Members of a civil rights movement demanding protection for Pakistan’s Pashtun minority say military and civilian authorities are imposing restrictions and creating problems ahead of a crucial protest in the northwestern Swat Valley.
Leaders of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), or the Pashtun Protection Movement, say officials in Swat are pressuring locals to stay away from their planned protest on April 29.
“They are making announcements from mosques across Swat to warn people against participating in our gathering,” Iqbal Khan, a lawyer and PTM leader in Swat, told Radio Mashaal. “They are telling people that those participating in the event will be included [into the official lists of] Taliban insurgents.”
The gathering is expected to demand accountability for civilian suffering during years of unrest in Swat. Thousands have been killed by Taliban violence and military sweeps, which temporarily displaced the region’s 3 million residents.
Khan says local printing presses are refusing to print their campaign posters while pressure from the authorities is stopping businesses from providing chairs and tents for the protest.
“The district administration refused to allow us to hold a rally in the Grassy Ground of [regional capital] Mingora, yet the pro-military Pakistan Zindabad Movement is allowed to organize a gathering there on April 28,” he said.
Khan says the local administration has announced a car race at the Kabal sports ground on April 28, the day before the PTM protest. “This will render the venue completely useless,” he said.
Local writer and PTM supporter Fazli Maula says he had hoped for a better life after a major military operation drove the Taliban out of Swat in 2009.
“First it was the Taliban. Now the security forces have turned the valley into a prison,” he told Radio Mashaal. “We are demanding we should be allowed to live in dignity according to the rights granted in the country’s constitution.”
With whitewater rivers, alpine forests, and meadows, picturesque Swat was once a major tourist attraction for Pakistanis looking to escape the scorching summers. But the region became a Taliban fiefdom when former chairlift operator Maulana Fazlullah used his illegal FM radio broadcasts to foment a local Taliban insurgency. His movement established near complete control in the region by 2008.
Taliban rule was marked by beheadings, public floggings, and assassinations of real or perceived opponents. Under intense domestic and international pressure, the Pakistani Army finally moved into Swat in 2009. But the operation forced most of Swat’s 3 million residents to seek shelter in the nearby districts of Charsadda and Mardan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.
After the military established complete control, it imposed strict curfews and regulated all movement in and out of the valley through checkpoints, where long queues and aggressive searches were routine.
In recent years, family members have complained that hundreds have disappeared amid the insurgency while international rights watchdogs have accused the security forces of extrajudicial killings.
The grievances in Swat are similar to those in the nearby Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The PTM is campaigning for an end to extrajudicial killings, the removal of land mines, the recovery of disappeared people, and an end to the humiliation of locals at checkpoints across FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Pakistan’s powerful military, however, has rejected the PTM’s accusations of ill-treatment and grave abuses such as enforced disappearances and illegal killings.
In Swat, Israr Khan, a local administration official, says the authorities are still reviewing the PTM’s application for the April 29 event.
“After analyzing the situation, we will be able to decide whether to allow the rally under the existing rules and regulations,” he told Radio Mashaal.
This week, the Pakistani government said it is negotiating with the PTM. But the movement’s leaders say their supporters are being arrested in a government crackdown across the country.
“We are peaceful, but we are under persecution,” PTM leader Manzoor Pashteen said in a Facebook statement on April 25.
“Even if we don’t know them personally, we feel the pain of everyone who is persecuted because of their affiliation with the PTM,” he said.
Pashteen vowed to continue his campaign. “Be confident that we cannot be bought, we will not bow down, and we cannot be scared [into submission],” he said.