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US places Pak on ‘Special Watch List’ for religious freedom violations

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Washington: The US has placed Pakistan on a ‘Special Watch List’ for “severe violations” of religious freedom, the State Department said, making it the only country to be put under the newly-formed list.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced re-designation of 10 countries as ‘Countries of Particular Concern’ (CPC).
“The secretary also placed Pakistan on a Special Watch List for severe violations of religious freedom,” State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert said.

The Special Watch List is for countries that engage in or tolerate severe violations of religious freedom but may not rise to the level of the CPC.

 

The Special Watch List designation is being seen as a step below designating it as Country of Particular Concern, which would have automatically kicked in economic and political sanctions.

Pakistan, notably, is the first ever country to be placed in this list, which is a new category created by the Frank R Wolf International Religious Freedom Act of 2016.

The 2016 Frank R Wolf International Religious Freedom Act amended the IRF Act to require the President to designate a ‘Special Watch List’ of countries deemed not to meet all of the CPC criteria but who engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom. IRF stands for International Religious Freedom.

The US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIS) which has been seeking to designate Pakistan as CPC, however, expressed its disappointment with the decision of Tillerson in this regard.

“Pakistan continues to harass its religious minorities, has state-sanctioned discrimination against groups such as the Ahmadis, and tolerates extra-judicial violence in the guise of opposing blasphemy,” USCIRF Chairman Daniel Mark said.

“As USCIRF has said for many years, Pakistan should be designated by the State Department as a CPC. Given the strong stance that President Trump has taken on Pakistan recently, the failure to designate Pakistan as a CPC this year comes as a surprise and disappointment,” Mark said.

The State Department defended its decision.

“The Secretary of State takes into consideration all of the information available in conducting his review. His most recent assessment is that Pakistan does not meet the criteria for CPC designation, but meets the Special Watch List criteria,” a State Department Spokesperson told PTI.

“We strongly urge Pakistan to protect religious freedom for all individuals. CPC designations can be made at any time, as conditions warrant,” the spokesperson said, leaving the door option for Pakistan.

“The governments that have been designated as CPCs are subject to ‘Presidential Actions’, such as sanctions, which may include economic or political measures directed against a government to encourage it to improve the state of religious freedom in its country,” the spokesperson said in response to a question.

A former member of Pakistani Parliament Farahnaz Ispahani, welcomed the State Department’s decision to place her country on a Special Watch List.

“Today, the Special Watch List designation status given to Pakistan by the US Secretary of State to Pakistan may help Pakistan’s religious minorities. For too long no one has really cared within the country. Perhaps its time for external pressure to help safeguard those Pakistani citizens who are persecuted solely on the basis of their faith,” Ispahani said.


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International

US confirms Taliban talks in Qatar

Press Trust of India

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Washington:The United States confirmed Wednesday that its envoy is meeting in Qatar with the Taliban, seeking to negotiate an end to the Afghanistan war despite a new major attack claimed by the insurgents.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special representative on Afghan reconciliation, met Tuesday in the Qatari capital Doha with Taliban representatives, the State Department said.

“We can confirm that Special Representative Khalilzad and an interagency team are in Doha today talking with representatives of the Taliban,” a State Department spokeswoman said, adding that the talks were taking place over two days.

 

Khalilzad has sat down several times with the Taliban but it marks the first time that the United States has confirmed his meetings so directly.

The meeting came even though the Taliban claimed responsibility for an attack Tuesday against an Afghan intelligence base in central Wardak province.

A local official said that at least 65 people were killed, in the latest high-casualty attack in Afghanistan.

A Taliban spokesman announced the meeting with Khalilzad on Monday, saying that the United States accepted an agenda of “ending the occupation of Afghanistan and preventing Afghanistan from being used against other countries in the future.”

President Donald Trump has ordered a halving of the 14,000 US troops in Afghanistan as he voices eagerness to end America’s longest-ever war, launched in 2001 after the September 11 attacks.

The Afghan-born Khalilzad, a key US policymaker under former president George W Bush, met the Taliban after talks in Afghanistan as well as stops in key regional players China, India and Pakistan.

In Kabul, Khalilzad spoke with President Ashraf Ghani and vowed that the United States would maintain security support to Afghan forces.

“We agreed military pressure is essential while we prepare to engage in negotiations for peace,” he tweeted.

 

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China to pick Afghan Taliban as political force: envoy

Agencies

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PESHAWAR: Chinese Ambas­sador in Islamabad Yao Jing has said that his country will “pick Afghan Taliban as a political force” in the backdrop of their participation in the ongoing peace talks with the US and at other forums.

Speaking at a roundtable conference at the Area Study Centre, University of Peshawar, , he said that Beijing supported Pakistan’s fresh initiatives for facilitating efforts for political settlement of the Afghan conflict and confidence-building measures in relations with Kabul.

Asked about apparent lack of eagerness on the part of China in the ongoing talks for political settlement of the Afghan issue, the envoy said that his country had contacts with both the Taliban and the Afghan government. China had deputed a special envoy who was visiting the Taliban’s political office in Doha, he added.

 

“China will pick them (Taliban) as a political force because they are now part of the Afghan political process and they have some political concerns. They have to be allowed to play a legitimate role in the future political settlement,” he further elaborated his government’s policy on the Afghan peace process being discussed at different forums.

“If possible, China can exert pressure on the Taliban to join the peace process,” said the ambassador who had served in Kabul and New Delhi before taking over his new assignment in Pakistan. He urged all external stakeholders, including Afghanistan’s neighbours, to play their role for peace in the war-ravaged country.

“Afghans have been suffering for the last 40 years and they deserve peace and stability,” he said.

Supporting Pakistan’s fresh initiatives for facilitating talks between the Taliban and US administration, he said that China backed this ongoing process and had also played its role in the Moscow meeting and at other forums.

Mr Yao said that Afghans were very friendly towards China which had close relations with their country. “When we look towards west, the immediate challenge for us is Afghanistan having many international terrorist organisations.”

He said that Central Asian states had their own version and vision about Afghanistan and the same was the case of Russia, Iran and Pakistan.

“We are very much hopeful about a peaceful settlement of the Afghan issue, but this is a very complicated issue, which requires a lot of patience,” the envoy said. The US might announce withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan where elections were around the corner, he added.

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International

Four held in New York state for ‘plotting’ against Muslims

Agencies

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New York:Three men and a teenage boy have been arrested and charged for an alleged plot against a small Islamic community in New York state, police said.

The suspects have been accused of possessing homemade bombs and firearms, and planning to attack Islamberg, founded by a Pakistani cleric in the 1980s.

The three men — Andrew Crysel, 18, Vincent Vetromile, 19, and Brian Colaneri, 20 — were due to appear in court on Wednesday.

 

All were charged with criminal possession of a weapon and conspiracy. A 16-year-old boy is also facing charges, the police said, adding that at least three of them served together as boy scouts.

Investigators say the group, based in the city of Greece in the northwest of the state, made at least three improvised explosive devices using duct tape and large jars and cylinders containing nails and other projectiles.

They were found in the 16-year-old’s home, a police officer added. Some 23 firearms were also found at various locations. The alleged plot was revealed following a tip-off from a school student, the BBC reported.

Greece Police Chief Patrick Phelan said the investigation was launched after comments made by the 16-year-old at school on Friday were overheard by a fellow student.

The Islamberg community, located west of the Catskill mountains near the city of Binghamton, has become a target for conspiracy theorists.

The mainly African American group settled there to escape crime and overcrowding in New York City. The community has been described as peaceful and friendly, but right-wing conspiracy-led media outlets keep suggesting that it was a training camp for Islamist militants, the BBC said.

In 2017 Robert Doggart, from Tennessee, was jailed for plotting to burn down the community’s mosque. In 2015, Arizona man John Ritzheimer threatened the community with an armed confrontation.

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