By Mayme-Elizabeth Medlock
On May 21, 2019, Pashtun activist Gulalai Ismail delivered a speech in Islamabad, Pakistan, that criticized the Pakistan police’s mishandling of the rape and murder of 10-year-old Farishta Momand and the war economy that created the societal conditions surrounding Farishta’s murder. For Ismail, war and Farishta’s murder and assault are fundamentally connected because Farishta and her family were IDPs in Islamabad because of the war on terror, war led to a rise in the internal displacement of families, sexual assault, and child killings as it encourages an overall brutalization of society (1).
Ismail had also visited Khaisor, Waziristan where a woman dared to speak out about the incidents of sexual harassment by Pakistani military officials. In Khaisor, she met a number of women who shared their stories of continuous sexual harassment and violation of privacy by the security officials. In her speech, she also gave reference to the incidents of sexual harassment reported from the conflict zones. Her visit to Khaisor along with other women activists, brought to light the systematic sexual harassment of women by the security officials.
Just a day after Ismail’s speech, the police in Islamabad filed a First Information Report (FIR) that charged the award-winning activist with several crimes, including terrorism and sedition. Her family was threatened, and her home was raided multiple times, prompting her to go into hiding. She was placed on the Exit Control List in October 2018 preventing her from leaving the country, despite winning the case against her ECL, the Ministry for Interior Affairs refused to remove her from ECL and the court also dismissed Ismail’s Contempt of Court petition. Organizations close to Ismail such as Reaching All Women in WAR (RAW in WAR) fear that she has been placed on a “kill list” along with other critics of the Pakistani military (2).
Ismail’s charges include defamation, promotion of enmity between groups, and sedition under the Pakistani Penal Code (sections 500, 153-A, and 124-A respectively). In addition to these charges, the First Information Report included Section 6 and 7 of the Anti-Terrorism Act. The Anti-Terrorism Act features a broad definition of terrorism and has been described by the U.S. Department of State as “almost incapable of prosecuting suspected terrorists” (3). Despite these criticisms, the Anti-Terrorism Act has become a useful tool of the state to silence political opponents and activists. One such clause, “Civil Commotion,” is punishable under the Anti-Terrorism Act, but scholars have highlighted the inherent subjectivity. Charles H. Kennedy, former Director of the American Institute of Pakistan Studies, criticized this section by saying, “‘crimes’ could also be interpreted as ‘normal’ political behavior” (4).
Gulalai Ismail was booked under Terrorism and Sedition Charges a few days after the Press Conference of Director General ISPR Asif Ghafoor in which he openly threatened PTM activists claiming that their “time is up”. Soon after, propaganda videos emerged online claiming the “time is up” for PTM activists Gulalai Ismail, Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir.
Gulalai Ismail’s charges and experience mirror that of other human rights defenders. The actions of Pakistani activists, particularly that of the Pashtun ethnicity, are frequently criminalized through labels such as “anti-state” or “seditious.” The criminalization of questioning the military or government hinders the work of activists and human rights defenders, and such policies limit progress. The Anti-Terrorism Act has not only been used to punish activists but also to prevent citizen participation according to Wajahat Hasan Mirza, Chairman of Gilgit Baltistan Thinkers Forum (5).
The Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) has been at odds with the Pakistani state and military because of their accusations that the fundamental human rights of Pashtuns are not being respected. They condemn extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, urging for the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission to address such issues, as well as demining Pashtun tribal areas. The Pakistan Army accuses the group of promoting animosity between ethnic groups as part of a foreign agenda. The PTM refutes such claims.
Ismail is not the first PTM activist to be threatened with terrorism charges. In early 2018, Manzoor Pashteen reported that PTM supporters were intimidated and threatened with terrorism charges, and later, charges were filed as “wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot” and “promoting enmity between different groups” (153 and 153a of the Pakistan Penal Code respectively) (6). In May 2018, over 150 PTM supporters were charged after holding rallies in Karachi, some of which were charged under the Anti-Terrorism Act. In June 2018, 37 activists received charges of sedition and were transferred to the anti-terrorism court. They were denied bail and cite mistreatment during their incarceration, but the charges were dropped in September. In January 2019, hundreds of protestors were accused of crimes, and dozens were arrested, including PTM leaders. The arrest of Alamzeb Mehsud, an activist known for profiling missing persons and war victims, was filmed. He was later charged with defamation, “wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot,” “promoting enmity between different groups,” and “statements conducing to public mischief” under the Pakistan Penal Code. Additionally, he was charged with Section 7 of the Anti-Terrorism Act. Sixteen people, including Ali Wazir, were charged during this incident.
On May 26, 2019, a protest at a military checkpoint in North Waziristan turned violent, leaving at least 13 people dead and over 25 injured (7). The sit-in was organized in response to an assault of a local woman, and it was later joined by the PTM (8). PTM leaders and military officials delivered contradictory accounts of the events and what started the violence, prompting the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan to call for the formation of an investigative parliamentary commission (9). In a statement, military officials attributed blame to the protestors, claiming that they exhibited “maximum restraint” but were forced to act after receiving direct fire (10). They claimed that 3 died while ten were wounded, but the PTM disputed this. Ali Wazir and Mohsin Javed Dawar, PTM leaders and Members of the National Assembly, were blamed for leading the event. Wazir was arrested and charged with Section 7 of the Anti-Terrorism Act, and he was also charged with murder, attempted murder, conspiracy, “assault or criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of his duty,” and abetment to an offense (302, 324, 120b, 353, and 109 of the Pakistan Penal Code respectively) (11).
Witnesses and the PTM dispute the military’s accounts, and videos of the protest do not corroborate the military’s version of events either. In an interview for VOA Deewa, Dawar stated that thirty people were wounded as the military “opened straight fire at us” after shooting into the air (13). Waziristan was placed under curfew after the incident, and a Human Rights Commission investigative team was prevented from investigating by the Army (14)
Despite the mounting testimony that contradicts the Army’s statement, many major news outlets in Pakistan have not reported on it. This follows a trend of a “media blackout” where major outlets have not covered the PTM gatherings or interviewed PTM leaders (15). Though numerous reports exist of human rights defenders being charged with terrorism in Pakistan, finding names of all of the accused is extremely difficult, and this may be due in part to the restrictions on media in Pakistan. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that Pakistan’s “powerful military quietly, but effectively, restricts reporting by barring access, encouraging self-censorship through direct and indirect acts of intimidation, and even allegedly instigating violence against reporters” (16).
One tool of such intimidation is the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act of 2016, which was used to charge journalist Shahzeb Jillani with cyberterrorism after reporting on enforced disappearances. His charge is rooted in reported defamation against Pakistani institutions on air and on Twitter, but he is not the only critical figure challenged under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act of 2016 (17). Reporters, former politicians, and average citizens have been intimidated by and/or charged with the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act for reports, interviews, and social media posts (18). Following the bill’s ratification, the Association for Progressive Communications criticized the language of the law by stating that its ambiguity allows for manipulation “for political and/ or ideological reasons” and grants the state “absolute control over the flow of information” (19).
In addition to the laws that allow the persecution of human rights defenders, enforced disappearances remain a significant impediment to human rights work and civil society. Ismail, Wazir, and Jillani are among the many who were critical of the military’s involvement in enforced disappearances and the lack of progress in ending the practice. Jillani was charged for cyberterrorism based off his report that alleges that the Pakistani military illegally abducted and incarcerated prisoners. The Pakistani Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances reports over 2,000 pending cases (19). Despite promises to act, several governments have failed to effectively end enforced disappearances and quickly criminalize such acts with adequate input from victims, families, and civil society organizations (20).
As long as Pakistan’s legal system continues to manipulate legislation to silence opposition, the citizens of Pakistan cannot influence progress, and suffering will continue to affect thousands. Charges such as those levied against Gulalai Ismail must be dropped, and significant reforms must be undertaken to protect human rights defenders.
As qt. in Parvez, Tariq, and Mehwish Rani. An Appraisal of Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Act. US Institute of Peace, 2015, www.jstor.org/stable/resrep12399.
Charles H. Kennedy, “The Creation and Development of Pakistan’s Anti-terrorism Regime, 1997-2002,” in RELIGIOUS RADICALISM AND SECURITY IN SOUTH ASIA, ed. Satu P. LIMAYE, Mohan Malik, and Robert G. Wirsing (Honolulu: ASIA-PACIFIC CENTER FOR SECURITY STUDIES, 2004), 411