Pakistan expanded use of draconian sedition laws to stifle dissent

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<br>In March, Prime Minister Imran Khan met with families of people who had been forcibly disappeared, allegedly by Pakistani security forces, and pledged that their concerns would be addressed. However, his government announced no investigations in any cases.

Pakistan has more than 4,600 prisoners on death row, one of the world’s largest populations facing execution. Those on death row are often from the most marginalised sections of society.

In 2021, the Pakistan government intensified its efforts to control the media and curtail dissent. Authorities harassed, and at times detained, journalists and other members of civil society for criticizing government officials and policies. Violent attacks on members of the media also continued, the HRW said in the report.

The authorities have expanded their use of draconian sedition and counterterrorism laws to stifle dissent, and strictly regulated civil society groups critical of government actions or policies.

They have also cracked down on members and supporters of opposition political parties.

Women, religious minorities, and transgender people continue to face violence, discrimination, and persecution, with authorities failing to provide adequate protection or hold perpetrators to account. The government continues to do little to hold law enforcement agencies accountable for torture and other serious abuses, HRW said.

Attacks by Islamist militants, notably the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), targeting law enforcement officials and religious minorities killed dozens of people.

A climate of fear impedes media coverage of abuses by both government security forces and militant groups. Journalists who face threats and attacks have increasingly resorted to self-censorship.

Media outlets have come under pressure from authorities not to criticise government institutions or the judiciary. In several cases in 2021, government regulatory agencies blocked cable operators and television channels that had aired critical programs, the report said.

Nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) reported intimidation, harassment, and surveillance of various by government authorities. The government used a new policy to impede the registration and functioning of international humanitarian and human rights groups.

Members of the Ahmadiyya religious community continue to be a major target for prosecutions under blasphemy laws as well as specific anti-Ahmadi laws.

Militant groups and the Islamist political party Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) accuse Ahmadis of "posing as Muslims". The Pakistan penal code also treats "posing as Muslims" as a criminal offense.

According to a Pakistani human rights organization, the Centre for Social Justice, at least 1,855 people were charged under country’s blasphemy laws between 1987 and February 2021.

On May 17, 2021, dozens of people attacked a police station in Islamabad to lynch two brothers charged with blasphemy, breaking into the facility and battling with police officers before the station was brought under control. The two brothers were physically unharmed. The police arrested a number of individuals who were part of the mob, but none were prosecuted.

On June 4, 2021, the Lahore High Court acquitted a Christian couple, Shafqat Emmanuel and Shagufta Kausar, of blasphemy after spending seven years on death row. The couple was convicted in 2014 of sending "blasphemous" texts to a mosque cleric.

Last August, an eight-year-old Hindu boy in Rahim Yar Khan, Punjab, became the youngest person to ever be charged with blasphemy in Pakistan after he was accused of defiling a carpet at a religious seminary. Following his release on bail, a mob attacked a Hindu temple, causing damage. All charges against the child were subsequently dropped.

Violence against women and girls, including rape, murder, acid attacks, domestic violence, and forced marriage, is endemic throughout Pakistan. Human rights defenders estimate that roughly 1,000 women are killed in so-called honour killings every year.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, over 5 million primary school-age children in Pakistan were out of school, most of them girls.

HRW research found girls miss school for reasons including lack of schools, costs associated with studying, child marriage, harmful child labour, and gender discrimination.

School closures to protect against the spread of Covid-19 affected almost 45 million students for most of the year, while Pakistan’s poor internet connectivity hampered online learning.

The European Union is Pakistan biggest trading partner. Last April, the European Parliament passed a resolution deploring human rights violations in Pakistan and calling for an immediate review of Pakistan’s eligibility for GSP+ status, which grants Pakistan trade benefits conditional on its compliance with human rights obligations.

In June, the EU and Pakistan held human rights talks. The EU’s report on Pakistan’s compliance with its human rights obligations to retain GSP+ status is scheduled to be published in early 2022.

(Sanjeev Sharma can be reached at Sanjeev.s@ians.in)

–IANS<br>san/ksk/

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