As Pakistani authorities arrest more members of a civil rights movement campaigning for the rights of the country’s ethnic Pashtun minority, the global rights watchdog Amnesty International (AI) has called on Islamabad to end its clampdown.
“The crackdown against the PTM must stop,” Omar Waraich, AI’s deputy South Asia director, said while referring to the Pashtun Tahafuz (Protection) Movement by its acronym. “All activists detained for their peaceful activities must be released immediately.”
This week, Pakistan’s months-long campaign against the PTM apparently intensified with scores of new activist arrests and new cases launched against its leaders. The ongoing crackdown against the group began soon after a military spokesman warned in April that “time is up" for the PTM because it was “playing into the hands of others.”
Abdullah Nangyal, a senior PTM leader, told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website that on August 28 three prominent members of the movement were arrested in various parts of the country.
He says PTM activists Shah Faisal Ghazi and Sher Nawaz were arrested in the southern districts of South Waziristan and Tank in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa while Kaka Shafee Tareen was arrested in southwestern Balochistan Province.
Nangyal added that in recent days Pakistan’s Federal Investigations Agency (FIA) arrested PTM activists Shiraz Mohmand, Ismail Mehsud, Qasim Achakzai, Idress Bacha, and Abdul Hai Pashteen on charges of alleged cybercrime. Bacha was granted bail on August 29.
“Our activists arrested by the FIA and intelligence agencies are being tortured,” he said. “While people being investigated in police cases are not tortured physically, they are treated like terrorists and being kept in small cells.”
It was not possible to immediately reach officials about the allegations of torture and mistreatment. But Pakistani authorities deny torturing detainees and have maintained that the PTM is being dealt with under the country’s laws.
Since the beginning of the year, dozens of PTM activists have been arrested. More than two dozen among them, including lawmakers Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir, are in prison on charges ranging from terrorism to sedition and rioting.
Alamzaib Khan Mehsud, a PTM activist who investigated illegal killings, forced disappearances, and documented incidents of landmines that killed or maimed civilians, is in prison on charges of rioting and terrorism since January.
Gulalai Ismail, a feminist and celebrated right activists, has been on the run for nearly three months since Pakistani authorities accused her of sedition, financial terrorism, and defaming state institutions.
The PTM’s vocal and public criticism of Pakistan’s powerful military appears to trigger the arrests and investigations.
“They can hold protests and rallies, but their criticism of state institutions amounts to creating anarchy,” Attiqullah Wazir, a senior police officer in South Waziristan, told Radio Mashaal. “Every time they protest, they repeat this criticism, which triggers cases against them.”
AI’s Waraich, however, has urged Islamabad to act fairly.
“The Pakistani authorities must uphold the rule of law and due process, ensuring that no one is detained for their peaceful and lawful activities, and that anyone charged is given a fair trial,” he told RFE/RL Gandhara.
Since its emergence from a sit-in protest in Islamabad in February 2018, hundreds of PTM activists have been imprisoned on rioting, terrorism, and sedition charges.
The movement emerged from Pakistan’s western Pashtun heartland, which straddles its border with Afghanistan. The PTM has demanded rights, accountability, and security for Pakistan’s estimated 35 million Pashtuns, the country’s largest ethnic minority. The movement’s leaders say Pashtuns have borne the brunt of Islamabad’s war on terrorism, which killed tens of thousands and forced millions to flee their homes.