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Human rights body calls 2023 a dismal year for Pakistan

By Sarah Zaman

May 9, 2024

Credits @FFHR.CZ

ISLAMABAD — Human rights in Pakistan took a nosedive and civic spaces contracted to an extraordinary degree in 2023 in the wake of violent political protests, the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said in a new report reviewing the past year.

“This year was remarkable for the State’s blatant disregard for its own Constitution, adherence to a bare, notional democracy, and civic spaces having shrunk to an all-time low,” said the report released Wednesday.

The document covers a wide range of human rights issues that weakened Pakistani democracy last year, from unelected caretaker governments exceeding their constitutionally mandated term to the parliament hastily passing laws including those granting more powers to security agencies.

Political repression

The commission said the human rights situation reached a new low on May 9, 2023, “a defining day” on which supporters of former prime minister Imran Khan stormed military and government installations to protest his arrest.

“The state retaliated with a fierce crackdown and mass arrests of thousands of party workers and leaders, including women,” the report said. “Many [were] kept in military custody, not allowed to meet their families. Internet and social media shutdowns were imposed.”

The report recorded at least 15 instances of internet services being shut down in the last year. Following the violence on May 9, government suspended internet services for nearly four days across much of Pakistan.

The HRCP said the authorities repeatedly banned gatherings of more than four people in a bid to restrict political activities.

Missing persons

According to HRCP’s monitoring of media reports, 82 men and seven women were forcibly disappeared during 2023. The report said some of the disappearances were short-term, targeting political party members.

Referring to data provided by the government’s Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances, HRCP said nearly 2,300 cases of missing persons remained unresolved at the end of last year.

A weekslong protest movement led by Baloch women seeking recovery of missing family members returned empty-handed from Islamabad after talks with caretaker government officials stalled. The protesters were brutally dispersed upon arrival in the capital.

“Baloch women were not even given the dignity of a conversation,” said Munizae Jahangir, co-chairperson of the HRCP.

Holding security agencies responsible for enforced disappearances, the commission’s chairperson, Asad Iqbal Butt, said the acts violated an array of civil rights.

The security agencies “think they are friends of Pakistan, but whenever I have a meeting with them, I tell them, ‘You are not a friend of Pakistan. You are engaging in animosity with Pakistan,’” Butt said.

He urged the courts to ask recovered victims of enforced disappearances to identify the agencies that detained them.

“Unless those who pick people up are not brought to justice, unless they are punished, this problem cannot be resolved,” Butt said, adding that the issue of enforced disappearances was hurting the public’s trust in state institutions.

Military’s response

In a rare press conference a day earlier, military spokesperson Major General Ahmed Sharif Chaudhry defended the crackdown on the Pakistan Tareek-e-Insaf Party, or PTI.“If, in any country, an attack is launched on its army, symbols of its martyrs are insulted, its founder’s house is set on fire, hatred is created between its army and public. And if the people behind it are not brought to justice, then there is a question mark on that country’s justice system,” Chaudhry told the media.

The chief of Inter-Services Public Relations, Chaudhry supported PTI’s demand for a judicial commission to probe the events of May 9. However, he said the commission should investigate the party’s past attacks on government properties as well.

Calling PTI a group of miscreants, the military spokesperson demanded the party “apologize publicly.”

Speaking to reporters in court on Wednesday, Khan said he would not apologize.

“I should be apologized to, as I have been arrested illegally,” said Khan, who has been in jail since Aug. 5, 2023, on multiple corruption charges that he has denied.

While speaking to the media on Tuesday, Chaudhry said it was unfair to blame enforced disappearances on law enforcement agencies, since some allegedly missing persons are found to be involved in terrorism and other illegal activities or are in private jails run by local militias.

He said the issue was serious and complex but rejected the debate surrounding it as propaganda by “certain political elements, media elements, NGOs and some with links overseas.”

“Here [in Pakistan] there is exaggerated propaganda on this issue,” Chaudhry said, arguing that the scope of the problem in Pakistan was smaller than in many other countries.

Butt on Wednesday dismissed Chaudhry’s assertions as “foolish,” saying men in uniform were seen abducting people.

Jahangir called for stronger legislation to determine the mandate of security agencies. She urged the government to ratify the United Nations’ International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.



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