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Thousands in Pakistan Protest Slaying Of Pashtun Rights Leader

Supporters of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement protest the killing of leader Sardar Wazir Arif, in Khost, on May 5.
Supporters of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement protest the killing of leader Sardar Wazir Arif, in Khost, on May 5.

Tens of thousands of people in Pakistan have protested the assassination of a prominent ethnic Pashtun rights activist and political leader who some say was killed by state-backed militants in the South Waziristan tribal district.

Sardar Arif Wazir, one of the leaders of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), was traveling by car in the town of Wanna when unidentified gunmen opened fire on May 1. He died from injuries on May 2.

Wazir’s death prompted an outpouring of grief and frustration as peaceful protesters defied restrictions on gatherings because the coronavirus to hold demonstrations in several cities across the country on May 5, with the main protest held in Wanna, the center of South Waziristan tribal district.

"Our main message is to tell the world about how this happened and who did it, and how our state supports these terrorists, gives them weapons and protects them,” Mohsin Dawar, a leader of PTM, told RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal.

“Our movement is a peaceful movement based on non-violence. Our only weapon is protest," he said.

The PTM has campaigned since 2018 for the civil rights of some 35 million ethnic Pashtuns, many of whom live near the border of Afghanistan where the military has conducted campaigns it says defeated the Pakistani Taliban.

But the PTM accuses Pakistan’s security services of cooperating with the “good Taliban” fighting in Afghanistan and allowing militants to return to the mountainous area.

The movement has attracted tens of thousands of people to public rallies in recent years to denounce the powerful Pakistani Army's heavy-handed tactics that have killed thousands of Pashtun civilians and forced millions more to abandon their homes since 2003.

The PTM has been calling for the removal of military checkpoints in tribal areas and an end to "enforced disappearances," in which suspects are detained by security forces without due process.

Pakistan's government rejects allegations that its security forces cooperate with militants, pointing out that the military has lost thousands of soldiers fighting the Pakistani Taliban. It also denies intelligence agents are responsible for forced disappearances.

Since PTM was formed in January 2018, international rights groups say authorities have banned peaceful rallies organized by the group 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.

The attack on Wazir came after Pakistani police arrested him on April 17 for delivering an "anti-Pakistan" speech during a recent visit to Afghanistan. He was released on bail days before his death.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has said the authorities have made allegations of anti-state activities “an expedient label for human rights defenders, particularly those associated with the PTM."