The World Today for July 25, 2018

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The Umpire’s Finger

During sit-in protests against corruption in Islamabad in 2014, Pakistani cricketer turned politician Imran Khan liked to use a metaphor from the sport that made him famous. In Pakistan politics, he’d say, the army is like “the umpire’s finger,” referring to the way cricket officials indicate that a batsman is out.

He was suggesting that only when the army’s finger went up would then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif be ousted. But nearly four years later, as the country goes to the polls July 25, many believe Pakistan’s generals are using both hands to try to push Khan himself into office, Daud Khattak, senior editor of Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s Pashto language Mashaal Radio, wrote recently in the Diplomat.

The conflict between Sharif and the army came to a head on July 13, when the three-time prime minister and leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party and his daughter were arrested on corruption charges as they returned to Pakistan from London, the New York Times reported. Following Nawaz Sharif’s detention, his brother Shahbaz Sharif is expected to be the PML-N candidate for prime minister, though he, too, now faces a terrorism investigation some might consider dubious.

Convicted in absentia the previous week, the former prime minister and his daughter Maryam had returned to Pakistan to lodge an appeal and rally PML-N supporters ahead of the polls. Earlier on the Friday they arrived, nearly 150 people, including a candidate from another party, were killed in two militant attacks elsewhere in Pakistan.

More violence occurred as voters took to the polls, including a suicide attack that killed at least 25 and injured at least 40 others at a polling station in Quetta, the Associated Press reported.

The evidence against Nawaz Sharif, some of which stems from the Panama Papers leaks, suggests that he’s no angel. And both Khan, head of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf party, and the other main contender for the prime minister’s seat, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari of the Pakistan People’s Party, have their own pluses and minuses. However, the jailed ex-prime minister isn’t the only one accusing the country’s powerful generals of staging a “silent coup” during what’s nominally Pakistan’s second consecutive democratic transfer of power, Agence France-Presse reported.

Journalists say the army has sponsored abductions and issued threats of violence or financial ruin to curb reporting favorable to Sharif – who arguably sought to reduce its control over political affairs. “We have never witnessed the censorship which we are facing today,” the news agency quoted Afzal Butt, president of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, as saying.

Many believe that the army is also behind actions by the judiciary and the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to ban or launch probes against PML-N candidates. Both bodies insist they’re just following the evidence. But neither has taken any visible action against Sharif’s opponents, Khattak writes in the Diplomat.

At the same time, Pakistan’s counter-terrorism authority has removed radical Sunni Muslim leader Muhammad Ahmed Ludhianvi from a terrorist watchlist, allowing his Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) group to field candidates, Reuters reported. And the Election Commission has cleared the son and son-in-law of alleged terrorist Hafiz Saeed, as well as various other extremist groups, to vie for seats. Right-wing religious factions have fielded more than 1,500 candidates at the provincial and national level, noted CNBC.

Many worry that Pakistani voters will support candidates backed by extremist groups, underscoring how far radical forces have moved toward the center of power in the South Asian nation in recent years.

Whether that’s indicative of interference from the umpire or not, to longtime Pakistan watchers it looks sadly like an instant replay.



Battery Failure

Dozens of people are feared dead and hundreds are missing in Laos following the collapse of a partially constructed dam in the southernmost province of Attapeu.

The tragedy comes amid an effort to build a large number of hydropower projects on the landlocked country’s network of rivers, making Laos “the battery of Asia,” Reuters noted. The projects are almost entirely managed by foreign developers.

The dam that collapsed is part of the hydroelectric Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy power project, which involves Laotian, Thai and South Korean firms, the agency said.

Agence France-Presse reported that the accident, which occurred Monday evening, resulted in the sudden release of five billion cubic meters of water – more than two million Olympic-sized swimming pools. A Thai firm involved in the dam project said that a 770 meter-long auxiliary dam used to divert river water had failed after heavy rainfall.

The accident will give new ammunition to environmentalists who have long questioned the human and environmental costs of Laos’ rapid hydropower expansion.


Shut Up or Else

Latin America was once again the most dangerous region for environmental activists in 2017 – the deadliest year yet for eco-warriors – and Brazil was the worst offender, according to the latest report from UK-based Global Witness.

The nonprofit watchdog group said Tuesday that 207 people lost their lives last year in their fight against companies and governments that seize land and harm the environment, with Latin America accounting for nearly 60 percent of the killings, Al-Jazeera reported.

At least 57 such activists were killed in Brazil, the largest number ever recorded in a single country in the course of a year.

The news channel noted that Brazilian President Michel Temer and his predecessor Dilma Rousseff both weakened the country’s laws and institutions designed to protect environmental activists and made it easier for corporations to undertake projects without the consent of local communities.

Colombia recorded 24 environment-related killings, while Mexico saw the largest spike in deaths, from three in 2016 to 15 last year.



Normally, security personnel put on civvies to go undercover. But in France, a scandal has erupted over a different sort of disguise – as a uniformed man caught on video beating protesters during the recent May Day demonstrations has been identified as French President Emmanuel Macron’s former security aide, Alexandre Benalla.

In the video, Benalla is wearing a police helmet and armband, and though the footage hit Twitter May 1, it took more than a month for the French newspaper Le Monde to identify him as Macron’s 26-year-old bodyguard, NPR reported.

It’s not clear where he got the uniform, and why the incident wasn’t reported to prosecutors when officials first learned of the incident, though he was quietly given a 15-day suspension. Only after Le Monde identified him was Benalla fired and charged with assault, NPR said.

Further details emerging about the bodyguard’s alleged close relationship with the Macrons and previous bad behavior, have made it a bigger issue for the president – who is trying to reform French labor laws and social welfare policies.


No Curse Here

Archaeologists in Egypt recently uncovered a peculiar black granite sarcophagus at a building site in Alexandria.

The coffin had remained sealed for 2,000 years, an uncommon occurrence for Egyptian artifacts since looters have plundered many of Egypt’s tombs for millennia, Smithsonian magazine reported.

Egyptian authorities discovered the sarcophagus 16 feet below the ground while conducting standard archaeological excavations before the construction of a new building. They also found the alabaster bust of a man that might be a depiction of a body in the tomb.

Upon opening the coffin, officials found three decomposed mummies. None belonged to the Ptolemaic or Roman royal families, as observers had previously suggested about the tomb’s origins.

Predictions of bad luck befalling the archaeologists have also not come to pass.

“The sarcophagus has been opened, but we have not been hit by a curse,” stated Mostafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, after international media and Twitter users feared the opening would bring the end of days.

The city, founded by Alexander the Great more than two millennia ago, has so much history buried beneath it that developers commonly find ancient sites underground. Sometimes they find treasures. Sometimes not.

But one thing is certain: discoveries in Egypt will always be making headlines.

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