ISLAMABAD/KABUL – Thousands of protesters have gathered in Pakistani and Afghan cities and towns to voice anger over the detention of an ethnic Pashtun rights activist in Pakistan.
Manzoor Pashteen, the leader of a civic rights group that has criticized the Pakistani military's operations in the northwestern tribal regions, was detained in the city of Peshawar, and a court rejected his bail application on January 28.
The leader of the Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM) is accused of sedition, hate speech, incitement against the state, and criminal conspiracy.
Protesters rallied in Islamabad, Karachi, and in northwestern Pakistan to call for Pashteen’s release. Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir, who are lawmakers and PTM members, were among those detained during the demonstration outside the National Press Club in the capital.
Pashteen’s detention also sparked protests outside the Pakistani Embassy in Kabul, as well as in seven provinces in eastern and southeastern Afghanistan: Nangarhar, Kunar, Logar, Bamyan, Khost, Uruzgan, and Kandahar.
President Ashraf Ghani expressed concerns over Pashteen’s detention and said governments in the region "must support and encourage peaceful civilian movements for justice and must avoid any means of force and violence against these movements."
The Pakistani Foreign Ministry reacted by calling Ghani's comments "a clear interference in Pakistan’s internal affairs and hence, unwarranted."
Human Rights Watch (HRW) also urged Pakistani authorities to release Pashteen and drop the charges against the activist, saying that "using criminal laws to chill free expression and political opposition has no place in a democracy."
The activist had been "arbitrarily detained for exercising his human rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly," according to Amnesty International.
The PTM has campaigned for civil rights for ethnic Pashtuns since 2018. The group has attracted tens of thousands of people out to public rallies to denounce the powerful Pakistani Army's heavy-handed operations in the militancy-hit tribal regions and the military's alleged connection with Islamist militants.