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Pakistani Court Orders Internet Access For Pashtun Students During Coronavirus Lockdown


Students from Janikhel, a town in the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas, protest to demand internet access on April 10

A court in Pakistan has ordered the government to restore Internet to parts of the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, where its lack was depriving thousands of university students from accessing online classes and educational materials during the ongoing coronavirus lockdown.

Abdul Rahim Wazir, a lawyer who has filed the case on behalf of a student, says Athar Minallah, the chief justice of Islamabad High Court who is hearing the case, says he was surprised to learn that seven districts still do not have any Internet access.

The districts were part of the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) on Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan which were merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province in May 2018. The two regions are predominantly populated by the Pashtuns – Pakistan largest ethnic minority.

“It is very good news for the residents of [former] FATA,” Wazir told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website. “It has raised hopes.”

An April 4 order by the court said that the authorities are “directed to take appropriate measures to restore the internet 3G/4G facilities in the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas.”

The order has called on Pakistan’s Information Technology and Ministry and the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, a government regulator, to submit a report to the court before it hears the case on April 20. The order asks the government to explain “why access to Internet has been denied to the petitioner [litigant] and the general public of the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas.”

It was not immediately possible to reach government officials for comment.

Wazir, a young attorney in Islamabad, took up the case on behalf of Sayed Muhammad, a university student in Islamabad. Like thousands of students from the region, Sayed was deprived of online classes. Pakistani universities began online classes soon after the government imposed a nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic on March 23.

Universities across Pakistan were already shut by that date, which forced thousands of students from FATA to leave their hostel dormitories and return to remote villages where they have no Internet access.

The lack of Internet access had prompted student protests in parts of former FATA.

Authorities had not commented on their demand, but senior officials have repeatedly said that FATA’s 2018 merger was aimed at mainstreaming and developing the insurgency-wrecked region.

Tens of thousands of civilians were killed and millions displaced by years of militant attacks and military operations against insurgents. The region became a key sanctuary for Taliban and allied Al-Qaeda and Central Asian militants after the demise of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in late 2001.

During a visit last month to Mohmand, one of the former FATA districts, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan had announced plans to provide Internet in the region. But his orders were not immediately implemented.

“We know that the residents of the tribal regions are trailing behind the inhabitants of other areas in this country,” he told a March 9 gathering. “The region was home to the worst kind of poverty and had the worst education and healthcare,” he added. “We now have the opportunity to bring you on par with the rest of the country.”

Last year, the provincial parliament in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa unanimously adopted a resolution calling for the provision of Internet to the region.

It is still not clear whether the court’s order will be implemented or if the Pakistani authorities will come up with an explanation of why an estimated 6 million residents of former FATA are deprived of Internet connectivity.

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