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'Your Passport, Please': Celebrated Activist Discovers The Price Of Dissent In Today's Pakistan

"I could face prison simply for speaking out about human rights," says Gulalai Ismail.
"I could face prison simply for speaking out about human rights," says Gulalai Ismail.

Pakistani human rights activist Gulalai Ismail had just landed in Islamabad airport when she was detained by federal agents. After nine hours, authorities released the renowned activist on bail but confiscated her passport to ensure she stayed put.

Authorities placed her on the Exit Control List, barring her from leaving the country, based on allegations that she had participated in "anti-state" activities stemming from her participation in a rally in August. She fears being sent to prison on what she and others consider to be trumped-up charges.

The award-winning activist has been a critic of military operations that have killed thousands of people and uprooted millions in the country's northwestern tribal regions over the past decade.

The 33-year-old has denied the allegations, claiming that they are part of an ongoing campaign to stifle dissent in the South Asian country. Dozens of rights defenders and journalists critical of the authorities have been detained, arrested, or have fled the country out of fear for their safety in recent years.

Ismail said the allegations against her are “part of a malicious attempt by state actors to silence human rights defenders.

"I could face prison simply for speaking out about human rights," she told RFE/RL by telephone.

The allegations stem from a speech Ismail gave during a rally organized by the Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM), which has denounced the army's heavy-handed operations in the militancy-hit tribal regions. The group has called for judicial probes into those killed by the military and has campaigned for ending enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, and discrimination against the country's Pashtun ethnic minority.

The movement made national headlines when thousands of people from the tribal areas and northwest Pakistan marched to the capital, Islamabad, in February. The rally, ignited by the killing of a young Pashtun shopkeeper in an allegedly staged gunbattle with police in the port city of Karachi, exposed long-held grievances among Pashtuns.

Supporters and activists of the Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM) at a rally in Karachi in May
Supporters and activists of the Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM) at a rally in Karachi in May

Police in Swabi, a town in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, filed charges against 19 PTM supporters for "unlawful assembly," "punishment for rioting," and "punishment for wrongful restraint." Ismail, a Pashtun, was added to the list of alleged perpetrators the next day, although there were no specific charges filed against her.

Ismail is currently petitioning to have her name removed from the list. The Interior Ministry told the Islamabad High Court, which is hearing Ismail's petition, that she had been put on the ECL on the recommendation of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the country’s notorious spy agency.

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

"The right to peaceful dissent -- especially when this means articulating 'uncomfortable' truths about curtailed rights and freedoms -- should not be branded routinely as 'anti-state,'" HRCP said in a statement on October 26.

'What War Has Done'

Nine PTM supporters charged over the August rally have been denied bail and are in jail. Since the movement was formed in January, international rights groups say authorities have banned peaceful rallies organized by the PTM and that some of its leading members have been arbitrarily detained and prevented from traveling within the country. Some members have also faced charges for alleged sedition and cybercrimes.

Pakistan's impoverished tribal areas became a front line in the battle against extremist groups after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, when the Afghan Taliban and Al-Qaeda took refuge in the region. The region has been the scene of deadly Pakistani army operations, U.S. drone attacks, and militant attacks.

A PTM rally in Peshawar in April
A PTM rally in Peshawar in April

Pashtuns make up the majority of recruits and members of Pakistani-based militant groups such as the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network, and the Pakistani Taliban. But PTM supporters say civilians have borne the brunt of the violence and claim Pashtuns have been the targets of the army and the ISI, two powerful bodies that have an oversize role in the country.

"The protest rallies are usually a place to share stories, to cry, and talk about what war has done to our lives," says Ismail, who has participated in several PTM rallies. "I have met many women whose husbands had gone missing for years. Wives are waiting for their husbands. Their children are waiting for their fathers."

'Shrinking' Space

Ismail says the accusations against her and PTM supporters are part of a wider campaign to stifle free speech in Pakistan, which has been ruled by the army for nearly half of its statehood.

"The space for civic voices is shrinking," says Ismail, who won the Anna Politkovskaya Award in 2017 for campaigning against religious extremism. "A narrative has been built around civil society as anti-state, destroying local culture, and promoting Westernization."

The Pakistani media are under unprecedented pressure. Veteran reporters have left the country after being threatened; the country's most popular TV station has been forced off the air; and leading columnists have complained that stories that are critical of the army are being rejected by outlets under pressure from the military. One prominent journalist is facing treason charges for publishing a story that was critical of the military.

"As a human rights defender, I have been attacked, I have been accused of blasphemy, and I have been accused of being engaged in anti-state activities," says Ismail, who co-founded the nongovernmental organization Aware Girls in 2002 to build up the leadership capacity of young women as agents of change. "It has been a life-risking job to raise my voice against a system of oppression."

Rabia Mehmood, South Asia researcher at Amnesty International, said Ismail is being targeted "solely for her peaceful human rights work."

"The new government of Prime Minister Imran Khan had said it would protect human rights and engage with members of the PTM to address issues such as enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions," said Mehmood. "Gulalai Ismail's arrest severely tests those commitments. Instead of trying to silence human rights defenders, the new government must work to create a safe and enabling environment for those who raise their voices for justice."

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.