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Pakistan shuts down Save the Children office amid allegations of spying

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B.K. Bangash/AP

(Read caption) A Pakistani police officer stands guard outside a sealed Save the Children office in Islamabad, Pakistan, Friday. The government shut down the offices of the international aid group for violating its charter, the country’s interior minister and officials said Friday.

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Pakistan shut down the Pakistan chapter of Save the Children on Thursday evening for alleged ties to spying, after years of acrimony between the government and the global aid organization.

Police sources, speaking on condition of anonymity to Reuters, said the aid agency was being shuttered because it was involved in "anti-Pakistani projects." The orders were traced back to the Ministry of Interior.

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A lock was placed on the door at Save the Children’s office in the capital, Islamabad, and officials told Pakistani workers that any foreign nationals working with the organization had to leave the country within 15 days, The Associated Press reports. The BBC says that Save the Children has had no foreign employees in Pakistan for 18 months.

Save the Children said that the move came without warning, adding in a statement that "We strongly object to this action and are raising our serious concerns at the highest levels." 

Relations between the charity and Pakistan have soured amid allegations by the Pakistani intelligence services that Save the Children was linked to a Pakistani doctor recruited by the CIA to help find Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad. Save the Children has denied all allegations.

An official at the charity told Reuters that several staff members had been denied visas since 2012, when the Pakistani expelled six foreign staffers, and aid supplies. At the time, The Christian Science Monitor reported:

Some analysts say the eviction deflects attention from a potentially embarrassing investigation addressing the elephant in the room, namely: How could bin Laden have been living in Abottabad, the military garrison town without government or military knowledge?

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“This is Pakistan, and where there is smoke the security establishment will definitely find fire. There could have been a more nuanced approach. But the security establishment tends to act quickly on smaller issues that they feel threaten their direct interests rather than big and serious ones,” says Cyril Almeida, a journalist at Pakistan's Dawn newspaper.

Although Pakistan has long had a history of viewing international aid organizations with suspicion, it has toughened its policies in recent years, accusing such groups of using their work as a cover for espionage. The Pakistan government deregistered 3,000 local aid groups in December last year, Reuters reports.

Of particular concern is the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act 2015, a bill that, if approved, would make it easier for officials to prevent NGOs from working in Pakistan. Pakistani officials claim that it is supposed to “ensure transparency, efficiency and compliance” while “ensuring respect for our culture, norms and security."

When asked about the difficult landscape for foreign NGOs in the country, Economic Affairs Division (EAD) Secretary Salim Sethi this week told Pakistani media: “We don’t need to be apologetic. If an organisation is not meeting the criteria, then we shall not allow it to function in violation of the regulations.”

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Save the Children is the largest aid organization in Pakistan and has had a base there for more than 35 years. Last year, their programs ranging from health to education reached 4 million children. They have about 1,200 Pakistani staff.