(Reuters) - After a deadly clash between troops and activists at a security post in northern Pakistan, organizers of a rights movement that has unnerved the powerful army say a campaign of intimidation against them has intensified, with many top leaders detained.
The military denies a crackdown against the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), which campaigns against alleged extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances of Pashtuns and other ethnic minorities, but says it is acting against lawbreakers.
Manzoor Pashteen, the PTM’s charismatic figurehead, said he has seen his closest aides detained. Two lawmakers who are part of the group’s leadership have also been arrested.
“In the past, they wanted to stop protests. Now they want to stop the movement,” Pashteen, who says he is the only member of the group’s core leadership not in custody, told Reuters. “They have directly arrested the leadership and begun a campaign to malign them (on social media).”
The PTM’s appeal among Pakistan’s more than 35 million Pashtuns - and its unusually direct criticism of the powerful military over alleged human rights violations - has brought it into conflict with the authorities, who allege it is being bankrolled by hostile neighboring countries.
The group has been barred from parts of the country and security forces have regularly tried to stop its rallies by arresting workers.
Some analysts and senior PTM members believe the latest arrests targeting leaders and aides were an attempt to isolate Pashteen within the group and provoke more hardline elements into a violent response that could then be used as a pretext to move against it.
The military press wing said there was no campaign against the PTM and that security forces had acted within the law.
“A few individuals are trying to incite Pashtun youth in a post-conflict environment, exploiting the ethnic/linguistic angle,” the military’s spokesman, Lieutenant General Asif Ghafoor, told Reuters in a statement.
“Whereas the state is responsible to address their genuine post-conflict care, no-one will be allowed to challenge the writ of the state ... a few individuals have been arrested for taking the law into their hands and they are facing legal procedures.”
Many ethnic Pashtuns hail originally from the borderlands with Afghanistan, the focal point of a near-decade long insurgency by Islamist militants.
PTM leaders complain that violence in their traditional homeland has led to Pashtuns throughout Pakistan being unfairly targeted and suffering abuses at the hands of security forces in the name of fighting terrorism.
The latest flashpoint came last month in North Waziristan, a majority Pashtun region on the Afghan border where the Pakistani Taliban controlled swathes of territory until they were pushed out by military operations in 2009 and 2014.
On May 26, a group of protesters led by PTM leaders and serving parliamentarians Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir was fired upon by soldiers at a security check post, according to PTM representatives.
Kifayat Azad, a close aide of Dawar and Wazir, told Reuters that 13 civilians were killed in the incident. At least 25 PTM members were arrested in the following days, he said, of whom 10 have since been released on bail.
In its account of the incident, the army said the protest was aimed at exerting pressure for the release of a “suspected terrorists’ facilitator arrested the other day”. Troops exchanged fire with the protesters when they attacked the check post, it said, adding that three of the attackers were killed.
Rights groups in Pakistan have called for an investigation into the incident.
The PTM emerged last year after the killing of an ethnic Pashtun man by police in the southern city of Karachi, which led to a series of nationwide protests and turned the issue of alleged state violence against Pashtuns into a national debate.
Journalists at local television channels and newspapers have since said they face a complete ban on covering PTM protests and statements made by the groups leaders. The military has in the past denied that it muzzles Pakistan’s media.
In a strongly worded speech in April, the military’s spokesman warned PTM “their time is up” and said the group had received funding from Afghan and Indian intelligence agencies. PTM has denied taking foreign funding.
“(General Ghafoor’s) warning that the PTM’s ‘time is up’ a few weeks ago seems to mark an official turning point in the state’s strategy,” Nida Kirmani, professor of sociology at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, told Reuters.
“This crackdown will only increase their (Pashtuns’) sense of alienation.”
Days after the check post incident, Pashteen said he was in a car with his close aide Idrees Mehsud when they noticed they were being followed.
As the car turned a corner onto another street, a number of men in plainclothes were waiting, alongside police officials.
Pashteen said the men told him they wanted to ask Mehsud a few questions. He was then taken away in a car and remains in custody.
The arrest followed the detention of Dawar and Wazir, whose election to Pakistan’s parliament last year affirmed PTM’s popularity amongst the country’s Pashtun electorate.
Both men have spoken out against military operations in the former tribal areas bordering Afghanistan since being elected, and have led large demonstrations across the country.
Another senior member and human rights advocate, Gulalai Ismail, is in hiding after being threatened with arrest. Her father told Reuters security officials routinely search their home and harass the family without providing a warrant.
Police officials did not respond to request for comment.
Pashteen says PTM believes in non-violent protest as a way to secure the rights of Pashtuns and other marginalized groups.
“If people truly believe that those who live in the tribal areas are human beings, that they are Muslims, whether they accept them to be Pakistanis or not, they have the right to not be killed extrajudicially,” he said.