Iranians vote in Iran parliamentary election

TEHRAN: Hardliners are set to dominate in the Iran parliamentary elections as voters hit the polling booth as public anger against moderate conservative President Hassan Rouhani deepens over a ravaged economy, corruption and multiple crises.

State television showed the Islamic republic’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei casting the first ballot in Tehran.

As he voted, Khamenei called on all Iranians to take part in the election “as soon as possible,” saying that doing so would “guarantee the country’s national interests”.

The 11th parliamentary election since the 1979 Islamic Revolution comes after steeply escalating tensions between Iran and the United States and the accidental downing of a Ukrainian airliner that sparked anti-government protests.

Experts predict a low turnout with rising voter apathy that they say will serve the conservatives at the expense of Rouhani, who was re-elected in 2017 promising more freedoms and the benefits of engagement with the West.

Iran has been hit by an economic slump and high inflation following harsh US sanctions after President Donald Trump pulled out of a landmark nuclear deal with Tehran in 2018.

“Iran’s biggest problem is not having stability, peace and calm,” said Amir Mohtasham, who is 38 and jobless.

“Our elections are useless. Even the current parliament has 90 sitting MPs who are under investigation for financial corruption,” he said.

Nearly 58 million people are eligible to vote.

Around half of the 16,033 hopefuls will contest the 290 seats up for grabs across 31 provinces after the Guardian Council barred thousands of would-be candidates, mostly moderates and reformists.

On Thursday, Washington slapped sanctions on five Iranian officials in charge of vetting candidates, including Ahmad Jannati, a powerful cleric.

“The Trump administration will not tolerate the manipulation of elections to favour the regime’s malign agenda,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

The Guardian Council slammed the sanctions, saying they showed the United States’ disdain for democracy.

“America’s regime has shown through illegal sanctions… on members of the Guardian Council that it has nothing to do with democracy,” said its spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodaee, who was among those hit with sanctions.

“We are now even more determined to safeguard the people’s vote,” he tweeted.

‘Voting religious duty’

On the eve of the elections, state media aired a short clip showing votes transforming into torpedoes hitting enemy navy ships closing in on Iran.

Hessameddin Ashena, Rouhani’s main adviser, warned on Twitter that abstention “increases (among other things) the possibility of a military aggression”.

Turnout in Iran’s past 10 elections averaged 60.5%, according to the interior ministry.

The Guardian Council said it expected at least 50% of registered voters to cast ballots.

Many voters, however, have voiced disinterest.

“We voted for Mr Rouhani with a dream, and then we didn’t achieve anything. So, in my opinion, people are not hopeful any more,” said Mohammed, who spoke from his carpet shop and only gave one name.

‘Only a formality’

“I honestly don’t want to vote, because it won’t fix our problems and is of no use, and this election is only a formality just so they can show to the world that they are chosen by the nation, while it is not so,” said Pari Aghazadeh, a fashion designer.

In November, demonstrations over petrol price hikes spread across Iran and turned violent before being crushed in a deadly crackdown.

Tehran and Washington have nearly gone to war twice in the past seven months, most recently after the US assassinated prominent Iranian general Qasem Soleimani on January 3.

The “martyrdom” of the hugely popular general provoked an outpouring of grief in Iran.

Millions of people turned out to mourn his death, but that unity suffered a blow after Iran finally admitted that it had shot down a Ukrainian airliner on January 8, killing 176 people.

The government sparked further anger by denying for several days that Iran was to blame, before owning up to a jittery reaction by a missile operator.

The disaster unfolded as Iran’s defences were on high alert in case the US retaliated to Iranian strikes hours earlier on American troops stationed in Iraq in response to the killing of Soleimani.

Voting for the parliament, or Majles, lasts 10 hours but can be extended. Final results are not expected before Sunday.

Apart from the parliament, voters will also choose replacements for deceased members of the Assembly of Experts, a 88-strong clerical body that appoints and monitors the supreme leader.

Journalists, lawyers, rights bodies to resist move against social media

ISLAMABAD: As the clamour against the government’s move to regulate social media becomes louder, the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), lawyers and civil society members have decided to launch a nationwide movement for getting the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules revoked.

Journalist unions, lawyers, and civil society organisations termed the recently notified rules unacceptable and urged the government to revoke these immediately and hold consultations over the regulation.

The demands were put forward at a press conference at National Press Club here on Thursday.

Representatives from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the Islamabad High Court Bar Association and Media Matters for Democracy atte­nded the press conference.ARTICLE CONTINUES AFTER AD

Nasir Zaidi, PFUJ’s secretary general, read out a joint statement contending that the rules exceeded the mandate given by the 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act.

“The rules [to regulate social media] were approved by the cabinet without any debate,” Mr Zaidi said. “The clampdown on online content is the final extreme in a long series of restrictions on freedom of expression and press freedom in Pakistan.”

He outlined a “plan of action” thrashed out by the PFUJ, in concert with the three “partner organisations”, to launch a countrywide drive against enforcement of the rules.

“Press conferences will be held at press clubs in Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar and Quetta,” Mr Zaidi said. A national conference will be held at Islamabad’s press club on Feb 27 to work out a joint declaration on social media regulation.

Speakers at the press conference said the proposed social media rules posed a severe threat to freedom of expression, media independence, and the country’s digital economy.

Harris Khalique, the HRCP secretary general, said the rules framed by the federal cabinet were based on “malicious intent”.

The speakers said rights guaranteed by the Constit­ution should form the basis for any law regarding social media.

The Asia Internet Coalition, whose members include Facebook, Google and Twitter, has said the rules can “severely cripple” Pakistan’s digital economy and make it difficult for internet companies to offer their services to Pakistanis.

The Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters without Borders have also condemned the rules.

A number of senior journalists, including M. Ziauddin and Hamid Mir, spoke on the occasion.

Sadaf Khan, co-founder of Media Matters For Dem­ocracy, said claims being spread by official quarters that internet was unregulated in this country were incorrect.

At the same time, the speakers welcomed a statement by the prime minister that the government would hold consultations with all stakeholders before enforcing the rules, but insisted that the proposed rules be de-notified.

Gas, electricity rates frozen till June

ISLAMABAD: The federal cabinet on Thursday decided to keep gas and electricity prices unchanged for the next four months [till the announcement of next fiscal budget] and tasked the ministries concerned with reducing taxes on utility bills to provide some relief to the inflation-hit people.

The prime minister, while presiding over a meeting of the cabinet, directed the Utility Stores Corporation (USC) managing director to get edible oil and ghee from the factories set up in the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Azad Jammu and Kashmir as these factories were exempted from all taxes and the USC could get their [factories] products at lower rates for consumers in other parts of the country.

“The prime minister directed the ministries of power and petroleum that no increase will be made in gas and electricity tariffs and [asked them to] come up with a comprehensive plan in the next cabinet meeting on how taxes on utility bills could be withdrawn,” Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Information Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan said at a post-meeting press conference.

“The prime minister wants ‘out-of-the-box solution’ on how to reduce electricity and gas bills,” she said, adding that the prime minister wanted that minimum burden of leakage, line losses and theft be transferred to the common man.ARTICLE CONTINUES AFTER AD

PM directs USC to get edible oil, ghee from tax-exempted factories in erstwhile Fata, AJK

She recalled that faulty international agreements made during the previous governments of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and Pakistan Peoples Party were the main reasons for an increase in gas and electricity tariffs.

Responding to a question about inflation, she said the cabinet expressed satisfaction over some “reduction” in prices of essential items after a subsidy of Rs15 billion was given to the USC.

Dr Awan agreed that in the last cabinet meeting some members had proposed that Rs150bn funds allocated for the Ehsaas programme should be converted into a subsidy in gas and electricity, especially for domestic consumers, so that they could have significant relief, but said their proposals had been rejected because Ehsaas gave targeted subsidy to the poor class and if its funds were diverted to gas and power sectors, the elite class would also get its benefit.

The government, she said, was going to launch the Ration Card Scheme to provide subsidised consumer items to the deserving and the poor. She said the prime minister would launch the Ehsaas Assets Scheme at a function in Leyyah on Friday (today) so that like rich people, the poor would also have their assets like their own rickshaws, cattle, motorbikes, sewing machines, etc.

Dr Awan said the much-awaited inquiry report of Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) on sugar and wheat crises would be made public next week. “The prime minister has given a two-week deadline to the FIA to come up with a detailed report on high prices and shortage of wheat and sugar and one more week is still left in this regard,” she added.

The cabinet, she said, decided to carry out a third-party evaluation for fixing the price of sugar in the country. In this regard, all stakeholders like growers, mill owners and distributors will be taken on board.

Dr Awan said the prime minister directed the authorities concerned to ensure that the prices of onions, potatoes and tomatoes remained stable in the country and make available adequate stocks of these items in the coming month of Ramazan.

The meeting decided to import 500,000 tonnes of wheat to meet the local requirement and it would be made at the time when its price in the international market would come down.

Post-mortem report of two bodies may hold key to Keamari gas mystery

KARACHI: As the report from the University of Karachi which suspected “soybean dust (aeroallergens)” as the cause of the recent deaths in Keamari was questioned by experts and the institutions concerned, the authorities now pin hope for ascertaining the nature of gas mainly on final findings of autopsy of at least two bodies and medical examination of some 15 affected persons, officials and sources said on Thursday.

With the launch of the fifth edition of Pakistan Super League amid much media fanfare and massive opening ceremony at the National Stadium, the tragic incident which killed around 10 people and affected hundreds, paralysing life in the city’s bustling port area for three days, failed to find space in the mainstream media. But the deep fear and uncertainty in the residents of the low-income neighbourhood has failed to dissipate.

“The theories one after another fail to convince the authorities and none of them has enough substance to reach any conclusion,” said a source privy to the fresh developments. “Now the final report of the autopsy of the bodies by the medico-legal section of the health department” may reveal something substantive, said the source. “Once the nature of poisoning and cause of deaths are disclosed, it would help to reach a conclusion.”

The officials concerned confirmed that there were two bodies on which autopsy was conducted as a majority of families of the victims did not allow any medical examination of their loved ones. Once the findings from different sections were compiled, they said, they would be shared with the people tasked with probing the incident.ARTICLE CONTINUES AFTER AD

“We conducted autopsy of two bodies on Tuesday,” police surgeon Dr Qarar Abbasi told Dawn. “Similarly, the samples of 15 persons were also collected who were affected by the gas and brought to hospital unconscious. All those 15 persons were later released after treatment. The two bodies which we examined were of two male adults. The comprehensive report would also include findings of the chemical examiner. It may take a few more days to compile and finalise the report.”

‘More than 600 labourers worked on the ship and none of them was affected’

Earlier, the Ship Agents Association & Stevedoring Conference “condemned” the report about the ship carrying soybean, urging the authorities “to investigate the true nature of this incident considering the ground realities rather than getting involved in rumour mongering or speculation”.

“We strongly condemn the rumours that are circulating, targeting soybean cargo which was being discharged partly at the Karachi Port Trust’s berth 10/11, East Wharf,” said a statement from the association. “It may be noted that the cargo was discharged only during night of Sunday, Feb 16, (discharging commenced at 19:00 hours) and day of Monday, Feb 17, (discharging stopped at about 22:00 hours). More than 600 labourers worked on the ship and none of them has been affected.”

This cargo, it said, had been arriving at Karachi Port for the past many years and up till now not a single incident had occurred or had been reported. When the cargo was being discharged, the wind direction was north-east which means that it was blowing towards Manora, not towards land, it added.

Fumigation theory discounted

The federally-administered Department of Plant Protection (DPP) also denied the report about fumigation of any consignment at the port with methyl bromide.

In a statement, the ministry of national food security and research clarified that a ship carrying import consignment of soybean for oil extraction purpose was not fumigated with methyl bromide as it was found free from live insect pests at the time of inspection at the port conducted by the quarantine inspectors of the DPP.

“The department undertakes plant quarantine as per the provisions of the Pakistan Plant Quarantine Act and International Standards for Phytosanitary Measures agreed under the WTO-SPS Agreement,” it said. “The import and export consignments of plant material or agro-commodities undergo mandatory quarantine inspection and treatments (if required) to safeguard agricultural wealth from the introduction of exotic pests and diseases. When the issue of losses of human life were highlighted in the media, immediately a subsequent inspection of the same ship was conducted.”

Likewise, it said, no evidence of treatment of the vessel with methyl bromide was found, adding that this might further be clarified from the fact that none of the DPP inspectors or crew of the ship experienced any problem while being exposed to the ship.

LHC summons Bushra Bibi’s son in abduction case

LAHORE: The Lahore High Court (LHC) on Thursday summoned a stepson of Prime Minister Imran Khan in a petition accusing him of being involved in a case of abduction committed with the help of police.

Petitioner Mohammad Hassan moved the court for recovery of his two brothers who, he said, had business relations with Ibrahim Maneka, the son of first lady Bushra Bibi from her previous husband Khawar Maneka.

The petitioner said that one of his brothers, Ijaz Ahmad, borrowed a car from Ibrahim and unfortunately got it damaged in a road accident. At this, he said, Ibrahim started demanding a huge amount of money as compensation.

He alleged that Ibrahim being an influential person got picked his two brothers, Ijaz and Ahsan, with the help of local police.ARTICLE CONTINUES AFTER AD

The petitioner said he had approached the respondent for release of his brothers, but the latter declined to do so until the payment of Rs150 million was made.

A police report submitted to the court said that both the men were neither wanted in any case nor were taken into custody.

Justice Anwarul Haq Pannun adjourned the hearing to Feb 24 and summoned Ibrahim Maneka.

Meanwhile, LHC Chief Justice Mamoon Rashid Sheikh on Thursday dismissed a petition seeking contempt proceedings against Prime Minister Imran Khan on the basis of an alleged anti-judiciary speech.

The chief justice sustained a registrar office objection on the competency of the petition and dismissed it.

A citizen, Tahir Maqsood, filed the petition through Advocate Faizan Naseer Chohan.

The petitioner contended that the prime minister tried to make cases pending against opposition leaders prejudice by delivering the speech in question. He said the prime minster criticised senior judges of the Supreme Court which amounted to contempt of court.

The petitioner pointed out that the SC had in 2013 issued a contempt notice to Mr Khan for his anti-judiciary rants. He asked the court to summon PM Khan in person, disqualify him and order the Election Commission to de-notify his election as member of the National Assembly.