Thousands of people have rallied in dozens of cities and towns in northwestern Pakistan and elsewhere on December 18 to protest against the arrest of a lawmaker and leader of a civil rights movement campaigning for the country's ethnic Pashtun minority.
The head of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), Manzoor Pashteen, called for the demonstrations in a live video posted on Facebook late on December 17, after the authorities announced that Ali Wazir was being prosecuted on anti-state charges.
Wazir was arrested in the northwestern city of Peshawar on December 16 after a case was lodged against him in the port city of Karachi. He is accused of making anti-state comments during an unsanctioned rally in the city on December 6.
WATCH: Protesters Rally Across Pakistan To Demand Release Of Pashtun Leader
The PTM rejects the accusation and insists its campaign to defend the rights of ethnic Pashtuns is peaceful and constitutional.
The movement has campaigned since 2018 for the civil rights of Pakistan’s estimated 35 million ethnic Pashtuns, many of whom live near the border of Afghanistan. It has attracted tens of thousands of people to public rallies in recent years to denounce the powerful Pakistani Army's heavy-handed tactics in its fight against the Pakistani Taliban and other militant groups.
In Wazir’s constituency, the northwestern town of Wana in the South Waziristan tribal district, several hundred PTM supporters on December 18 responded to Pashteen’s call to protest against Wazir’s arrest.
In Mingora, the capital of the Swat tribal district, protesters chanted slogans against the police and held placards demanding Wazir’s “immediate release.”
Similar rallies took place elsewhere in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, including Mardan, Swabi, Tank, Dera Ismail Khan, and Bannu.
Protesters also gathered in Quetta, Zhob, and Chaman in the southwest province of Balochistan bordering Afghanistan, as well as Karachi in Sindh Province and Lahore in the eastern Punjab Province.
International rights groups say Pakistani authorities have banned peaceful rallies organized by the PTM and some of its leading members have been arbitrarily detained and prevented from traveling within the country. Some members have also faced charges of sedition and cybercrimes.