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Netherlands resumes visa service in Pakistan after brief suspension

Twitter warns rights activists over government criticism

KARACHI: Supporters of the Pakistani religious Islamist group Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) gather during a protest rally against the release of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who was charged with blasphemy. —AFP

ISLAMABAD: The Netherlands resumed visa and passport services in Pakistan yesterday following a brief suspension, denying that its embassy had closed over security concerns after the country gave shelter to the lawyer of a Christian woman in a blasphemy case. Hard-line Islamists in Pakistan have blocked streets and called for the killing of judges after the Supreme Court overturned on Oct 31 the conviction of Asia Bibi, a mother of five, who had been on death row for eight years. Bibi’s lawyer, Saiful Mulook, fled to the Netherlands soon after the verdict, citing death threats. The Dutch government said on Thursday that it had offered him temporary shelter.

On Friday the Dutch government said in a statement that its embassy in Pakistan, which is in a tightly guarded “diplomatic enclave”, had temporarily halted issuing visas “due to circumstances beyond our control”. Yesterday evening, the embassy updated the statement: “The Netherlands embassy in Pakistan has resumed all consular/visa related services.” Pakistani media reported that the embassy had been forced to close because of threats. But the Dutch Foreign Ministry said reports of the embassy’s closure were mistaken.

“The Dutch embassy in Pakistan is open,” the ministry said. “I can add that we take the security of the embassy and our employees very seriously. This is also the subject of consultations between the Netherlands and Pakistan,” an official at the Dutch foreign office said. No one answered the telephone at the Dutch embassy after office hours yesterday. Bibi, 53, was convicted of blasphemy in 2010 over allegations she made derogatory remarks about Islam, which is punishable by death in Pakistan. She always denied having committed blasphemy.

The militant Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP) party, which has made blasphemy a rallying cry, took to the streets after the Supreme Court ruling and blocked main cities and highways for three days. The protests ended after the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan struck a deal with the TLP that the state would not block a petition to review Bibi’s acquittal in light of sharia Islamic religious law and ensure she wouldn’t leave country until that was decided. Pakistani government officials have said Bibi is in a secure location while the court considers her case.

Twitter warns
Meanwhile, social network Twitter has warned two Pakistani rights activists against objectionable content, they said yesterday, a move that signals a continuing push by the south Asian nation to rein in free speech online. The warnings come a week after Twitter suspended the account of an ultra-right Pakistani cleric who issued threats to the government and judiciary over the acquittal of a Christian woman accused of blasphemy. “Warnings sent out by Twitter are an example of how online spaces are being regulated and are shrinking for internet users voicing their opinions,” said Pakistani lawyer and internet activist Nighat Dad.

In recent emails, Twitter told activist Taha Siddiqui it had received complaints his account was in “violation of Pakistani law”, he said, and it added that further action could be taken, but did not specify what. “Pakistani authorities … are pressuring Twitter to take ‘legal’ steps against me,” Siddiqui, a correspondent for France 24 television, who fled Pakistan this year, told Reuters. “Twitter should stop becoming a facilitator of repressive regimes.”

Twitter’s Asia-Pacific representative had no immediate comment when contacted by Reuters. Pakistan’s information minister, Fawwad Chaudhry, told Reuters his office was “trying to establish close coordination” with Twitter to curb “hate speech and death threats”, but did not directly respond to questions on the case of Siddiqui, and another activist who received two warnings, Gul Bukhari. Bukhari, who was briefly abducted in July from a military cantonment in the eastern city of Lahore, said one of her email warnings from Twitter referred to a tweet that criticized the government’s lack of action against a prominent cleric.

The cleric, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, had his account blocked last week after he threatened the Supreme Court judges who acquitted Asia Bibi and urged their cooks and servants to kill them. In a reply to Twitter, Bukhari said Rizvi’s speeches violated the law because he was inciting violence against state officials. “In my tweet I am asking government to take action against him. In which world is that illegal?” she wrote. Siddiqui, who left Pakistan after a failed abduction attempt he blames on the powerful military over his frequent social media criticism, now lives in France and says he believes the complaint to Twitter came from his home country. – Agencies

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