Pakistan: Stop harassment, arbitrary arrests and disappearances of human rights defenders
10 August 2017 5:52 pm

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(Bangkok/Kathmandu, 10 August 2017): The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) and its member Bytes for All, Pakistan (B4A) express grave concern over the recent cases of systematic harassment, arrests and serial abductions of human rights defenders (HRDs) by security forces in Pakistan. HRDs in Pakistan are operating in increasingly precarious conditions. They are combating Government backed pressure tactics and unsafe work environment, fostered by general absence of the rule of law and shrinking space for dissent within the Pakistani socio-political setting. Physical and online harassment together with arbitrary detention over online expression has become a continuous repressive measure against dissenting voices.

On 8 August, Partab Shivani, an activist and HRD, writer Naseer Kumbhar and a political leader of Jeay Sindh Qaumi Mahaz (JSQM) Mohammad Umer[1] were allegedly abducted by law-enforcement agencies. They were released in the late hours of 9 August[2].

Earlier, on 5 August, family members of the self-exiled separatist leader of the banned Jeay Sindh Muttahida Mahaz (JSMM), Shafi Burfat, were abducted from their residence. On 3 August, about a dozen men in police uniform picked up Punhal Sario, the leader of the recently formed Voice for Missing Persons of Sindh from Hyderabad. These individuals are still missing and none of them were produced in any court of law[3].

Since January 2017, with abduction of four bloggers, a trend of enforced disappearances has emerged with complete impunity. An increasing climate of fear and self-censorship especially online, pervades in Pakistan. Earlier this year, the Interior Ministry ordered the Cybercrime Wing of Federal Investigation Authority (FIA) to take immediate action against any person found maligning the Pakistani Army on social media, resulting in an organised movement by law enforcement agencies to stifle any kind of online expression by way of harassing and arbitrarily detaining numerous HRDs.

On 25 June, a journalist of Daily Qudrat, Zafar Achakzai was arrested by armed men from his house in Quetta. On 29 June, he was handed over to the FIA and charged under the Prevention Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) for allegedly posting ‘illegal material’ on Facebook.

Earlier, on 18 May, the Pakistan Bureau Chief for WION News, Taha Siddiqui was summoned for interrogation at the FIA’s Counter-Terrorism Wing. On 23 May, the Islamabad High Court instructed the FIA not to harass Siddiqui. Despite this court order, the FIA again served a notice demanding Siddiqui’s reappearance before the FIA’s Counter-terrorism Wing on 26 May.[4]

Since 25 May, the PECA, empowered with several censorship and surveillance enabling laws, has undermined political expression on multiple occasions using a variety of tactics.

Ever since the FIA has been ordered to carry out this investigation, its cybercrime wing has allegedly been digitally surveilling individuals, scrutinising Facebook accounts, WhatsApp groups, blogs and websites conjectured to be carrying any ‘objectionable’ content, especially that of anti-army material. The FIA publicly shared a list that included journalists and social media activists as ‘potential suspects’.[5] FORUM-ASIA and B4A fear that they are likely to be interrogated, harassed or detained over unverified suspected anti-army posts on social media. Around 40 people have already been questioned by the FIA, with their laptops, phones and tablets confiscated for forensic assessment.[6]

The PECA empowers the authorities to censor any anti-government, anti-military or dissenting religious views on account of vague and broad definitions of offences prescribing disproportionately harsh punishments. It also enables arrests without any judicial supervision thereby spreading a chilling effect on free expression, association and assembly in the country.

FORUM ASIA and B4A condemn the arbitrary use of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act to silence dissent in the country and urge the Government of Pakistan to enable an environment wherein intellectual diversity and political discourse can flourish, in keeping with the values of international human rights standard and democracy.

FORUM-ASIA and B4A further urge the Government of Pakistan to formulate open, transparent and unambiguous policies regarding conditions and procedures of arrests under the PECA that proscribe any arrests made in attempt to quell dissent and free expression in the country. The Government of Pakistan must also implement the normative human rights standard of freedom of expression in pursuance of Pakistan’s International human rights obligations and its own Constitution.

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For a PDF version of this statement, click here.

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[1]https://www.dawn.com/news/1350358/sindh-abductions-three-more-activists-go-missing-from-thar
[2]https://www.dawn.com/news/1350577
[3]https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/case/missing-persons-campaigner-punhal-sario-abducted
[4]https://tribune.com.pk/story/1419634/fia-serves-notice-journalist-despite-ihc-orders-alleged-harassment/
[5]https://en.dailypakistan.com.pk/headline/200-social-media-activists-face-fia-action-over-anti-army-posts/
[6]https://en.dailypakistan.com.pk/headline/200-social-media-activists-face-fia-action-over-anti-army-posts/