Saudi Arabia lists Muslim Brotherhood among ‘terror’ groups

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia on Friday listed the Muslim Brotherhood and two Syrian groups as terrorist organisations and ordered citizens fighting abroad to return within 15 days or face imprisonment.

The latest move represents a major escalation against the Muslim Brotherhood of deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi and indicates rising concern in Riyadh over the possible return of battle-hardened Saudis extremists from Syria.

In addition to the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi listed Al-Nusra Front, which is Al-Qaeda’s official Syrian affiliate, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a rogue group fighting in both Syria and Iraq, as terrorist organisations.

It also listed as terrorist groups the Shiite Huthi rebels fighting in northern Yemen and a little-known internal Shia group called Hezbollah in the Hijaz.

Saudi and other conservative Gulf monarchies have long been hostile towards the Muslim Brotherhood, fearing that its brand of grass-roots activism and political Islam could undermine their authority.

Riyadh is a staunch supporter of the Sunni-led rebels battling to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad but has long feared blowback from radical groups, particularly after a spate of attacks by a local Al-Qaeda franchise from 2003 to 2006.

King Abdullah last month decreed jail terms of up to 20 years for belonging to “terrorist groups” and fighting abroad.

Similar sentences will be passed on those belonging to “extremist religious and ideological groups, or those classified as terrorist organisations, domestically, regionally and internationally,” state news agency SPA said at the time.

Supporting such groups, adopting their ideology or promoting them “through speech or writing” would also incur prison terms, the decree added.

Rights group Amnesty International sharply criticised last month’s legislation, saying it could be used to suppress peaceful political dissent because the law used an “overly vague definition of terrorism”.

“The Saudi Arabian authorities are seeking legal cover to entrench their ability to crack down on peaceful dissent and silence human rights defenders,”Amnesty’s Said Boumedouha said at the time.

Saudi Arabia set up specialised terrorism courts in 2011 to try dozens of nationals and foreigners accused of belonging to Al-Qaeda or being involved in a wave of bloody attacks that swept the country from 2003.

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TTP planning attacks in Peshawar over the next 24 hours

PESHAWAR: Outlawed organisation Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is planning huge attacks within the next 24 hours in the provincial capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). The attacks will be majorly aimed at law enforcement agencies.

According to well-placed sources, the TTP has planned attacks on the Frontier Constabulary (FC) and police checkposts throughout the northwestern city of Peshawar.

Security measures have been strengthened around the city, along with at important security check posts.

According to security officials, reports have been received that a suicide bomber has entered Nowshera district. Security measures have thus gone on high alert, and security officers are now searching for the suspect.

Earlier, an attack by militants on a security convoy took place in Bannu district, killing three soldiers and injuring eight others. The Ansarul Mujahideen militant group of Taliban has claimed responsibility for the attack, stating that such attacks will continue until drone strikes are stopped.

Peshawar has been the recipient of deadly blasts for the past two weeks, the most recent of which were the twin blasts in Qissa Khawani market which claimed 41 lives and wounded more than 100 others. However, the TTP denied all responsibility of the attacks and condemned the blasts, claiming that it had no enmity with the masses.

KP Chief Minister Pervez Khattak also directed the law enforcement agencies to take all necessary steps to ensurefoolproof security in the provincial metropolis after the attacks.

US hours away from government shutdown

WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama on Monday prepared Americans for what he called an “entirely preventable” government shutdown while urging Republicans in Congress to reach an 11th-hour deal to avoid economic harm.

With no apparent movement in negotiations, the White House prepared to put in place a skeleton staff on Tuesday to operate essential functions like the National Security Council. Many staff were preparing for furloughs of uncertain length.

And Obama’s own plans seemed up in the air. He is scheduled to leave Saturday on a four-nation, week-long tour to Asia, but a shutdown could force a postponement.

“We have this trip scheduled, and we intend to take it,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney. “You know, we’ll see obviously what happens as the week unfolds.”

Hours before a shutdown was to begin, Obama placed phone calls to the two top congressional Republicans, House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, but they appeared to restate well-worn positions and there was no sign of a breakthrough.

“The president made clear that Congress has two jobs to do: pay the bills on time and pass a budget on time. Failure to fulfill those responsibilities is harmful to our economy, small businesses and middle class families across the country,” the White House said.

The president and his aides worked to prepare Americans for the possibility of a shutdown, the resulting impact on the US economy and to pin the blame on Republicans who want to gut his healthcare law.

“I respect the fact that the other party is not supposed to agree with me 100 per cent of the time, just like I don’t agree with them. But they do also expect that we don’t bring the entire government to a halt or the entire economy to a halt just because of those differences,” he said.

Speaking to reporters at the White House, Obama stressed that mail would be delivered and Social Security payments would be made, but warned that national monuments would close immediately to tourists, government office buildings would close and veteran centers would lack staff if a shutdown took place.

“A shutdown will have a very real economic impact on real people, right away. Past shutdowns have disrupted the economy significantly. This one will too.”

The law funding thousands of routine government activities expires at midnight.

Washington edged ever closer to a shutdown as the US Senate, controlled by Democrats, killed a proposal by the Republican-led House of Representatives to delay Obama’s healthcare law for a year in return for temporary funding of the federal government beyond Monday.

Obama stressed that the healthcare law, commonly known as Obamacare, would proceed regardless of whether the government shut its doors.

Publicly, Obama was optimistic about a last-second deal. Speaking during an Oval Office meeting with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Obama said he was not resigned to a shutdown happening and in his remarks to reporters later he said he hoped a deal could still be reached.

“Time is running out. My hope and expectation is that in the 11th hour once again that Congress will choose to do the right thing.”

As the hours ticked away toward a shutdown, Obama met with his Cabinet to discuss the potential disruptions of a shutdown for their respective agencies and ensure essential operations will take place.

The impasse over Youtube access in Pakistan continues

The 9th hearing of the Pakistan Internet Freedom case (Bytes for All vs. Federation of Pakistan) concluded today at the Lahore High Court (LHC), presided over by the honourable Justice Mr. Mansoor Ali Shah.

The petitioner in the case, Bytes for All, is a human rights organization, advocating for internet-based freedoms and a focus on information and communication technologies and through this effort is striving for the popular video-sharing website, YouTube, to resume operations in Pakistan.

YouTube was initially blocked in Pakistan on September 18, 2012, after violent protests broke out all over the country in reaction to a blasphemous film uploaded on the website’s servers that outraged Muslims all across the world. The ban was lifted in early 2013, but only lasted for a few hours, and the website has remained blocked to Pakistani users ever since then.

The Pakistani government has made several unsuccessful attempts to reopen access to YouTube for its citizens, asking Google to open a local version of the site that would not allow users from the country to access that particular video, and also requesting the Internet giant to remove the film from its servers altogether. In all instances Google has refused to comply with the requests, saying that the film does not violate its ‘terms of service’ and that opening a local office in Pakistan would be impossible because of the lack of relevant legislation pertaining to Intermediary Liability Protection (ILP).

It is also relevant to mention here that over 20 countries across the world requested Google to remove the video clip, saying it was insulting and degrading for Muslims, with the most high-profile countries being the United States, which hosts Google’s servers, as well as Australia, Russia, India and Singapore. Despite widespread international condemnation, Google refused to comply with the requests.

In earlier hearings of the said case, the Lahore High Court has continually asked the relevant ministries to produce representatives from Google before the court so that their recommendations and suggestions could be viewed and incorporated. Unfortunately, Google has exhibited little interest in the case and so far has not sent any of its representatives to attend the hearings.

In a hearing of the case held on April 26, 2013, the honourable judge of the LHC, Mr. Mansoor Ali Shah, clearly stated that there should be mechanisms in place to allow YouTube to be unblocked ‘as soon as possible’ and also to ensure that ‘internet censorship does not become an exercise in arbitrary executive action’, referring to the unilateral decision of the Pakistani premier at the time, Raja Pervez Ashraf, to block the video-sharing website. It was also during the same hearing that the legal representative of the Federal Ministry of Information Technology, Mr Kamran, stated that the ministry ‘recognises the blocking of YouTube as detrimental to freedom of speech’, clearly indicating that the wishes of the federal government were to put this episode behind them and allow for one of the worlds’ most popular websites to resume operations in Pakistan.

At today’s hearing, the court once again inquired about the availability of Google’s representatives but was informed by the Deputy Attorney General (DAG), representing the Federation of Pakistan that Google had not responded to their repeated requests in this matter and seemingly has no interest in the case. The presiding judge took strong notice of this and noted that as Google was a major stakeholder, it should have presented possible solutions to end this crisis. The DAG was accompanied by a team of legal and technical experts from the Ministry of Information Technology, Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and other departments.

The petitioner for the case, Bytes for All, also requested the court to temporarily lift the ban on YouTube while the government was in negotiations with Google to remove the blasphemous content. However, while responding to this request, the counsel for the Federation raised some objections and said that even a temporary lifting of the ban could incite violence and lead to a worsening of the law and order situation in Pakistan. The judge concurred with these remarks, but firmly stated that the relevant ministries need to find a solution to this issue as the topic of internet freedoms is guaranteed in the constitution and the masses of the country cannot afford to relinquish all access to the website.

During the hearing, Bytes for All urged PTA to accept some of the technical responsibilities for filtering content on YouTube and maintained that the internet regulator had the prowess to block individual URLs while keeping the rest of the platform accessible. PTA has strongly denied this capability in the past and maintains that Google alone can block access to videos on its platform. The judge urged both the telecom regulator and the human rights NGO to convene a joint meeting and invite independent experts from Pakistan and abroad to attend and advise on solutions to end this impasse.

Furthermore, the court also welcomed the suggestion from Bytes for All to bring in internationally renowned experts and appoint them as ‘Amicus Curiae’, or ‘Friends of the Court’, whereby their suggestions and solutions would be incorporated by the judges in their decisions pertaining to the case.

The next hearing was fixed by the court for the 25th of July, where a detailed joint report by the petitioner and respondent is expected to be presented.

Top judge Mansour sworn in as Egypt interim president

CAIRO: Egypt’s chief justice Adly Mansour was sworn in as the country’s interim president on Thursday, a day after the military ousted and detained Mohamed Morsi following a week of massive protests.

“I swear to preserve the system of the republic, and respect the constitution and law, and guard the people’s interests,” Mansour said as he took the oath of office at a ceremony in the Supreme Constitutional Court.

Officials welcomed the declaration with a warm round of applause.

The swearing-in ceremony, which was broadcast live on national television, came after the military swept aside Morsi on Wednesday, a little more than a year after the Islamist leader took office.

A senior military officer told AFP the army was now “preventively” holding Morsi.

The ousted president’s government unravelled after the army gave him a 48-hour ultimatum in the wake of massive demonstrations against him on June 30, the anniversary of his first turbulent year in power.

Egypt army chief turns on the president who promoted him

CAIRO: When President Mohamed Morsi swept aside the ageing commanders of Egypt’s military a year ago and named a soft-spoken, deeply religious younger general to head the armed forces, it was a demonstration that the military was now subordinate to Egypt’s first freely elected leader.

Fast forward one year, and now it is the general, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who appears poised to sweep aside the president.

At the time of his appointment last August, the choice of Sisi, 58, seemed to suit both Morsi and the younger generation of army commanders seeking promotion after years under older generals, like 78-year-old Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak’s defence minister for two decades.

The army had produced the autocrats that had ruled Egypt for the previous 60 years. It had run the country itself during the tumultuous 16 months after the revolution that toppled the last general to serve as president, Hosni Mubarak.

And it had seemed reluctant to hand power to Morsi until the new president briskly dispatched Tantawi and a host of other commanders into retirement.

Egyptians wanted their soldiers back in barracks, and the charismatic, chisel-jawed Sisi spoke like a man who would keep them there. Over the course of the next year, Sisi warned of unrest and political divisions, but repeatedly held firm in asserting that the army should not return to politics.

“The armed forces’ loyalty is to the people and the nation,” Sisi said in November when Morsi’s supporters and opponents clashed on the streets over plans to introduce a new constitution.

Sisi finally ditched his refusal to pick sides on Monday, announcing a dramatic ultimatum that gave Morsi, the man who had chosen him, just 48 hours to agree on a power-sharing deal with his rivals.

**ISLAM AND UNCLE SAM*

A career military man, Sisi was groomed for a leadership role after serving in top roles in the command, intelligence and diplomatic branches of the armed forces.

Among his previous postings were a stint as defence attaché in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and command positions in the Sinai Peninsula which borders Israel and in the Northern Military Region which includes the second city of Alexandria.

“He had been carefully prepared for a high command position,” said Robert Springborg, an expert on the Egyptian military based at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

Apart from his comparative youth among top ranking commanders, two other attributes made him a good fit for the Islamist Morsi seeking a new generation of military leaders.

In a military known for its secularism, Sisi is a devout Muslim, whose wife is said to wear the niqab full-body covering. And after a year at the US Army War College in Pennsylvania in 2005-2006, he was comfortable with the United States, which funds Egypt’s military with $1.3 billion a year.

“Insiders in the U.S. government and military were aware of him. He was a name that was mentioned when people talked about next generations,” said Springborg.

He had a favourable reputation among those who worked with him in the American military, although his course work was described as showing Islamist leanings, Springborg said.

“Islamic ideology penetrates Sisi’s thinking about political and security matters,” he said, citing material Sisi produced while at the course.

Steve Gerras, a retired Army colonel who was Sisi’s faculty adviser at the college, described him to Reuters as a serious student and pious Muslim, open to the United States and passionate about Egypt’s future.

“He was a serious guy. He is not a guy who would go to a standup comedy show. But at the same time he would stop by – I mean every week … His eyes were always very warm. His tone was very warm.”

**LIBERALS WARY*

Some liberals were initially wary of Sisi, especially after remarks he made defending the army’s practice – later disavowed – of conducting “virginity tests” on female protesters who complained of abuse.

Nevertheless, the army under Sisi has continued to enjoy widespread support in the country, arguably the only institution that has such favour.

According to a Zogby poll published last month, the army as an institution scored a 94-percent confidence level. About 60 percent of non-Islamists favoured a temporary return to army rule, while almost all Islamists opposed that.

Sisi has carefully nurtured public support for the army in recent days, sending aircraft to drop thousands of Egyptian flags on crowds of cheering protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

The army’s dramatic re-entry into politics was not inevitable, said Michael Wahid Hanna of the New York-based Century Foundation.

The army was not angling to get back in and rule, and Sisi in particular was not among the minority of hawks within the army leadership keen on reasserting such a role, Hanna said.

Egyptian military sources say Morsi’s call last month for foreign intervention in Syria was a turning point. Morsi’s Brotherhood went further, backing calls for holy war, rhetoric that alarmed a military that had spent decades hunting down radical militants.

“This doesn’t mean that Sisi gives up on the idea that Islam should be a very important consideration in Egyptian national security policy, but this is not the way it’s done,” said Springborg said.

“It means he looks at the world from an Islamist framework so he would not want the whole project of Islamism to be destroyed and that’s what is now in the offing because the Brotherhood has so mishandled things – Sisi probably feels to some extent betrayed by Morsi and the Brothers who have mishandled things so badly.”

Jirga warns of ending peace deal

MIRAMSHAH: A local jirga in North Waziristan Agency has said it will end a five-year-old peace agreement with the government if curfew in the tribal region is not lifted by April 24.

The agency remained under curfew for the sixth consecutive day on Sunday.

The curfew was imposed after clashes erupted between security forces and militants in the Miramshah area, which left 18 people injured.

The jirga asked the political administration to lift the curfew, open roads for traffic and abolish new checkposts in the area.

The Uthmanzai tribe and local Taliban had signed the agreement with the government in 2007.

Tribal elders at the jirga said they would pull out of the peace agreement unilaterally if the government failed to accept their demands.

People in the agency were critical of the government after the imposition of curfew. They expressed concern over closure of educational institutions in the area.

Recently, a local Taliban shura stopped students from attending schools after security forces closed the main road for traffic.

A large number of students studying in Peshawar and other parts of the country have been stranded in different parts of North Waziristan because of the curfew.

Hundreds of people and a number of trucks loaded with goods have been stranded in Bannu.

There is shortage of vegetables, fruits and other basic commodities in local markets because of closure of the main roads.  In Miramshah, the price of 80-kg bag of wheat flour has jumped from Rs2,700 to Rs4,000 and tomato is being sold at Rs150 per kg.

Candidates taking part in May 11 elections have restricted their election campaigns because of the prolonged curfew and tensions in the area.