Pakistan frees Christian woman Asia Bibi

Pakistan frees Christian woman Asia Bibi

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Media captionAsia Bibi’s escape from Pakistan death row

Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman acquitted of blasphemy after spending eight years on death row, has been freed from prison.

Last week’s Supreme Court ruling sparked violent protests from Islamists and the government agreed to their demand to stop her leaving Pakistan.

News of her release led to some confusion, with reports she had been taken to another country.

But the foreign office later said she was still in Pakistan.

The case is highly sensitive and Information Minister Fawad Hussein said journalists had been “extremely irresponsible” in reporting she had left the country without official confirmation.

Those reports were based on comments from her lawyer, Saiful Malook, who has been granted temporary asylum in the Netherlands after facing death threats.

Asia Bibi’s husband had said they were in danger and pleaded for asylum. A number of Western countries are understood to have held discussions with Asia Bibi’s family about granting them asylum.

The mother-of-five was released from prison in the city of Multan on Wednesday and the foreign office says she is in “a safe place in Pakistan”.

Also known as Asia Noreen, she was convicted in 2010 of insulting the Prophet Muhammad during a row with neighbours.

The Pakistani government has said it will start legal proceedings to prevent her going abroad after agreeing the measure to end the violent protests.

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EPA

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Asia Bibi’s acquittal sparked protests by Islamists

Many of the protesters were hardliners who support strong blasphemy laws and called for Asia Bibi to be hanged.

One Islamist leader said all three Supreme Court judges also “deserved to be killed”.

A spokesman for the hardline Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP) party, which blocked roads in major cities for several days, said Asia Bibi’s release was in breach of their deal with the government.

“The rulers have showed their dishonesty,” TLP spokesman Ejaz Ashrafi told Reuters.

The deal also saw officials agree not to block a petition for the Supreme Court to evaluate Asia Bibi’s acquittal in the light of Islamic Sharia law.

What was Asia Bibi accused of?

The trial stems from an argument Asia Bibi had with a group of women in June 2009.

They were harvesting fruit when a row broke out about a bucket of water. The women said that because she had used a cup, they could no longer touch it, as her faith had made it unclean.

Prosecutors alleged that in the row which followed, the women said Asia Bibi should convert to Islam and that she made offensive comments about the Prophet Muhammad in response.

She was later beaten up at her home, during which her accusers say she confessed to blasphemy. She was arrested after a police investigation.

Acquitting her, the Supreme Court said that the case was based on unreliable evidence and her confession was delivered in front of a crowd “threatening to kill her”.

Why is this case so divisive?

Islam is Pakistan’s national religion and underpins its legal system. Public support for the strict blasphemy laws is strong.

Hard-line politicians have often backed severe punishments, partly as a way of shoring up their support base.

But critics say the laws have often been used to exact revenge after personal disputes, and that convictions are based on thin evidence.

The vast majority of those convicted are Muslims or members of the Ahmadi community, but since the 1990s scores of Christians have been convicted. They make up just 1.6% of the population.

The Christian community has been targeted by numerous attacks in recent years, leaving many feeling vulnerable to a climate of intolerance.

Since 1990, at least 65 people have reportedly been killed in Pakistan over claims of blasphemy.

Mass shooting at California bar

Mass shooting at California bar

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Media captionSurvivors of California shooting describe what they saw.

A US Marine Corps veteran with suspected mental health issues killed 12 people in a busy bar in California, including a policeman, officials say.

The shooting began at 23:20 local time on Wednesday in Thousand Oaks about 40 miles (65km) north-west of Los Angeles.

At least 200 people were reportedly inside the Borderline Bar and Grill, which was hosting a student line-dancing night.

Police named the suspect as 28-year-old Ian David Long.

Earlier this year, police mental health professionals interviewed and cleared him after sheriffs’ deputies found him behaving “irate” and “erratically” at his home, said authorities.

How did the shooting happen?

Police say the suspect was dressed in black, and forced his way into the bar after shooting the bouncer.

A college country music night was under way when the suspect apparently threw a smoke grenade before opening fire, witnesses say.

Police say he used a legally owned .45 calibre Glock semi-automatic handgun, which had an extended magazine that is illegal in the state of California.

The extended magazine allowed the gun to carry more than its typical 11-bullet capacity.

Police say they do not yet know how many shots were fired, or whether the gunman ever reloaded during the attack.

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EPA

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The night is popular among the area’s local university students

One witness, Teylor Whittler, who was celebrating her 21st birthday, said: “I was on the dance floor and I heard the gunshots, so I looked back and then all of a sudden everyone screamed: ‘Get Down!’

“It was a huge panic, everyone got up, I was trampled, I was kind of left on the floor until some guy came behind me and grabbed me and dragged me out.”

People escaped the bar by using chairs to break windows, while others reportedly sheltered inside the venue’s toilets.

What have police said?

Ventura County Sheriff Geoff Dean described the scene inside the bar as “horrific” and said there was “blood everywhere”.

He said first responders arrived less than three minutes after the first emergency calls from the venue were made.

Ventura Sheriff’s Sergeant Ron Helus, who later died in hospital, tried to enter the active scene with a local highway patrolman when he was shot several times.

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Sgt Ron Helus was one of the first officers on the scene

The husband and father-of-one had been a policeman for 29 years and was a professional firearms instructor.

He was due to retire next year.

“It saddens us all and tears at our emotions. He died a hero. He went in to save lives, to save other people,” the sheriff said.

Who is the suspect?

Police say they have had several minor contacts with Long in recent years, including in April 2018 when they were called to his house after a report of a disturbance.

During talks with police, he appeared “somewhat irate, acting a little irrationally”, the sheriff said.

A police crisis intervention team interviewed him, and determined that it was not necessary to hold him against his will in a mental health facility under a so-called 5150 order.


What is PTSD?

  • Being caught up in a traumatic event that is overwhelming, frightening and life-threatening can lead to PTSD
  • The symptoms usually start within a few weeks of the trauma, but they can start later
  • After the traumatic event people can feel grief-stricken, depressed, anxious, guilty and angry
  • People may have flashbacks and nightmares
  • People may be ‘on guard’ – staying alert all the time
  • Physical symptoms can be aches and pains, diarrhoea, irregular heartbeats, headaches, feelings of panic and fear, depression
  • People may start drinking too much alcohol or using drugs (including painkillers).

Source: Royal College of Psychiatrists


The order allows authorities to involuntarily detain a person for up to 72 hours if it is believed that they pose a threat to themselves or others.

Mental health professionals believed that he suffered from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), the sheriff said.

Police have just begun to search his home, and expect to know more about him and his possible motive soon.

Who are the other victims?

It is not yet clear who the other 11 victims inside the bar are, but the Wednesday night country music event is popular with university students.

According to the bar’s website, Wednesday nights are college-themed and are open to students as young as 18.

The bar is located close to California Lutheran University, Pepperdine University and Moorpark College and is popular among students.

Footage on local media of the aftermath shows injured young people being carried away from the scene by friends.

Police say at least 10 people are known to have been injured and others are self-reporting with injuries at local hospitals.

Latest in a long line

The US has suffered from mass shootings for decades, but most of the deadliest have occurred in recent years.

In the last two weeks alone, a man shot dead two people yoga studio in Florida, and another gunman opened fire on a synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11.

The deadliest attack in modern US history came last year in Las Vegas when a 62-year-old man opened fire on a crowd of 22,000 country music concertgoers from the 32nd floor of a nearby hotel, killing 58 and wounding hundreds.

One man who survived the attack on the Borderline Bar told CBS that several attendees on Wednesday night had also been present for the Las Vegas attack on the Route 91 Harvest Festival.

“It’s the second time in about a year and a month that this has happened,” Nicholas Champion said.

“It’s a big thing for us. We’re all a big family and unfortunately this family got hit twice.”

The previous most deadly attack was another just a year earlier, when 49 people were killed in Pulse – a gay nightclub – in June 2016. in Orlando.

Some students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida – where 17 were killed in February – have taken up a public campaign for gun law reform in recent months but little in the way of change has emerged from legislators.

According to the website Gun Violence Archive, more than 12,000 people have been killed using firearms in the US so far this year, including about 3,000 people under 18.

That number does not include an annual estimate of 22,000 suicides via firearm.


What has reaction been?

President Trump tweeted on Thursday morning that he had been briefed on the shooting, describing it as “terrible”, and praising the bravery of the police officers involved.

Flags at the White House were lowered to half-mast to commemorate the victims.

Sheriff Dean, who on Thursday completes his last day serving as Ventura County sheriff, warned: “It doesn’t matter how safe your community is, it doesn’t matter how low your crime rate is – there are people who just don’t think properly everywhere, I don’t care where you are, and they commit horrific acts like this.”

“There’s no way to process. There’s no way to make sense out of the senseless.”

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Russia probe under threat, Democrats say

Russia probe under threat, Democrats say

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Media captionStaff applauded as Mr Sessions left the Department of Justice

The US inquiry into alleged Russian meddling during the 2016 election could be under threat after President Donald Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions, top opposition Democrats say.

Nancy Pelosi, who leads Democrats in the House of Representatives, called the decision a “blatant attempt” to end or impede the investigation.

The probe has been criticised by Mr Sessions’s successor Matthew Whitaker.

The Democrats, who won the House in the mid-terms, have vowed to protect it.

Some Republicans appear to have shared the Democrats’ concern over the future of the inquiry, which is being led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Senator Susan Collins and Mitt Romney said it should not be impeded in any way.

Mr Mueller is investigating alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, resulting in a series of criminal charges against several Trump associates.

Mr Trump has vehemently denied any collusion took place, and repeatedly called for the inquiry to be shut down, calling it “the greatest political witch hunt in history”.

Democrats see this latest move as an attempt to do just that.

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Media captionChuck Schumer: Timing of Sessions’ firing ‘suspect’

“It is impossible to read Attorney General Sessions’ firing as anything other than another blatant attempt by @realDonaldTrump to undermine and end Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation,” Ms Pelosi – a front-runner to become speaker of the House of Representatives following this week’s mid-terms – tweeted.

She went on to argue that, “given his record of threats to undermine and weaken the Russia investigation”, Mr Whitaker should follow in Mr Sessions’ footsteps and recuse himself.

Her words were echoed by Democratic party Senate leader Chuck Schumer, who added: “Clearly, the president has something to hide.”

Why was Sessions fired?

The sacking followed months of Mr Trump criticising Mr Sessions, mainly for his decision to step aside from the Russia inquiry in March 2017.

Mr Sessions removed himself from the probe after Democrats accused him of failing to disclose contacts he had had with the Russian ambassador as a senior adviser to Mr Trump’s campaign.

In July 2017 Mr Trump told the New York Times: “Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job and I would have picked somebody else.”

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Media captionRelations between Trump and Sessions soured in 2017

In a resignation letter, Mr Sessions – a former Alabama senator who was an early supporter of Mr Trump – made clear the decision to go was not his own.

“Dear Mr President, at your request I am submitting my resignation,” he wrote in an undated letter.

What happens now?

Mr Whitaker can now assume control of the Mueller inquiry, which has been overseen by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein until now.

The president cannot directly fire the special counsel. But Mr Sessions’s replacement will have the power to do so, or end the inquiry.

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Matthew Whitaker was announced as the acting attorney general

Mr Whitaker expressed concerns over the investigation. In August 2017, he wrote a piece for CNN in which he stated that looking into Mr Trump’s personal finances, or those of his family, “goes beyond the scope of the appointment of the special counsel”.

He went on to call on Mr Rosenstein to “order Mueller to limit the scope of the investigation” or risk the inquiry starting “to look like a political fishing expedition”.

The deputy attorney general appointed Mr Mueller to lead the inquiry after Mr Trump fired FBI director James Comey in 2017.

The special counsel has also been investigating whether Mr Comey’s firing amounted to obstruction of justice.

There has also been a question mark over Mr Rosenstein’s future since it was alleged that he had discussed invoking a constitutional clause to oust President Trump.

What does this mean for the Mueller probe?

Analysis by Anthony Zurcher, BBC Washington

There had already been hints that Robert Mueller’s pre-election “quiet period” was about to come to an end. And, in fact, if the former FBI director is as meticulous as he’s reputed to be, he might have already made plans to deal with exactly this contingency.

That’s stepping into the unknown, however.

What’s certain is that if the special counsel tries to issue new indictments or expand his inquiry, Matthew Whitaker is now in a position to rebuff those requests. If Mr Mueller files a report detailing his conclusions, the new acting attorney general could keep the document from ever becoming public.

Those would be half-measures and insurance policies to limit damage. The president may also decide to instruct Mr Whitaker to fire the entire Mueller team – something Mr Trump says he has the power to do.

There’s some doubt about whether the president is right, but with the mid-terms behind him he could be itching to settle this Mueller business once and for all. And he’s one step closer to being able to do just that.

That almost certainly wouldn’t be the end of this story, but it’s the beginning of a new, fraught chapter.

White House suspends CNN reporters access

White House suspends CNN reporters access

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Media captionTrump: “That’s enough, put down the mic”

The White House has suspended the credentials of CNN’s chief White House correspondent hours after a testy exchange with President Donald Trump.

Jim Acosta was asking a question at a news conference on Wednesday when a White House worker tried to grab the microphone from his hands.

Press secretary Sarah Huckerbee Sanders said access was removed because he had put “his hands on a young woman”.

Mr Acosta called Ms Sanders claim “a lie”.

President Trump had been giving his response to the mid-term elections, which saw his Republican party lose control of the lower house of Congress but gain seats in the upper house.

What happened at the news conference?

During a question-and-answer session, Mr Acosta challenged Mr Trump’s use of the word “invasion” to describe a migrant caravan heading to the US from Central America. He also challenged him over an anti-immigration advert that was widely seen as racist.

When Mr Acosta tried to ask a question about the Russia investigation into alleged interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, Mr Trump told him repeatedly “that’s enough” and “put down the mic”.

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Media captionTrump v Acosta

A female staff member attempted to take the microphone from the journalist, and Mr Acosta resisted handing it over telling her at one point “pardon me ma’am”.

Mr Trump walked away from the podium and returned to say: “CNN should be ashamed of itself having you working for them. You are a rude, terrible person.” He added: “The way you treat Sarah Huckerbee is horrible,” without explaining why.

Another journalist spoke up in Mr Acosta’s defence, calling him a “diligent reporter”. Mr Trump fired back, “well I’m not a big fan of yours either,” sparking laughter from members of the audience.

What did the White House say?

Ms Sanders, in a statement posted in a Twitter thread, said the White House would “never tolerate a reporter placing his hands on a young woman just trying to do her job”.

“The fact that CNN is proud of the way their employee behaved is not only disgusting, it’s an example of their outrageous disregard for everyone, including young women, who work in this Administration,” she said.

“As a result of today’s incident, the White House is suspending the hard pass of the reporter involved until further notice.”

The press secretary later shared a zoomed in clip of the incident, which observers say is a doctored video originally posted by right-wing conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson.

Mr Acosta posted a tweet saying he was stopped by the Secret Service from entering White House grounds.

What did Acosta and CNN say?

Mr Acosta told CNN that he had been asking a question Mr Trump did not like which had led to a “back and forth” between them. He denied laying his hands on the woman, saying: “I was trying to hang on to the microphone so I could continue to ask the president questions.”

“We all try to be professionals over there, and I think I handled myself professionally,” he said, adding that he thinks, “this is a test for all of us. I do think they are trying to shut us down to some extent inside the White House press corps, and to some extent I think they are trying to send a message to our colleagues.”

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AFP

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Jim Acosta has been in the White House press corps for five years

CNN issued a statement on Twitter saying the ban was “in retaliation for [Jim Acosta’s] challenging questions”.

“In an explanation, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders lied,” it said. “She provided fraudulent accusations and cited an incident that never happened.”

And other reaction?

The White House Correspondents’ Association, which represents the press corps at the presidential residence, urged the administration to reverse “this weak and misguided action”.

“Such interactions [between reporter and president] however uncomfortable they may appear to be, help define the strength of our national institutions,” the association said.

Other members of the White House press corps have also come to Mr Acosta’s defence.

Jeff Mason of Reuters posted pictures of the incident:

New York Times’ Peter Baker said he had been covering the White House since 1996 and had never known a reporter lose their credentials in this way.

The BBC’s North America Jon Sopel also reacted: