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Pashtuns Allege Persecution As Pakistan Wages Antiterrorism Battle

Pakistani and Afghan Pashtuns gather at a rally in Islamabad in July 2015.
Pakistani and Afghan Pashtuns gather at a rally in Islamabad in July 2015.

With Pakistan's military locked in a nationwide antiterrorism drive after a spate of deadly attacks claimed by Islamist radicals, one ethnic community is accusing authorities of singling them out for persecution.

Minority Pashtuns, a group that populates both sides of Pakistan's volatile northwest border with Afghanistan, allege that they have been targeted in Punjab Province recently with arrests and police harassment.

The Pakistani military sweeps and other operations are a response to attacks claimed by militant groups Islamic State (IS) and the Pakistani Taliban that killed more than 120 people in early February.

Those killings shattered the relative calm that followed a military-led crackdown on terror groups, begun in 2014, in predominantly Muslim Pakistan, which has long been a hotbed of Islamist radicalism.

Pakistan launched fresh counterterror operations on February 22, including in Punjab, the country's most populous province.

Police in one Punjabi district reportedly distributed pamphlets calling on residents to report Afghan migrants and Pashtuns whom they suspect of being terrorists.

Pashtuns have responded with protests, and community leaders have demanded that the federal government intervene.

"In our neighborhood in Gujrat, at least 100 to 150 people have been arrested," resident Israrul Haq told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal in connection with roundups in his heavily Pashtun part of the city.

Haq, a Pashtun vendor, said officials have also forced Pashtuns to register with the police in Punjab.

Pashtun Outcry

In a February 28 tweet, Imran Khan, a former world-class cricketer and opposition leader who is Pashtun by descent, urged the Punjab government to stop what he called "ethnic profiling."

Scores of people in Pakistan's northwest city of Peshawar staged a demonstration on February 27, accusing authorities of racially profiling Pashtuns, who compose some 15 percent of Pakistan's roughly 200 million people.

"They have started arresting poor Pashtuns all over Punjab," says Said Alam Mehsud, one of the protesters. "We want to know why authorities are only taking action against Pashtuns."

On the same day, the provincial assembly in Pashtun-dominated Khyber Pakhtunkhwa passed a resolution condemning the arrests and demanding authorities there stop what it described as discriminatory policies.

Enayatullah, a senior minister in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial government who goes by one name, told the assembly that there were "clear instructions issued to police" to target Pashtuns.

Also on February 27, a delegation from the provincial government met with Punjab's chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif, the brother of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Amir Muqam, the president of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa who attended the meeting, said he shared his deep concerns. He said the chief minister appointed a commission to look into the arrests of Pashtuns in Punjab, Pakistan's most prosperous province and home to much of the country's political elite.

Hidayatullah Khan, a senator from the tribal areas, said he held talks with the National Assembly speaker in Islamabad, adding that he provided a "complete list" of arrestees in Punjab.

Meanwhile, Haji Baghi Khan, the head of the Pashtun Welfare Organization in Punjab's capital, Lahore, said there was evidence of widespread arrests of Pashtuns. "This is 101 percent true," he said.

'Conspiracy To Defame Pashtuns'

Days after a February 13 attack in Lahore that left 14 people dead, reports emerged that police in Mandi Bahauddin, a district in central Punjab, were distributing ethnically charged pamphlets to local residents.

The pamphlet, titled "Important Message," was attributed to the spokesman for the police in Mandi Bahauddin and was widely shared on social media, where it has been condemned by many Pakistanis.

In it, police urge residents to "immediately inform police" if they saw "anyone who looks Afghan or Pathan," another word for Pashtun. The statement describes the two groups as "selling qahwa (green tea), dried fruits, children's toys, or household goods," a reference to the kind of menial jobs frequently carried out by many Afghan migrants and Pashtuns living in Punjab.

Nayab Haidar, the public-relations officer of the Punjab Police, told RFE/RL that the document was "fake" and there was "no policy" to specifically target Pashtuns and Afghans.

But the Mandi Bahauddin police and the inspector general of the Punjab police previously confirmed the authenticity of the document to local media.

Meanwhile, a Punjab provincial government spokesman condemned the actions of police in Mandi Bahauddin, telling Capital TV that those behind the directive will be punished.

The secular and predominately Pashtun Awami National Party issued a statement on February 22 condemning the pamphlet and describing it as a "conspiracy to defame Pashtuns."

The statement argued that predominantly Pashtun areas have borne the brunt of "terrorism" and militant attacks and "reckless" military operations have killed scores of civilians and uprooted hundreds of thousands of others.

Written by Frud Bezhan, with reporting by RFE/RL Radio Mashaal correspondent Daud Khattak
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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    Daud Khattak

    Daud Khattak is the managing editor of RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal. He is based in Prague and reports on social, political, and security issues in Pakistan.