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Power and human rights

Shamil Shams
April 17, 2015

From assaults on religious minorities to the attack on a Peshawar-based school, 2014 was one of the worst years for human rights in Pakistan, says a new report. But who is actually responsible for it?

Pakistan Waziristan Armee Infanterie ARCHIV
Image: picture-alliance/AP

The horrific militant attack on an army-administered school in the northwestern city of Peshawar, which killed over 130 children, effectively summed up the human rights situation in Pakistan last year.

There had been violent attacks in the Islamic country in the past, but none was as appalling and as heinous as the attack on the Army Public School on December 16. Never before in Pakistan were children targeted exclusively. It was also the highest death toll in a single attack in the history of the South Asian nation.

In a report published by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) on the state of human rights in 2014, the Peshawar school attack was described as a watershed incident, both in terms of the scale of violence and also in relation to the response that it generated among the public.

"The Peshawar school attack in December seemed to have created consensus against bands of thugs of all hues who had been exploiting the religious banner for ends both grand and petty," said the report, which was published on Friday, April 17.

"The government discovered some resolve to restore its writ in the tribal areas and launched military operations against extremist militants," the study, entitled "State of Human Rights in 2014," said.

Pakistan Taliban-Überfall auf Schule in Peshawar 16.12.2014
The Peshawar school attack 'seemed to have created consensus' against extremism in Pakistan, the report statesImage: picture alliance/ZUMA Press

Back to square one?

But to the dismay of rights groups, the Peshawar massacre led to the establishment of extra-constitutional military courts and the subversion of the civilian rule on the pretext of fighting terrorism.

HRCP's chairperson Zohra Yusuf blames the political leadership for not taking advantage of the consensus against Islamist militancy and surrendering their powers to the army. "It is unfortunate that the nationwide resolve against the Taliban and other extremist groups did not translate into political action. It remained a military affair," Yusuf told DW.

But Waris Husain, a Washington-based Pakistan expert, says there is a widely-held belief in Pakistan that where civilian actors falter due to incompetence or unwillingness, the military "hits hard" at accomplishing its stated goal.

Husain, however, warned that the courts could be used as a tool against political dissidents or groups that had long-angered the military.

In the aftermath of the December 16 school attack, the South Asian country also lifted a seven-year-long moratorium on death penalties. More than 8,000 Pakistanis, including juveniles, are currently on death row, according to rights group Amnesty International (AI), which has sharply condemned the recent executions.

"My worry is that they (the authorities) will hang or use the hanging as a means to harass political opponents such as the nationalists in the western Balochistan province, or other political parties that are disliked by the military," Islamabad-based civil society activist and researcher Salim Shah told DW.

Zohra Yusuf
HRCP's chairperson Zohra Yusuf blames the political leadership for not taking advantage of the consensus against Islamist militancyImage: DW/S. Shams

Shah's fears came true on April 15, when Pakistan's army chief General Raheel Sharif addressed an official meeting in Balochistan's capital Quetta and said he intended to broaden the scope of the "Zarb-e-Azb" offensive against the Taliban to the miscreants in Balochistan.

Rights activists accuse the Pakistani military of being involved in serious human rights violations against the resource-rich province's separatists and political dissidents. The army's new resolve to "crush foreign elements" in the province is likely to worsen the rights situation there, say experts.

Trickle-down effect

Now that the Pakistani army is comfortably back in the driving seat yet again, the glimmer of hope that the consolidation of parliamentary democracy would lead to an improvement of the overall rights situation has largely been dashed. The worst effects of the military's dominance over state affairs and politics in 2014 could be seen on the freedom of speech in the country.

"The challenges to and constraints on freedom of expression did not decline in 2014," underlined the HRCP's annual report.

"The year 2014 saw some distressing new lows, from a major news network being forced off the cable operators' list to a political figure hurling threats at journalists and the National Assembly's standing committee wanting to impose restrictions on the scope for reporting … The media faced crippling fines and blanket bans on coverage forcing many outlets to practice self-censorship."

On November 25 last year, an anti-terror court in the semi-autonomous Gilgit-Baltistan region sentenced the owner of Pakistan's biggest private TV channel, Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, to 26 years in prison for telecasting a "blasphemous" show. The Geo TV's reality show broadcast a devotional song about the wedding of Prophet Muhammad's daughter.

The row between Pakistan's largest commercial media group - the Jang Group of Publications - which owns Geo TV, and the country's ubiquitous military started in early 2014 after the Pakistani army accused the group of defaming the country's spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

Rights organizations believe the Pakistani military wanted to punish Geo TV for its critical reporting on the ISI, and that the blasphemy issue, too, was orchestrated to harm the channel and its executives.

Persecution of minorities

Religious extremism also continued to rise in 2014, according to the report. The HRCP points out that 11 Hindu temples and churches were attacked in the southern Sindh province, whereas two attacks were carried out against the minority Zikri sect in Balochistan.

"A total of 144 incidents of sectarian violence were reported from across Pakistan, out of which 141 were sectarian-related terrorist attacks and three were sectarian clashes," the Commission's report said.

On November 5, a Christian couple was beaten to death by a mob in a small town of Kot Radha Kishan in the eastern Punjab province, a political stronghold of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The angry crowd, which alleged that the Christian couple desecrated a copy of their holy book, the Koran, subsequently burned their bodies in a brick kiln where the couple worked.

Blasphemy has always been a very sensitive topic in the Islamic Republic, where 97 percent of its 180 million inhabitants are Muslims. But the blasphemy-related killings were not as frequent as they are now. Activists point out that religious intolerance has increased substantially in the South Asian country over the past decade, and is no longer an isolated phenomenon.

Asad Butt of the HRCP told DW that intolerance was definitely growing in Pakistan, and that many Pakistanis considered blasphemy an "unpardonable crime."

The way forward

"The challenges for the country at the end of 2014 were by no means lesser than they had been at the start of that year," the HRCP report stated. However, the paper highlighted, the growing societal resolve to confront all forms of militancy and intolerance could provide impetus to the human rights struggle in Pakistan.

Demonstration für Frauenrechte in Pakistan 2007 Frauentag
Women's active participation in political protests, and adoption of some laws to make the women's lot easier offer some 'occasional rays of hope,' says the HRCP reportImage: AP

The report further said that 2014 "did throw up the occasional ray of hope too."

"One of these was women's active participation in political protests, and adoption of some laws aimed at making the women's lot easier in the country. At least in some parts of the country, marriage of children younger than 18 years was outlawed. Balochistan also criminalized domestic violence. The provincial governments increased the minimum wage for unskilled workers, although the extent of the raise did not come up to workers' expectations."

The significance of minor improvements in Pakistan's human rights situation should not be downplayed, HRCP's chairperson Zohra Yusuf said, adding that people must continue to demand greater rights to defeat both extremism and militarization.

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