Reports from northwestern Pakistan indicate that the authorities have arrested a journalist and 22 activists of a civil movement campaigning for rights and security for Pakistan’s Pashtun minority. The arrests took place amid calls by domestic and international human rights watchdogs for probes into the recent violence involving the group.
On May 28, Pakistan’s Independent Urdu news website reported that journalist Gohar Wazir had been arrested along with 22 activists from the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) in the northwestern city of Bannu. The city is the administrative hub of a district by the same name that borders the North Waziristan tribal district, where the PTM says the Pakistani military killed 13 of its supporters on May 26.
The Pakistani military, however, blames two PTM lawmakers for leading an attack on their checkpoint in Khar Qamar. The military said at least three people were killed when soldiers opened fire on attackers in the remote region near the border with Afghanistan.
Requesting anonymity because of a possible clampdown, several PTM activists confirmed to Radio Mashaal that 20 of their comrades, including several leaders, were arrested in Bannu. A police official also confirmed the arrests. Another PTM leader told the BBC that the movement’s supporters are facing a wider government crackdown across Pakistan.
Roofan Khan, a local journalist, told Independent Urdu that Wazir and the PTM activists were moved to a prison in Haripur, a town nearly 400 kilometers north of Bannu in the same province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
“I don’t know why my brother was arrested, but I feel it was connected to the PTM,” Wazir’s brother Anwar Kamal told Independent Urdu. On May 27, Wazir had interviewed PTM lawmaker Mohsin Dawar. In YouTube videos posted by Wazir, Dawar offered his account of the May 26 incident.
Dawar claimed the military had fired on the group soon after it reached the protest site after crossing two military checkpoints in Khar Qamar. He said 13 PTM protesters were killed while scores more were injured in the shooting.
But in a press statement on May 26 the military said troops had responded to “direct firing” at the post, killing three attackers and wounding 10 others after a group led by lawmakers Dawar and Ali Wazir attacked the Khar Qamar checkpoint. The military acknowledged arresting Ali and said Dawar was at large. In another statement on May 27, the military said it was trying to identify five more bodies found with gunshot wounds near the site.
But the PTM’s supporters rejected the military’s version of events. Activists staged protests in several towns and cities of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the neighboring southwestern province of Balochistan to demand an independent probe into the killings.
In Peshawar, senior PTM leader Rahim Shah told the BBC that since May 26 many PTM activists have been arrested across Pakistan. The authorities, however, have said nothing about the arrests or a current crackdown against the movement.
Speaking to the BBC from Miran Shah, the administrative headquarters of North Waziristan, Dawar said they have already launched a sit-in protest. “We will decide on our demands after our comrades reach here, but we will definitely demand that the Pakistani Army must leave Waziristan,” he said.
But Pakistani and international media reports suggest the authorities are not allowing PTM supporters to join the protest in Miran Shah by blocking access to the region through the only road connecting it to Bannu. The region is also under a curfew that prohibits any movement.
According to VOA’s Deewa Radio, the authorities also imposed Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code in neighboring South Waziristan tribal district. This law is often invoked in Pakistan to prevent protests and political gatherings.
Global rights watchdog Amnesty International (AI) and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), a domestic nongovernmental rights group, have called for an independent probe.
“HRCP demands the release of MNA Ali Wazir and any other activists taken into custody,” the HRCP said on May 27. “It also calls for a parliamentary commission to be set up immediately to inquire into the matter and establish the truth.”
AI backed the call.
“The Pakistan government must immediately order an independent and effective investigation into the killing of activists on Sunday in North Waziristan,” said Rabia Mehmood, an AI South Asia researcher. “If the reports are correct that the army killed protesters by unlawfully using live ammunition, this would be a very serious violation of international law.”
The violence is one of the most serious incidents in a long-running confrontation between Pakistan’s powerful military and the PTM. The movement emerged last year to demand Islamabad probe illegal killings, enforced disappearances, and other excesses while taking steps to clear landmines from the country’s western Pashtun regions along the border with Afghanistan.
With some 35 million people, Pashtuns are the largest minority among Pakistan’s 207 million population. PTM leaders maintain that Pashtuns, particularly those living in the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), paid a heavy price for Islamabad’s domestic war on terrorism after 9/11.
Officials and independent observers agree that Pashtuns were a majority of the more than 70,000 civilians killed in militant attacks and military counterinsurgency campaigns since 2003. The conflict has also displaced more than 6 million Pashtuns in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA.
The PTM maintains that it is speaking out on behalf of such victims. But in a veiled reference to neighboring India and Afghanistan, the military accuses the PTM of being funded by foreign spy services. Military leaders have accused the movement of stroking unrest in the Pashtun homeland after the security forces defeated the Pakistani Taliban.
The PTM rejects the military’s accusations and says it is struggling to gain basic human rights for the Pashtun people after they have suffered years of conflict between the security forces and Islamist militants.
-- With reporting by Reuters