A key leader in the Pashtun rights movement in Pakistan was sentenced this week to life in prison by an anti-terror court in Karachi, accused of making statements against the government.
Qazi Tahir was sentenced to life in prison for his alleged participation in a political protest in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, in December 2020. Tahir is accused of making derogatory statements about Pakistani state institutions during the protest.
Members and supporters of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), a loose network of Pashtun activists demanding equal rights and protections for the minority Pashtuns in Pakistan, claim that their leaders are incarcerated, harassed and even eliminated by government forces.
Pashtun activists have been waging a sit-in at the Provincial Assembly in Pakistan’s Sindh province for almost three weeks.
PTM leaders and other democracy campaigners say Tahir did not even participate in the December 2020 protest.
“No evidence could be produced to justify the harsh sentence. The state continues to push peaceful Pashtun activists to the wall,” wrote Mohsin Dawar, a member of Pakistan’s National Assembly and a leader of the National Democratic Movement in Pakistan, in a tweet March 2.
Over the past two years, Pakistani authorities have arrested several PTM leaders and activists on similar charges – making incendiary remarks against state institutions.
Ali Wazir, a member of Pakistan’s National Assembly and a PTM co-founder, and several other activists were arrested in December 2020 for “hatching a criminal conspiracy and passing derogatory remarks against state institutions,” Pakistan media reported.
For Manzoor Pashteen, 27, who founded PTM in 2014 while he was a university student, the systematic arrests and summary sentencing of his comrades is a continuation of the Pakistani government’s treatment of Pashtuns as second-class citizens with limited rights.
“There is no justice for Pashtuns in Pakistan,” Pashteen told VOA. “When we demand our rights, equal rights, and protest against this colonial-like treatment of our people, we’re thrown [in]to jails indefinitely.”
Pashtuns make up about 15% to 18% of Pakistan’s population, mostly in the insurgency- and counterinsurgency-stricken province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa along the porous border with Afghanistan.
Dissidence versus terrorism
Pakistani authorities say their country has been a victim of terrorism, and that thousands of Pakistani citizens, including military personnel, have died in terrorist attacks over the past two decades.
Pakistani military officials say they’re still actively fighting terrorists.
“Their desperate attempts for revival won’t be allowed to succeed,” the Pakistani chief of army staff reiterated. “We will eliminate all remnants of terrorists, their abettors & accomplices whatever is the cost,” a spokesperson for the Pakistani army said in a tweet February 9.
Critics, however, accuse Pakistan’s powerful military of covert involvement with militant groups that conduct terrorist operations in India and Afghanistan.
There are also concerns that the military has been abusing anti-terror laws to stifle legitimate dissent.
“Civil and political dissidence is not terrorism,” Afrasiab Khattak, a former Pakistani senator, told VOA, adding that the government should stop treating political activists, particularly Pashtun and Baloch minority rights activists who criticize state institutions, as terrorists.
Human rights organization also say minorities in Pakistan are subjected to discrimination and persecution with the government failing to provide protection.
Throughout 2021, Pakistani authorities “expanded their use of draconian sedition and counterterrorism laws to stifle dissent, and strictly regulated civil society groups critical of government actions or policies,” Human Rights Watch said in its annual report.
Journalists and free-media advocates say there is a widespread environment of fear in Pakistan that impedes media coverage of abuses perpetrated by state military and intelligence forces.
“There are numerous instances where both the army and the civilian government have come and joined hands to make sure that nothing sensitive is really properly discussed,” said Ahmed Rashid, a prominent Pakistani journalist.
“We have upwards of 50 channels and every channel is monitored by the military’s information department, and many talk shows run like a few minutes late so there is the chance to cut out something somebody might have said which is too sensitive to put on air,” he told VOA.
There is also self-censorship by the media outlets trying to avoid angering the military, Rashid said.
PTM activists decry media restrictions and claim a media blackout has been imposed on their activities.
“The media don’t talk to us. They don’t report on our demands and activities,” Pashteen said, adding that no Pakistani media outlet had talked to him and other PTM members about the ongoing sit-in the group has maintained since February 16.
“Pakistani media can’t report on PTM and its activities, even if it is on merit,” said a journalist who preferred anonymity to avoid risks to his security and to protect his job.
Human rights groups accuse the Pakistani government of intensifying efforts to control the media and curtail dissent by harassing and detaining journalists and civil society activists.
Last month, the government passed a controversial cybercrime law that makes “online ‘defamation’ of authorities, including the military and judiciary, a criminal offense with harsh penalties,” according to Amnesty International.
Pakistani authorities vehemently deny media censorship and claim a free and robust media landscape in the country.
For Pashteen, the PTM leader who advocates for nonviolent activism, the fate of free media and democracy in Pakistan is tightly linked to ensuring equal rights and protections for all ethnic and religious minorities in Pakistan.
“We will continue our struggle even if we’re censored in the media,” he said.