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Monday, May 16, 2011

Security breach: Foreigners visiting restricted areas without permission

Foreign citizens, including diplomats, have been visiting military installations and other prohibited areas without obtaining permission from the government.
According to sources inside the interior ministry, reports issued by intelligence agencies indicate that diplomats, foreign employees of nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and other foreign nationals have been visiting – and photographing – areas that non-Pakistani citizens are not permitted to enter, including some military installations, as well as larger areas such as the city of Quetta or much of southern Punjab, which have been deemed too dangerous for foreign citizens to visit.

Officials say that many of the foreign nationals who visited proscribed areas said that they were surveying the damage caused by the 2010 floods. Many have reportedly visited those areas without informing government officials of their visits, as they are required to by law under the Foreigners Act of 1946.
The interior ministry has sent a directive to the police and other law enforcement agencies to restrict the movement of foreign nationals in areas the government has deemed “prohibited”.
The ministry has also written a letter to foreign diplomatic missions in Pakistan, asking them to restrain their staff members from visiting the prohibited areas without informing the government, ostensibly for security reasons. The government of Pakistan will not be liable if anything happens to a diplomat on an unauthorised trip to prohibited areas, warned the letter.
Foreign citizens are required to obtain a “no objection certificate”, typically issued by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), before they can visit an otherwise restricted area. In the aftermath of the 2010 floods, many foreign nationals working for global NGOs visited several parts of the country, including some that they would normally be prohibited to visit.
Many foreign aid workers took pictures as part of the surveys they conducted of the flood damage. The government, however, seems worried that many foreign intelligence operatives may have been disguised as aid workers and been taking pictures of Pakistani military installations.
Government officials were also warned that some of the photographs being taken by foreign nationals in restricted areas may be used in “propoganda” against Pakistan.
The new government reports warning about the foreigners is a reflection of the high level of concern in Islamabad about espionage, particularly in the aftermath of the May 2 raid by US special forces on Abbottabad that killed al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.
Many foreign nationals have been caught up in the dragnet by local and federal law enforcement officials trying to crack down on people illegally present in Pakistan. US citizen Aaron Mark DeHaven was finally deported on Saturday after having spent almost three months answering court inquiries about having overstayed his visa.
Roheela Tariq Bhatti, reportedly a Tanzanian national, was arrested in Dera Ghazi Khan after her Pakistani identification documents turned out to be fake, according to police officials.
Foreign citizens are not allowed to visit Dera Ghazi Khan district as part of the government’s ban on foreign citizens visiting much of southern Punjab.
Many of the areas which foreigners are barred from visiting have been plagued by militancy or the rise of violent extremism over the past several years.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 16th, 2011.

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