Twenty-nine people were arrested in Islamabad on January 28 while peacefully protesting the arrest and imprisonment of Manzoor Pashteen, leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM).
Two more protesters were abducted by plain clothes intelligence officers on January 30. On February 2, Alamzaib Mehsud, a PTM organiser, was abducted from his home, just three months after having been released from jail, where he had been held without charge for eight months.
The PTM has been calling for the right of return of Waziristan residents uprooted in the wake of anti-Taliban operations launched by the Pakistani state, and for an inquiry into extrajudicial killings. Pashteen was arrested in Peshawar in June.
The arrestees include Pakistan National Assembly Member Mohsin Dawar, Punjab President of the Awami Workers Party (AWP) Ammar Rashid and President of the Women’s Democratic Front Ismat Shahjahan.
The arrestees were initially charged with sedition, rioting, unlawful assembly and public mischief. Twenty-three arrestees were denied bail and family and friends who tried to visit them were denied access.
The prosecution signalled its intention to drop the sedition charges in favour of charging the protesters under the draconian Anti-Terrorism Act. When the case was heard by the Chief Justice of the Islamabad High Court on February 3, the Chief Justice castigated the prosecution for invoking colonial laws against the protesters.
The prosecution will now review its case and will appear before the court on February 11.
Nine people associated with the PTM have also been falsely charged during similar protests in Bannu in support of Pashteen.
Many of those arrested and charged are minority Pashtun day labourers who attended the January 28 protest from the poorest parts of the city. Others arrested include students, academics and community activists.
According to witness reports, at 4am on January 30, men in plain clothes broke into Mohsin Abdali’s home and abducted him without charge. They harassed and abused his family and took away laptops and phones.
Abdali is a student activist who organised a recent Student Solidarity March and the Climate March in Pakistan. His last public appearance was a demonstration organised by the Women’s Democratic Front calling for the release of AWP activists and Pashteen. He was allowed to return home several hours later.
On the same day, Qismat, a member of the PTM and the Pukhtoon Student’s Federation, was abducted by intelligence agents from his college. He had attended a protest in Bannu in support of the PTM.
Hundreds of academics, artists, writers and activists from around the world have signed a statement calling on the Pakistani government to immediately release all arrested and drop all charges against the protesters.
They are also calling for the immediate release of Pashteen, the repeal of Pakistan’s Sedition Law and the protection of the constitutional and democratic right to free expression and peaceful assembly.
The statement said: “These archaic laws are deliberately vague and broad without any meaning given to words like ‘hatred’ and ‘contempt’; they are frequently exploited and used against people exercising freedom of speech and assembly.”
These events follow a disturbing trend in Pakistan: Increasingly, anyone who has brought attention to the unconstitutional involvement of the army in the country’s politics, and the excess use of force by the security forces, has been subject to extreme levels of surveillance, harassment, arrests — and at times enforced disappearances.
These cases follow a series of other sedition cases in the past year. After a Student Solidarity March in November, prominent activists Ammar Jan, Kamil Khan, Farooq Tariq, Iqbal Lala and Mohammad Shabir were all charged with sedition.