We continued to feel intense suffocation in Pakistan throughout 2020. The state of human rights, which has consistently remained morbid for the past few years, definitely did not improve this past year either. State repression, crackdown on dissent, enforced disappearances, false police cases against journalists, arbitrary detentions of rights defenders, attacks on religious minorities, violation of labor laws and violence against women continued.
The government was so fixated on the status of religious minorities in India, France and other parts of Europe, that it completely failed to think of religious minorities in Pakistan, who continued to suffer due to the existing discrimination in law, institutions and society.
The pandemic impacted the cases of religious minorities accused of blasphemy, as hearings were repeatedly delayed. The anti-Ahmadi campaign intensified, leading to killings in Peshawar; the Ahmadi community also saw their businesses shut down, and families forced into displacement. The pandemic also meant that at-risk individuals could only seek limited protection, since border shutdowns and travel restrictions impacted their ability to seek asylum outside the country.
Forced conversions of Christian, Hindu and Sikh women and girls continued to take place. A number of Pakistanis, both Muslim and non-Muslim, remained on death row for blasphemy while others remained stranded in the trial period. The Shia community faced a string of blasphemy cases around Muharram, endorsed by clerics that were seen to be palatable to the government. The issue of blasphemy also made it to social media trends, and threats against individuals online; despite multiple complaints, the threatening social media posts and comments were not taken offline.
Online abuse hurled at women journalists, endorsed and signalled by some of the ruling party’s social media accounts, went unchecked. Individual journalists were targeted and overall many were subjected to filth for their work and opinion. A hearing with the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Human Rights acknowledged the grievance, but the abuse continued unabated.
The government notified social media rules without due process and without consulting civil society organisations. Among other things, the rules give power to the PTA to block and remove content including criticism of government officials, and posts seen as against the glory of Islam. Keeping up with the trend of the past two years, journalists continued to be charged under the draconian PECA in 2020 too. The government banned TikTok and other apps on the grounds of obscenity; Tiktok was later unbanned.
Bizarrely, the prime minister gave a number of interviews to the local and international press, in which he reiterated that he was most targeted by the press, and insisted that the press is fairly free in Pakistan. He also did not have an answer about the disappearance case involving renowned journalist Matiullah Jan.
Political dissidents continued to face human rights violations, including short- and long-term ‘disappearances’. The case of Idris Khattak, a senior human rights defender from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa who was said to have been disappeared – and was later ‘found’ but not released – was still ongoing till the end of the year 2020. The PTI government had pledged to criminalise enforced disappearances in 2018, but neither civil society nor the victims’ families have seen the draft bill, and it has not been passed yet. The country also saw the extrajudicial murder of Hayat Baloch, a Baloch student, in Turbat.
In a positive development, political dissidents from Gilgit-Baltistan, including Baba Jan Hunzai, were released after years of incarceration in false cases. And in more good news, Mehr Abdul Sattar, leader of the peasants movement for ownership of the Okara military farms was acquitted in anti-terrorism cases and released.
The year also witnessed the mysterious deaths of Baloch activists living outside of Pakistan, strengthening the climate of fear among dissidents in the country. The PTM too continued to face challenges through the year. At the close of the year, Ali Wazir, an MNA affiliated with the PTM, was still in jail in Karachi. There has not been any development in the case of the 2019 extrajudicial killing of Pashtun activist Arman Luni. Deaths and injuries due to landmine explosions were also reported from KP. And, through the year, access to the internet for residents of parts of KP and Balochistan remained an issue.
Heinous incidents of rapes and sexual assault of women and children continued to take place across Pakistan in 2020. After advocacy by CSOs, the government passed an anti-rape legislation which would ensure speedy trial of rapes. The government also announced the implementation of a sexual offenders registry. The transgender community was subjected to discrimination and crime including torture and murder. The implementation of a transgender rights bill remains an issue; the passage of a landmark legislation in 2018 has not guaranteed their integration in society. On the matter of marriage, in Punjab, KP and Balochistan, the age for marriage of girls remains less than 18. Though we did see how Sindh’s law against child marriage helped in the case of the forced conversion of Arzoo Raja, a Christian minor from Karachi.
On the Covid-19 front, dozens of healthcare workers lost their lives. In the meanwhile, Balochistan police used force on medical staff protesting lack of protective kits in Quetta. In Lahore too, young doctors went on a hunger strike for weeks demanding PPEs. Thousands of Pakistanis lost their livelihoods to the pandemic; however, the federal and provincial governments could neither come up with nor enforce a consistent policy to help those who lost employment during the year. The informal labour force suffered intensely due to this lack of compensation, and despite demonstrations their plight remained unheard. Other protests continued as well and in Lahore, during a farmers’ agitation, Ashfaq Langrial of Vehari died after allegedly getting sprayed with chemicals mixed with water.
Forced evictions across the country due to development and infrastructure projects displaced thousands of low-income families. The prime minister’s 2018 promise of low-cost housing is yet to materialise.Rabia Mehmood, "Human rights in 2020," The News. 2021-01-01.
Keywords: Social sciences , Human rights , Religious minorities , Social media , Civil society , Political dissidents , Global pandemic , Sexual offenders , Labor laws