On Friday morning (September 15), the Islamabad high court is scheduled to hear the petition Ali Wazir vs. the State, which seeks protective bail for several detained activists in Pakistan arrested no less than three times within days, and the ‘candid disclosure’ of charges against them.
They are among the many who have been arrested, released, and re-arrested several times over the past weeks.
Their struggle is part of a long battle for human rights and justice in a security paradigm under which enforced disappearances, encounter killings, media censorship, and police brutality have become the norm.
Many of those who earlier condoned this security paradigm now find themselves facing the same heavy-handedness and lack of due process.
They include former Prime Minister Imran Khan, removed constitutionally by a vote of no-confidence in April 2022, his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party members and supporters. The erstwhile opposition, a coalition of political parties, formed a government for the remaining 16 months of the assembly’s five-tenure, which ended last month.
Protests erupted against his imprisonment on May 9, with some demonstrators targeting military buildings. Many of those who participated or even happened to just pass through those areas now face arrest, bail and re-arrest, with due process often not followed.
This is also what happened with human-rights lawyer Imaan Mazari-Hazir and former member of the National Assembly Ali Wazir after a rally at Tarnol outside the capital Islamabad on August 18, in which they vehemently opposed the military and its meddling in government affairs.
It’s “irrational” to expect better from a state that doesn’t believe in civil rights and freedom of expression, said political analyst Azaz Syed, a senior journalist with Geo TV in Islamabad.
The establishment “wanted an excuse” to sideline former prime minister Imran Khan’s party, and they got it, he tells Sapan News. While violence is never acceptable, the violence committed by around a thousand individuals on May 9 led to over 10,000 arrests, he noted.
The PTI maintains that their protests were peaceful and that their members were not involved in any violence.
Dissenting voices in Balochistan province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have long faced far worse. The number of missing persons in Balochistan alone has crossed 5,000 since the early 2000s.
Ali Wazir, 46, a Marxist activist who works in the transport business, is from North Waziristan, a tribal area bordering Afghanistan that has been a battleground in the Pakistan military’s fight against the Taliban.
The Wazir family’s opposition to the Taliban has cost them dearly. The Taliban have killed several of their relatives. Five, including Ali Wazir’s father, uncle and cousins, were killed in a single ambush in 2005. At that time, Wazir was a student at Gomal University in Dera Ismail Khan, imprisoned for a scuffle with a telephone operator.
Since February 2018, he has been a key leader of the civil-rights organisation Pashtun Tahaffuz (‘protection’) Movement, which emerged from a student-led organisation started in 2014 to protest the racial profiling of the Mehsud tribe.
The PTM holds Pakistan’s powerful military responsible for cultivating the Taliban. News about them is largely censored in Pakistan.
Wazir survived an assassination attempt shortly before Pakistan’s last elections in July 2018, when he was elected as an independent candidate. His participation in parliamentary sessions was impeded by sedition charges and imprisonment for over two years. He was finally released on bail in February this year.
After the PTM rally of 18 August, he was arrested in the early hours in Tarnol, a Pashtun-dominated suburb of Islamabad. Around the same time, “unknown persons” broke into Mazari-Hazir’s home in Islamabad, where she lives with her mother, Shireen Mazari, who has been a core member of the PTI.
Hazir-Mazari, 30, a women’s rights activist and human-rights defender, has been a vocal critic of the PTI even when her mother was their human rights minister from 2019-2021.
Shireen Mazari was arrested five times within a fortnight in May this year. She subsequently resigned from PTI, citing personal reasons.
“My daughter was in her night clothes and said ‘let me change,’ but they just dragged her away,” Mazari posted on X. They also confiscated Imaan’s cellphone and laptop, plus the security cameras, showed no arrest warrant, and followed no legal procedures, she said.
The arrested activists were initially charged under various sections of the Pakistan Penal Code and the Anti Terrorism Act, including the colonial-era ‘sedition’ law that the Lahore High Court had struck down as unconstitutional in March 2023.
Mazari-Hazir was granted bail on 2 September.
Wazir and other PTM activists were granted bail on September 11 in the two remaining cases – but before they could walk out of jail, they were held again under unknown charges.
It is this that prompted their petition before the Islamabad High Court, “Ali Wazir Vs. State,” seeking protective bail and disclosure of all FIRs (first information reports) against them. The bail hearing is set for Friday September 15.
These arrests are “a prime example” of how the state cracks down on freedoms of expression, assembly and association, said lawyer Mohsin Dawar, also an elected parliamentarian from North Waziristan and a PTM founder member who launched a new political party, the National Democratic Movement, in September 2021.
“The false charges filed against them are ridiculous. Activism for peace and justice and against the flawed policies of the state is treated like a crime. The state cannot silence dissent by targeting, harassing and arresting activists like this,” he told Sapan News.
Rather than “wasting its resources” on these crackdowns, the state would do better to “address the grievances these activists have been speaking about,” he suggested.
May 9 protests
Such detentions appear “prima facie to be deliberate and part of an intentional design to frustrate and divert the course of justice and establish that rule of law can be trumped by rule of force,” noted Justice Babar Sattar of the Islamabad high court after PTI’s former anti-narcotics minister Shehryar Afridi was arrested no less than five times over a period of 47 days, from May 11 to June 27.
Munizae Jahangir, who runs the human rights journalism portal VoicePk.net, finds it “particularly alarming” that civilians are being tried under military courts.
“The state wants to strengthen the existing military courts and widen the law so that more and more people can be tried in the military courts,” she told Sapan News.
During Khan’s tenure, at least 25 civilians were tried under military courts and charged under the Official Secrets Act.
After the 2014 attack that killed some 132 schoolboys in an Army Public School in Peshawar, the government introduced the National Action Plan in 2015 and set up short-term military courts for trials of terrorists under the Army Act. The authority of these courts lapsed in 2017, but a constitutional amendment extended it until 2019.
Charges of sedition and terrorism have been used to intimidate not just activists but also their families.
When rights activist Gulalai Ismail fled to the US in September 2019 to escape such charges, the authorities filed cases of ‘terrorism’ against her parents in Islamabad. They were finally acquitted this year.
The then-prime minister Imran Khan remained silent when military forces clashed with peaceful PTM protesters in North Waziristan in May 2019, killing 15 civilians. The multiple arrests and delayed court proceedings faced by PTM leaders Wazir and Manzoor Pashteen were met with similar silence by Khan.
“Lo and behold, a year later, Khan and his close aide, former foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, are being tried in the same very law and manner,” said Jahangir.
She believes that “the establishment wants the same result” – to remain in control.
Many PTI supporters, including women, have remained in detention since 9 May, denied their right to a free trial. They include a fashion designer, a former parliamentarian, and a former health minister among others.
Several were detained initially for 83 days by police, then further held on judicial remand, said barrister Khadija Siddiqui in Lahore, who is representing one of the detained women.
The trial court had dismissed the charges against them of having masterminded violence, she told Sapan News.
The cases now face delays at the Lahore High Court, said Siddiqui, explaining that the prosecuting lawyer doesn’t show up or requests more time, the bench reschedules the hearings, or the judge is absent.
The journalist community and human rights activists are also demanding the release of journalist Imran Riaz Khan, an ardent Khan supporter who often attacked fellow journalists. He has been missing since his arrest on 11 May.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch has also slammed the Pakistani authorities for “using vague over broad anti-terrorism laws to stifle dissent” and urged the right to due process be upheld.
However, Jahangir doesn’t see the crackdown ending any time soon.
The caretaker government sworn in on August 17 as per the Constitution to oversee fresh elections holds that “social order can never be compromised for rule of law” – a stand that, in fact, puts people in their place and quashes dissent, Jahangir observed.
She predicts that the situation will only deteriorate.
“Anybody who has a different narrative than the security apparatus is vulnerable,” said Amina Masood Janjua who started and heads the nonprofit Defence of Human Rights Pakistan after her husband went missing in 2005.
Those like Mazari-Hazir, “who aren’t afraid to wear their emotions on their sleeves, are actually being targeted more,” she told Sapan News.
Parliament recently passed legislation that further empowers the military and has made dissent more “risky,” Janjua adds.
She was referring to the amendments to the Official Secrets Act that expand the definition of contact with an ‘enemy’, treat unintentional contact at par with planned espionage, and empower intelligence agencies to raid and arrest citizens over the suspected breach of official secrets.
But people are still speaking out, not letting fear hold them back, Janjua added.
August 18 demo
In Mazari-Hazir’s 18 August speech directly targeting Pakistan’s powerful military, she told the crowd, “You’re being stopped as if you’re terrorists while the Taliban find their way into our homes. The real terrorists are those sitting in GHQ (army headquarters).”
She demanded an end to the terror attacks, the release of the illegal disappearances, and court martial of army officials “who’ve betrayed this country and its people”.
Mazari-Hazir then chanted the slogan popularised by PTM that has got many arrested before her: “Yeh jo dehshat-gardi hai, uss k peechay wardi hai!” (Behind this terrorism is the military uniform).
She has “shown major bravery in standing up for what she believes in,” says Syed. But “lawyers and journalists have to be smart and not get caught up in any pitfalls. Going down the suicide route isn’t the most sensible move to make.”
Article 19 of Pakistan’s Constitution upholds the right to freedom of speech with due recognition to the importance of preserving the integrity and respect for the judiciary and the armed forces.
“But the military establishment manoeuvres the political game for their own interests,” says Jahangir. You can’t commit a crime “and then expect people not to criticise you” and demand “that the slogans should be according to your taste.”
“The only way out of this quagmire is free and fair elections, a democratic dispensation,” she added.
“And the army should return to the barracks” – not interfere in politics. Her words echo the stance consistently taken by her late mother, the iconic human rights lawyer Asma Jahangir.An excerpt from BBC Urdu interview of late lawyer Asma Jahangir about the legitimacy and effectiveness of a caretaker setup governing Pakistan
Having initially propped Khan up as one of those ‘projects’, those at the helm now seem determined to keep him away from the political process. They have also tried to manipulate the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) but might not succeed as easily given these parties’ longer track record in electoral politics.
Whichever party or alliance comes to power after elections scheduled to be held within this year, the powers behind the scenes and the ongoing human rights violations are unlikely to change much, at least for the foreseeable future.
Source : The Wire