How would you describe the environment for civil society in Pakistan over the past year?

I would describe it as suffocating. The government uses harassment, threats, abduction, blackmailing through family members, torture and in certain cases death to curb dissent. Restrictions on the freedom of expression have increased and a lot of media houses have resorted to self-censorship. Newspapers are being forced not to give coverage to dissenting voices. For instance, Express Tribune, the Pakistani version of the New York Times, was recently forced to leave blank spaces when an interview with the leader of the Pushtoon Protection Movement, Manzoor Pashteen, was published in its international edition.

Behind these restrictions are most certainly the military, who abuse the 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) and the Anti-Terrorism Act. They have started to apply PECA against anybody who tries to raise their voices through social media, as this is the only remaining outlet available for people to raise their concerns.

The most threatening part is when Pakistan’s intelligence agencies use electronic, print and social media to accuse activists of sedition. It gets life-threatening when religion is used as a tool and accusations of blasphemy are levelled against activists. Articles 295-C and 298 of the Penal Code make the death penalty mandatory for those found guilty of blasphemy. Scarily, those accused hardly ever make it to court, because they are often lynched by street vigilantes.

The politically motivated use of blasphemy laws is widespread. Professor Junaid Hafeez, a former lecturer in English Literature, has spent years behind bars, often in solitary confinement, due to false blasphemy accusations that were politically and personally motivated. His legal case has not progressed from the District Court in years. Every time a verdict is expected, judges get themselves transferred, while one of Junaid’s key lawyers was shot dead in the early days of the case.

The situation worsened as the July 2018 elections approached, as opposition parties were challenging the military-backed party that went on to win the elections. Opposition parties weren’t given much coverage on mainstream media and on election day their results were delayed. Serious allegations of large-scale vote rigging were raised as the electronic result transmission system was made to look like it had failed when it hadn’t; the delay was caused intentionally so that ballot papers belonging to various opposition parties could be manually voided. In several districts the number of rejected votes was much larger than the margin of defeat. The number of rejected votes was higher than ever before, even in districts where the total number of votes cast was lower than in the past. In some places a recount was done and the opposition gained a number of extra seats; however, no recount was allowed in key districts, where it was ensured that the military’s puppets got elected.

Many people don’t give up and still raise their voices, but it’s increasingly dangerous to do so, because people are getting abducted for their Facebook posts or tweets against the powerful military junta or their ‘selected’ prime minister. They have recently started to react if you make online criticisms of the prime minister or any minister. Calling the prime minister a crook can land you in jail. They used to allow criticism of politicians but they are not allowing it anymore.

You have experienced persecution for exercising online free expression. Can you tell us more about your case?

In 2017 I was living and working in Singapore, but in early January that year I was in Pakistan for my brother’s wedding when I was abducted from my family home, in broad daylight, by several men in plainclothes who I believe were elements of the security forces. At the time I administered a Facebook page critical of the military establishment, Mochi, and I had been accused repeatedly on mainstream media outlets of promoting blasphemy on social networks.

Three other bloggers and activists who were also critics of the military and religious establishment were abducted at about the same time. Our websites and blogs were shut down as we were abducted, suggesting the two things were connected.

Initially I was interrogated about Mochi and ordered to hand over the passwords to my email accounts and mobile phone. Then I was moved to a secret detention facility where I was held alongside people who I think were religious terrorists. I was beaten until I lost consciousness, and moved several times. At another detention facility closer to the capital, Islamabad, I was subjected to polygraph tests while being repeatedly questioned about alleged links to the Indian intelligence service, which of course I don’t have. My interrogators also analysed my Facebook posts and interrogated me about the reasons why I was critical of the army. Several times I thought I would be killed.

I was gone for about three weeks and was extremely lucky to be released, because many missing persons never return home. Fortunately, there were protests and solidarity actions in Pakistan and around the world, and the Pakistani government was pressured into providing information and eventually releasing me and other kidnapped bloggers and activists. At the same time, a counter-campaign was held by right-wing religious clerics and TV anchors who kept accusing us of blasphemy. But for once, pressures to hold the government accountable for its human rights violations had a positive effect.

In late 2017 I applied for asylum in the UK, where I am now based.

What actions should the Pakistani government take to safeguard democratic space?

At a very basic level, the Pakistani government should adhere to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and respect United Nations resolutions. Citizens should be allowed to speak up and freedom of speech or dissent shouldn’t be equated with treason, which is currently the case. For instance, if you criticise any government institution, and the military or the army in particular, you will be called a traitor and are likely to be booked under charges of treason or sedition, and in certain cases blasphemy. The space for civil society has gradually been reduced and even members of parliament have been abducted for expressing criticism of the government in their parliamentary speeches.

What support should international civil society give to Pakistani civil society?

Most international civil society organisations have been forced to close their offices in Pakistan and are not allowed to work in the country. I believe international civil society should engage Pakistani activists in international forums and venues where the issues that affect them can be raised and attention can be drawn to their cases. I personally feel that the current level of engagement is very low.

Civic space in Pakistan is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with Aasim through his website or Facebook page, or follow @AasimSaeedPPP on Twitter.

 

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    neat · 9 days ago
    Very true.
    The problem is that Pakistan's elite is exploitative and self serving
    https://www.how2havefun.com/thought-of-the-day/meaning-character-pakistan-islam/
  • This commment is unpublished.
    samir sardana · 1 months ago
    Pakistan EXIM units have to raise USD capital for working capital finance in the COVID doom

    Anyone can raise capital in USD today - irrespective of central bank caveats.2 years ago,it was unviable and difficult. Today, it is VIABLE and EASY - all due to COVID.

    Pakistan has staged a miraculous COVID turnaround and this is the next turn - ULTRA LOW COST FINANCE.dindooohindoo

    Case 1

    Take the US LIBOR (6 months BBA) at 0 BP in August 2020,id.est 0. 0 %

    Assuming a spread of,say 50 BPs for a bank like Habib Bank - a 1st Class Scheduled Bank (as it gets the LOC or Borrowing on the strength of its Balance sheet)

    Habib will onlend it to Pakistan SMEs at say a spread of 150-250 BP
    Aggregate USD lending rate will be 1.8 to 2.8%

    If the borrower is an exporter,and is raising Packing credit,which will liquidate in or 6 months - he keeps an open exposure on the USD loans,qnd offsets it with the USD export collections

    It SOUNDS good - but it is not a CERTAIN gain,as there CAN BE an OPPORTUNITY loss

    If PKR falls by 5 % in 6 months and if Export Packing Credit is available in PKR at,say 9%,then post the PKR rupee loss,the NET COST of the Packing Credit,in PKR = Minus 100 BP.

    But still there are people who do not want to take any view on the PKR/INR markets - and so,they want to borrow in USD so that they have outsourced their FX nominal risk,to a neutered FX exposure

    SO HOW SHOULD PAKISTANI ENTITIES,RAISE USD LOANS ? It is fairly simple ! There are Options

    Option 1

    1st Take the Export Packing Credit loan in PKR,at say,750-1000 BPs of say 500 Million PKR (as banks do not want to lend in USD,as then,no one will take PKR loans !)

    Assume this is a 6 months credit,and so,exports are expected at 1 Billion PKR in 1 year
    For 50% of the borrowing,and assuming exports as above,the borrower should short the dollar (forwards only) and get a premium of say between 500 - 900 BPs,at various points of time

    So on a Net basis,you have a USD borrowing of 50% of 500 Million PKR,at 250 - 100 BP,and it is on TAP,as the entity will drawdown the Packing credit,when it wants,and short the USD,when it wants

    On the Date of the liquidation of the Forward contract,he has to get the USD "FROM SOMEWHERE".Even if there is a War,the borrower will MANAGE to get the USD from somewhere

    Option 2

    If the prospective borrower is an exporter,then he should import duty free on duty free licences.

    For that he will need to import,and so,will need to import,on Import Usance LCs or Buyer LCs

    In a LC,the overseas supplier,is taking a risk on Habib Bank (who opens the LC) and the UCP Rules

    With 6 Months US Libor at 0. 0%,the supplier can give a 6 months LC credit at Nil interest rates (subject to his exposure norms)

    Some suppliers and overseas banks,MIGHT not accept Habib Bank LCs,and so the LCs will need to be confirmed (with confirmation charges)

    A Pakistani exporter with a 200 Million USD Top line,should be able to open LCs on an annualised cost of 125- 150 BPs

    A Pakistani exporter with a 500 Million USD Top line,should be able to open LCs on a FIXED advalorem cost of say 100 USD per LC - which will make the annualised cost close to ZERO %
    But if such an exporter needs to pay a % fees,then he should enter into clean credit discounting arrangement or a factoring/forfaiting deal,with some international bankers in London/Singapore etc or use the discounting limits of the suppliet.

    For those exporters who cannot open LCs - they can use rd party financiers to open the LCs,and convert their finance cost,into USD,And then, the LCs can be Rolled on and on and on - until the SBP calls up the borrower

    So,in import finance,if the LC costs are lowered or converted into a fixed value,and LC confirmation is waived by the foreign supplier or his bank - a Pakistani exporter can easily raise working capital finance at ZERO % cost,IN USD (and set off the LC retirement, with the foreign remittances).

    This all excludes LC engineering like Transferable/Diviisble LCs etc.

    But the cost can be made NEGATIVE easily, if the imports are on Duty Free Licences,from a Front company,in say,Dubai.

    So if the importer overstates the LC amount - he raises an ECB at Zero % cost or Near Zero Cost - and the extra funds,are parked with the Front company for rotation.The PKR hedged
    cost of that extra fund,will be less than the Habib Bank PLR

    Option

    Even for Pakistani entities who have no exports,their imports can be financed at 100-200BP per annum,on LCs or on Clean Credit (for regular importers)

    Even after loading the FX premiums the loaded cost should be 6-8%,which will be much lower than the CP or CD rates in Pakistan

    For Regular importers with perfect payment history,the suppliers can do recourse and non-recourse financing, by discounting the drafts on the Pakistani importers,or holding the bills to maturity (obviating the LC)

    Better still,the overseas suppliers can discount the drafts on Pakistani importers,with Pakistani Billionaires in London - who are parking their cash in the call market at 0.10%.They can be offered 100 BPs !

    In some cases,the Pakistani Importer and the Pakistani Billionaires,might be the same person,but with different legal entities

    The Problem

    The Problem is that Pakistani Banks find "not so creative" tools,to make USD financing unviable,for Pakistani entities - by loading ad valorem % charges,which on an annualised basis,make the transaction unviable

    Hence,at least for imports (unlike exports,where an exporter can short the USD to swap the PKR loan into a USD Loan),the Pakistani entities have to use supplier financing,and tie up with banks,in London etc., to discount,negotiate,factor and forfait their bills/drafts.

    Basically,it is the Country Risk of Pakistan (created by Indian Vilification) which causes the chain of confirming,advising and other charges,which make the LC transaction unviable, from Pakistani Banks.

    Many Pakistani exporters will have a payment rating and credit rating - HIGHER THAN THE PAKISTAN SOVERIGN and also,that of HABIB bank (as Habib is exposed to the economic and credit risk,of Pakistan and its Banking system)

    Hence,the time has come for some Pakistani Millionaires and Billionaires to use their surplus cash parked in T-Bills etc., to open a EXIM bank in London or Dubai,to use creative exim financing options ONLY for Pakistani Exporters and Importers (beyond a certain size).That will slash the costs of Pakistani EXIM units,and also,the said EXIM bank,can be used to offer innovative credit default options,on clean credit exports,by Pakistani exporters,to Africa and other nations.

    If the Pakistani Millionaires put in,say USD 50 million,in equity and raise USD 200 in debt,then in one year,their primary discounting and financing business,assuming a months tenor,will be a Billion USD,and if they start offloading and re-discounting the bills,with other bankers and financiers - the aggregate financing turnover,should be 10-15 Billion USD - on a seed of USD 50 Million.There is no way,the millionaires will earn that kind of yield,in any Junk Bond in the world

    Only a Pakistani can appraise the credit and intent of a Pakistani borrower,and also,have the ability to make the borrower PAY.
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