The global rights watchdog Amnesty International has called on Pakistan to immediately release members of a civil rights movement demanding security and protection for Pakistan’s ethnic Pashtun minority.
On February 6, Rabia Mehmood, a South Asia researcher at Amnesty International, called on Islamabad to immediately release all activists of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) after they were arrested a day earlier while the movement protested the recent alleged killing of a senior leader by police in the southwestern province of Balochistan.
“These protesters must be released immediately and unconditionally. They are prisoners of conscience and have done nothing but exercise their peaceful and lawful right to protest against human rights violations and call for an end to them,” Mehmood said.
She added that the Pakistani authorities must follow up on recent encouraging pledges to address the serious human rights violations highlighted by the PTM. “They should honor those commitments and allow the PTM activists to exercise their rights freely and without fear,” she said.
Shah Baaz Stouryani, a senior PTM leader, told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website on February 6 that the police arrested some 20 PTM activists in the capital, Islamabad, as they attempted to protest in front of the Islamabad Press Club on February 5.
He said the police later released some students among the activists but moved 11 PTM members senior figures, including Abdullah Nangyal and Muhammad Idrees, to the Adiala prison in Rawalpindi, a city adjacent to Islamabad in Pakistan’s eastern Punjab Province.
“These arrests show the real intentions of the Pakistani state toward the Pashtuns,” he said. “We are not being allowed to protest the unlawful and cruel killing of our comrade, Arman Luni.”
Stouryani said that two PTM activists were also arrested in Bhakkar, a rural town in Punjab that borders Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s southern Dera Ismail Khan district. He said police in Dera Ismail Khan, neighboring Lakki Marwat, and the nearby city of Bannu have registered cases against prominent PTM activists after the February 5 protests.
The recent PTM protests broke out after the February 2 death of Luni, 35, in Loralai, a city in Balochistan. The PTM says he was killed by police. But the regional government reject these claims. “We are going to investigate this issue in detail and will punish everyone involved,” Balochistan Home and Tribal Affairs Minister Mir Ziaullah Langau told Radio Mashaal this week.
Pakistani authorities could not be immediately reached for comment. But in January, Asif Ghafoor, a spokesman for the military, said authorities wanted to work with the movement.
“The PTM is a non-violent movement, which is campaigning for its demands,” he told Pakistan’s private ARY television channel on January 2. “We wish that the PTM leaders and other people [supporting them] will join the state in the [rehabilitation] phase, which is aimed at bringing relief and services to them.”
But rights campaigners and PTM supporters say they are under constant persecution for pushing their year-old campaign to demand an end to enforced disappearances, a probe into illegal killings, an end to harassment by the security forces, and cleaning of landmines in the Pashtun homeland in western Pakistan along the Afghan border.
Amnesty’s Mehmood says they are particularly concerned about the fate of Gulalai Ismail.
The celebrated human rights activist was one of the PTM activists arrested on February 5. Her family said they have no idea about her whereabouts until late on February 6. Ismail is already barred from leaving Pakistan and facing court cases over her activism for the PTM.
“Her whereabouts must be established immediately," Mehmood said. "She has merely exercised her right to peaceful freedom of assembly and expression. No harm must come of her.”
The arrest and police cases against the PTM activities increased after major protest gatherings in the southern Pakistani port city of Karachi and northwestern Waziristan. Scores of activists, including senior PTM figure Alamzaib Khan Mehsud, were arrested in Karachi late last month.
Luni’s death prompted the PTM to call for a global protest on February 5. The movement’s supporters responded to the call by staging small and big protests in many Pakistani cities and some major cities in the West.