ISLAMABAD: The Foreign Office on Thursday rejected media reports suggesting Aasia Bibi, the Christian woman recently acquitted by the Supreme Court of a blasphemy charge, had left the country after being released from jail on Wednesday night.

“Let me state clearly that Aasia Bibi remains at a safe place in Pakistan,” FO spokesman Dr Muhammad Faisal said at a media briefing.

He urged journalists to verify facts before reporting on sensitive matters. Objective and impartial journalism, he said, called for avoiding sensationalism and controversy. “Any misleading news item may result in an unwanted situation,” he cautioned.

He avoided commenting on a claim by Aasia’s lawyer Saiful Mulook that he was forced to leave the country against his wishes by the European Union and United Nations missions in Islamabad.

Spokesman says issue of Dr Aafia Siddiqui has been raised with US

Mr Mulook is currently in The Netherlands and is also said to be behind reports that Aasia had left Pakistan.

Responding to a question about Dr Aafia Siddiqui, who is serving her sentence in a US jail, the spokesman said “the case stays important” for the government and that it was “treading very carefully in the matter”.

Dr Aafia had recently written a letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan seeking help for release from the US jail, where she is serving an 86-year sentence allegedly for attacking American soldiers. She had sent the letter through Pakistan’s Consul General in Houston Aisha Farooqui.

The FO had earlier said that the matter of Dr Aafia was raised with senior US diplomat Alice Wells, who visited Islamabad this week. “The issue of respecting the human and legal rights of Dr Aafia Siddiqui was also raised in the meeting at the MoFA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) with Ambassador Alice Wells on Nov 6. The US side has promised to look into our request,” the FO had said in a previous statement on the issue.

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi is planning to meet Aafia’s sister.

According to related information, five Pakistanis are being held at Guantanamo Bay. They are Saifullah Paracha, Majid Khan, Abdul Rabbani, Mohammad Ghulam Rabbani and Ammar Al Baluchi.

Situation in Afghanistan

The FO spokesman expressed concern over the worsening security situation in Afghanistan saying Pakistan was directly affected by it.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) report for the July 1 and Sept 30, 2018 quarter submitted to the Congress had said that Afghan government lost control over a record number of districts this year and that there was a gradual increase in ungoverned spaces in the war-ravaged country.

“These (ungoverned spaces) are utilised as sanctuaries by terrorist elements which cross into (Pakistan) for terrorist activities. There is an urgent need to curb these notorious elements,” Dr Faisal said.

The spokesman confirmed Pakistan’s participation in the meeting of Moscow Format on Afghanistan. “Pakistan has been participating in this process since its inception. This time our Additional Secretary (Afghanistan & West Asia) will lead the Pakistani delegation to the meeting,” he said.

The Russian foreign ministry has said that Moscow would host the second meeting of the Moscow-format consultations on Afghanistan at the level of deputy foreign ministers and special envoys on Nov 9. A delegation of the Doha-based political office of the Taliban movement will take part in an international meeting of this level for the first time, according to Russian newswire TASS.

Underscoring the importance of Moscow meeting, Dr Faisal said: “In our view, Afghan peace and reconciliation process supported by Afghanistan’s neighbours and important regional countries would have more chances of success. In this regard, it can be expected that this meeting would contribute to developing regional consensus in support of Afghan peace process.”

The spokesman further confirmed that Pakistan released former Taliban deputy leader Mullah Baradar from its custody on the US request to facilitate the reconciliation process in Afghanistan.

“This decision was taken following the visit of the US Special Envoy on Afghan Reconciliation, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad to the region and his meetings with Taliban representatives in Doha,” the spokesman said.

“He was released to provide impetus to the peace and reconciliation efforts in Afghanistan. Pakistan will continue to pursue reconciliatory efforts to expedite and facilitate the process to our fullest ability,” he added.

Iran’s sanctions

The FO spokesman said Pakistan’s trade with Iran remained unaffected by the new US sanctions.

“Pakistan’s import of oil from Iran is quite limited at present. Exports from Pakistan to Iran mainly consist of food items, textiles etc. which are not affected by the sanctions,” he said.

The latest American sanctions, reportedly the toughest so far, target Iran’s oil exports, shipping and banking sector. Tehran rejected the sanctions for defying a UN Security Council resolution that was passed after Iran struck the nuclear deal with the West called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Pakistan, the spokesman recalled, supported Iran in the JCPOA. The US had pulled out of the agreement in May this year.

Dr Faisal said there was no update regarding the Iranian border guards abducted last month from a post near the border with Pakistan. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif visited Islamabad last week to re-emphasise the need for Pakistani cooperation for their recovery.

India’s N-submarine

Asked about the first “deterrence” patrol of India’s nuclear submarine INS Arihant, Dr Faisal said “it marked the first actual deployment of ready to fire nuclear warheads in South Asia, which is a matter of concern not only for the Indian Ocean littoral states but also for the international community at large”.

The spokesman noted that the “bellicose language employed by the top Indian leadership highlighted the threats to strategic stability in South Asia and raises questions about responsible nuclear stewardship in India”.

He reaffirmed Pakistan’s commitment to the objective of strategic stability in South Asia and said that the only way forward for both the countries is to agree on measures for nuclear and missile restraint.

“No one should be in doubt about Pakistan’s resolve and capabilities to meet the challenges posed by the latest developments both in the nuclear and conventional realms in South Asia,” he added.

Published in Dawn, November 9th, 2018