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Pakistan Rights Watchdog Paints Bleak Picture

FILE: A protest agains the alleged killing of a civilian by the security forces in the western district of Khyber in February.
FILE: A protest agains the alleged killing of a civilian by the security forces in the western district of Khyber in February.

Pakistan’s leading nongovernmental watchdog has painted a grim picture of human rights abuses, a growing clampdown on dissent, and negative future prospects for the country’s 210 million people amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Extensive documentation of most major rights violations and threats has led the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) to conclude that the most vulnerable and marginalized segments of society now face greater threats amid shrinking freedoms and space for dissent and debate.

“Last year will be remembered for systematic curbs on political dissent, the chokehold on press freedom, and the grievous neglect of economic and social rights,” noted HRCP’s secretary general, Harris Khalique.

I.A. Rehman, a leading rights campaigner, said his country’s human rights record in 2019 was greatly worrisome. Rehman, a journalist, added that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is “is likely to cast a long shadow on prospects for human rights” in Pakistan.

The report detailed the threats and fears journalists have to face in the country as curbs on freedom of opinion and expression continued to escalate.

“Journalists in [the western province of] Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in particular reported that it had become even more difficult to speak or write openly — if at all — on ‘sensitive’ issues such as enforced disappearances, or to criticize state policy or security agencies in these areas,” the report noted.

Zohra Yusuf, a former HRCP chairwoman, noted that social media space is also eroding amid a deliberate financial squeeze on the media.

“[This] led to Pakistan’s position slipping on the World Press Freedom Index,” she said. Pakistan is currently 145th among 180 countries on the index. It ranked 142nd last year.

HRCP noted that forced disappearances, a major issue in insurgency-plagued Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces, continued in 2019. Farah Zia, HRCP’s director, urged Islamabad to address the issue.

“In the case of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa -- both historically under-reported provinces -- the acknowledgement of real issues and their political resolution is vital if the state is serious about strengthening the federation,” she said.

HRCP noted that the rights of women and children, the most vulnerable sections of the society, were further eroded during the past year.

“Reports of child laborers being sexually abused in mines surfaced in Balochistan, while news of young children being raped, murdered, and dumped has become frighteningly common,” a statement by the organization noted. “Women continued to bear the brunt of society’s fixation with ‘honor,’ with [the eastern province] of Punjab accounting for the highest proportion of ‘honor’ crimes.”

The report documented the continued denial of freedom of religion guaranteed in the Pakistani supreme law.

“For many communities, this has meant the desecration of their sites of worship, the forced conversion of young women, and constant discrimination in access to employment,” an April 30 statement by the group said. Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, and other smaller minority groups make up nearly 5 percent of Pakistani population.

In its annual report this week, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent, bipartisan advisory body, recommended that Washington redesignate Pakistan as a country of particular concern “for engaging in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.”

Pakistani authorities, however, have consistently denied reports of undermining freedoms or growing rights violations in the country. Prime Minister Imran Khan has repeatedly claimed his country’s press is free.

“Pakistan has one of the freest presses in the world,” he said during a visit to Washington last year. “To say there are curbs on the Pakistan press is a joke.”

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