Nearly a year ago, Saira Wazir’s life turned upside down. A physical education teacher at a girls’ school in northwest Pakistan, she was preparing her students for an upcoming tournament when she received the news.
Her husband, Ali Wazir, a lawmaker from Pakistan’s restive tribal belt, had been arrested on December 16 on sedition charges after he made a speech critical of the country’s powerful military during an unsanctioned rally.
Wazir, who is also a leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), a civil rights group, was formally charged with sedition by an anti-terrorism court on November 4. He has denied the charges.
Saira Wazir, who did not disclose her location, said the ordeal has taken a heavy toll on her family.
“Our family has been shattered,” the mother of six told RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal in a telephone interview from Pakistan. “Life has been very difficult without my husband.”
“My children are always asking me when their father will be freed,” she said, adding that she has contemplated taking her own life. “I can’t bear to look at their distraught faces.”
Wazir was arrested in the northwestern city of Peshawar and transferred to the port city of Karachi, where he was charged with making an “anti-state speech” during an unsanctioned rally in the city on December 6.
Several other PTM leaders were also charged for remarks they made during the rally. The protest was held to mark the sixth anniversary of the killing of more than 150 people at a Peshawar school in December 2014, an attack blamed on the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militant group.
Wazir's lawyer, Salahuddin Gandapur, told Radio Mashaal that the Supreme Court set his client’s bail hearing for November 26.
PTM leaders have planned demonstrations on November 24 in several cities to protest Wazir’s detention.
Wazir’s arrest last year was not his first run-in with authorities.
He was released on bail in September 2019, four months after he was arrested following a deadly incident in the North Waziristan tribal district.
Wazir was leading a protest against the detention of locals by police and the imposition of a curfew in the region when shots were fired. Police said some of the protesters were armed and opened fire first. Protesters denied this and said soldiers started shooting when they approached a security checkpoint, killing 13 people.
The PTM has campaigned since 2018 for the rights of Pakistan’s estimated 35 million ethnic Pashtuns, many of whom live near the border with Afghanistan where the military has conducted campaigns against militants.
The group has attracted tens of thousands of people to public rallies in recent years to denounce the Pakistani Army's heavy-handed tactics that have killed thousands of Pashtun civilians and forced millions more to abandon their homes since 2003.
International rights groups say authorities have banned peaceful rallies organized by the PTM and some of its leading members have been arbitrarily detained and prevented from traveling within the country. Some members have also faced charges of sedition and cybercrimes.
Saira Wazir said her husband should not be kept in custody because he committed no crime.
“Many people have made these kinds of allegations but they roam free,” she said. “So why did they arrest my husband? It is utterly cruel.”
Wazir’s family have borne the brunt of the violence that has wracked Pakistan’s tribal belt, which became a hotbed of militancy after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 ousted the Taliban from power. Seventeen members of his family have been slain in targeted killings and militant attacks since 2001.
Wazir’s case has again come to fore after the Pakistani government on November 19 released Saad Rizvi, the jailed leader of the Tehrik-e Labiak Pakistan (TLP), an outlawed radical Islamist party.
His release came weeks after the government and the TLP reached a deal to end 10 days of violent protests in which at least nine police officers were killed and dozens wounded.
TLP supporters had called for authorities to free Rizvi and expel the French ambassador over the publication in France of political cartoons depicting Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, a demand that Islamabad did not meet.
The decision to free Rizvi and hundreds of other jailed TLP members was widely condemned, with lawmakers and activists accusing the government of capitulating to the demands of an extremist group that has used violence to pressure the government.
Rizvi's release came after the government signed a temporary cease-fire with the TTP, also known as the Pakistani Taliban, on November 9. The one-month truce with the TTP, which has led a deadly insurgency that has killed tens of thousands of people since 2007, was also widely criticized.
Both deals provoked accusations of double standards.
“This is a hypocritical approach,” Mohsin Dawar, a lawmaker and another leader of the PTM, told Radio Mashaal. “The government has signed deals with terror groups that have killed Pakistani forces and civilians and has jailed peaceful activists like Ali Wazir. This is open discrimination against Pashtuns.”
Pakistani media reported in July that Pakistani Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa told members of parliament in a closed meeting that Wazir could be freed if he apologized to the army, which has an oversized role in the domestic and foreign affairs of the country.
In an op-ed published in the Washington Post on November 15, prominent Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir asked why Wazir was being “treated differently” by authorities.
“Wazir has been behind bars since December for making a critical speech about the army,” Mir wrote. “He never killed any soldier. There is amnesty for the killers but why no mercy for Wazir?”
As Wazir languishes in prison, his family fears for his health. Wazir, who is diabetic, has been admitted to hospital at least once while in detention.
“When I met him in prison, he was telling us to be strong, but I am not a political person,” said Saira Wazir. “I’m a wife and mother who is worried for his health.”
“This whole thing baffles me,” she added. “My husband is simply asking for the human rights of the Pakistani Constitution to be upheld. Won't somebody tell me what is wrong with that?”