Instead of seeking employment and chasing a career, an activist in northwestern Pakistan has dedicated himself to documenting enforced disappearances and campaigning against landmines.
But the young Pashtun rights campaigner Alamzaib Khan Mehsud is now in detention and faces a police investigation for allegedly rioting and inciting hatred.
Mehsud, 28, was arrested in the southern seaport city of Karachi on January 21 after local police named him and 15 other activists from the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) in a First Information Report (FIR) the day before. Under Pakistani law, a FIR marks the formal opening of a criminal investigation.
Mehsud and other PTM leaders criticized Pakistan’s authorities in a large protest on January 20, criticizing the country’s powerful military for not acting on their demands.
As part of their year-old campaign, the PTM has called on Islamabad to end enforced disappearances, probe and end illegal killings, hold officials accountable for harassing civilians, and clear the landmines that litter their northwestern Pashtun homeland along the border with Afghanistan.
The authorities deny that Pakistan’s security forces have been involved in any abuse. A military spokesman has reiterated that they have already addressed all PTM’s demands.
But amid a constant crackdown against the movement since its inception, several PTM leaders were named in numerous rioting and treason cases. Pakistani news media has largely refrained from covering the movement.
Mehsud’s arrest, however, has attracted considerable attention. He has earned a reputation for his dogged efforts to document enforced disappearances and highlight the plight of victims of landmines among Pakistan’s more than 30 million Pashtuns.
The PTM maintains that the Pashtuns in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, particularly the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), suffered disproportionally in the militant attacks and counterinsurgency operations that began in 2003. Government and independent estimates suggest more than 50,000 Pashtuns were killed in the violence while some 6 million were forced to flee their homes, many for years.
Friends say Mehsud’s activism was driven by this sense of victimhood, which arose from the suffering he personally endured and that which he witnessed.
“He is a very humble fellow and has dedicated himself to finding and contacting the families of victims of enforced disappearances,” Muhammad Idrees, a friend and fellow PTM activist, told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website.
He says Mehsud’s work incurred threats and intimidation as many of the video testimonies he obtained from victims and relatives blamed the security forces for excesses or negligence.
“He never succumbed to such tactics and told his family they should not worry about him if he were ever arrested or faced other problems because of his campaigning,” he said.
Mehsud was conscious of the sensitivity of his work.
“Sometimes, I am even accused of being involved in terrorism,” he told VOA’s Deewa Radio on January 19. “I am warned that I should not campaign against landmines and for [their] victims.”
Mehsud’s Facebook page often featured posts about people’s suffering. He regularly conducted lengthy video interviews with relatives of victims of enforced disappearances who invariably appealed to the authorities for help. The stories of landmine victims also figured prominently.
A thread pinned to his Twitter account documents the stories of dozens of landmine victims in his native South Waziristan tribal district, where the Taliban insurgency first broke out in 2003.
A major military operation in the region in 2009 forced his family and some half a million members of the Mehsud Pashtun tribe to move into the neighboring Tank and Dera Ismail Khan districts.
He came of age in Dera Ismail Khan and joined a small group of activists under the leadership of a charismatic student, Manzoor Pashteen.
In January 2018, Mehsud joined Pashteen and 20 other young activists to march on the capital, Islamabad, to protest the killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud. A Pakistani police probe later blamed a police officer for killing the aspiring model in an encounter in Karachi.
Pashteen’s protest in Islamabad attracted thousands, and the PTM emerged as a civil rights movement demanding security and protection for Pashtuns, Pakistan’s largest ethnic minority in the country of 207 million people.
“Manzoor appointed him as the PTM’s focal point on collecting the data of missing persons [as the victims of enforced disappearances are called in Pakistan],” Idrees said. “He gave it everything and traveled across the country to document the plight of hundreds during the next year.”
He added that more than a year ago, Mehsud earned a master's degree in political science but instead of looking for a job he invested all his time in campaigning.
Mehsud networked widely with Pakistani and international human rights campaigners.
“Rather than dismantling the permissive environment for attacks on human rights defenders, the Pakistani government is arresting them on charges of incitement to hatred, rioting, and defamation,” Rabia Mehmood, a South Asia researcher for Amnesty International, told RFE/RL Gandhara.
She added that organizing for social justice causes and demanding rights do not amount to rioting.
“Pakistan’s government should immediately and unconditionally release Alamzaib Khan Mehsud and other PTM workers arrested for peacefully rallying in Karachi,” she said. “Human rights defenders and civil society should be able to express their opinion freely and dissent without fear of reprisal.”
Karachi police have not commented on the case. Efforts to reach police officials for comment were not successful. But Bilawal Bhutto Zardai, leader of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in the southern province of Sindh, where Karachi is the capital, is paying for Mehsud’s lawyer.
“Well done PTM for the peaceful protest in Karachi today against arrest of Alamzaib Mehsud for demanding [an] end to enforced disappearances,” Farhaullah Babar, a Senior PPP leader, wrote on Twitter.
He was referring to the January 23 PTM protests in Karachi and across Pakistan to press the movement’s demands that authorities release Mehsud and address their grievances.