November 2005 
Year 12    No.112


Growing intolerance

Increasing regimentation is depriving citizens of fundamental rights
says the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan

PESHAWAR, September 12: Growing intolerance, manipulation of the democratic process and
heightened efforts to quash dissent are all proof of growing regimentation in the country.

These were some of the issues taken up at a two-day meeting in Peshawar of HRCP’s (Human Rights Commission of Pakistan) council, the decision-making body of the organisation. At the end of the meeting, the following statement was issued:

Subversion of the democratic process: The blatant subversion of the local government election process, the first two phases of which have been completed, is proof of the lack of official respect for democratic norms. The re-drawing of constituency lines, widespread harassment of opposition candidates in the pre-poll scenario and the poor arrangements on polling day itself all provide evidence of the reluctance to permit any kind of real democracy. This is symptomatic of a wider disregard for democratic practices. It demonstrates a determination to prevent people from participating in the political process and can only augur ill at a time when the general election may be coming up in just over a year’s time.

Expanding intolerance: Intolerance has grown extensively in the country, most notably in the NWFP. The Hasba Bill is only one manifestation of this. The failure of authorities to penalise those responsible for creating an air of harassment and terror, particularly for non-Muslims, is obviously encouraging such crimes. The targeting by rioters of minority communities in the NWFP, including an incident recently in Nowshera where a mob attacked a Hindu temple, and the complete failure of authorities to apprehend those involved, provides evidence of official connivance in such atrocious acts. Even where video evidence exists, police have refused to take action. The killing of writers, as a direct consequence of what they wrote, the murder of persons accused of blasphemy in the NWFP and the kidnappings of members of minority communities is further manifestation of this dangerous trend.

Northern Areas: The people of the Northern Areas remain largely deprived of fundamental rights. A 10-member HRCP mission to Gilgit, Hunza and Skardu in late August found immense frustration over the lack of any guarantees for basics rights, rule of law and social welfare. The absence of an independent judiciary aggravates this deep-rooted sense of frustration. Health, education and basic amenities are in an abysmal state – while the new scourge of sectarian violence is taking a terrible toll. It is essential that people of the Northern Areas be granted a voice in their own affairs through the setting up of representative institutions and the same constitutional, legal and developmental rights as people in other parts of Pakistan. It is particularly unfortunate that the Government of Pakistan has shown no interest in the plight of the people of the Northern Areas or made any attempt to address their many concerns.

Attacks on NGOs: The malicious attacks on NGOs, now coming regularly from members of the government, send out a clear warning to civil society organisations. The tendency to blame NGOs for the deficiencies of state is a part of the vilification campaign against these organisations and against human rights defenders. It is obvious the determination to prevent them from continuing freely with their work is growing stronger with every passing day. The threat of legislation for this purpose, under the guise of monitoring NGOs, continues to lurk. The language used against NGO leaders by some government members has been especially offensive, while no action has been taken against extremist forces which, emboldened by past inaction, killed a women NGO activist and her teenaged daughter in Dir a few months ago. The murderers have not been apprehended.

Sectarian violence: Despite claims to the contrary by rulers, sectarian violence across the country is accelerating. The situation is especially disturbing in Balochistan, where during the past few weeks alone, well respected Shia professionals have been targeted. It is obvious that the mere rounding up and detention of alleged militants can serve no purpose in the absence of wider-ranging policies aimed at tackling the root causes of the growing hatred in society and rehabilitating the confused young militants who today stalk the streets with their guns and grenades. Until the state gives up the exploitation of religion for its own purposes and stops its patronage to extremist forces, sectarian violence cannot be ended.

Curbs on media freedoms: The arbitrary bans on publications, cancellation of declarations, attacks on individual journalists and the harassment of the owners and employees of publications, radio channels and television networks all form part of an orchestrated campaign to crush dissent. HRCP has recorded at least 12 such attacks on the media in 2005 alone. The harassment of individual journalists by intelligence personnel is emerging as the favourite means of quashing free expression. The ‘picking up’ of reporter Rashid Channa in Karachi, after he published stories critical of members of the Sindh government, is only the latest example of this trend.

Non-functioning of courts: The provision of justice to people is being severely impeded by the undue delay in filling vacancies for judges in the high courts, the Federal Services Tribunal, banking courts, labour courts and also other courts of law. This has brought the functioning of many courts to a virtual standstill. The selective hearing of cases further handicaps the provision of justice while the need for women judges in courts continues to be urgently felt. HRCP demands the immediate filling of vacancies and an increase in the strength of courts where required in order to improve people’s access to justice.

Disappearances: The rising number of ‘missing persons’ across Pakistan has emerged as a disturbing new phenomenon. The pretext of the ‘war on terror’ can do nothing to justify such abuses. One of the most distressing cases is that of sisters Arifa and Saba Baloch, the two alleged ‘suicide bombers’ from Karachi. The young women appear to have been ‘picked up’ in June in Swat, almost certainly by agencies. Attempts by their father to locate them have proved futile, with the federal and provincial governments informing the Peshawar High Court (PHC) they were not in their custody. HRCP’s requests for access to the women, who relatives said were tortured and mistreated in custody, have met with no response from the interior ministry. Several Baloch political activists too remain missing, in some cases for several years. They include Hafiz Saeedur Rehman, Ali Asghar Bangulzai and Syed Faisel Shah. HRCP is attempting to collect figures on the precise number of ‘missing’ persons in the country and is continuing to receive reports from all provinces. The government is responsible for these ‘disappeared’ persons and has a duty to ensure their recovery.

Atrocities against children: Evidence available to HRCP indicates crimes against children are on the rise. Each year more and more children are trafficked – for use as sex workers, as slave labour or for other purposes. There has also been a marked increase in the number of rapes and gang rapes of minor girls. The state procedure currently in place, with FIRs (first information reports) registered by police in the cases of missing children only after three months have lapsed, adds immensely to the suffering of families and makes the task of swiftly tracking down missing children virtually impossible. The government initiatives taken to bring thousands of ‘camel kids’ home from the Gulf are appreciated. The official confirmation of the presence of thousands of Pakistani children in these states, for use as forced labour, indicates the scale of the problem. HRCP urges authorities to also extend their efforts to other children suffering abuse, and especially those who have gone ‘missing’ from their homes.

Attacks on minorities: Non-Muslims across the country are facing an accelerating threat of violence. HRCP recently received a copy of a ‘fatwa’ issued in Kumri, in the Umerkot district of Sindh, warning Hindus that they must clear the area or face death. The Hindu community was also warned acid would be thrown on their women. Similar violence has been threatened against non-Muslim citizens in the NWFP, where temples have been attacked in several instances. The impunity available to the culprits can only encourage others to perpetuate similar atrocities against non-Muslim citizens. The textbooks produced by the government in the Punjab, and also other provinces, include material that is derogatory to religions other than Islam. HRCP also strongly denounces statements such as the one made recently by a minister of the NWFP government attacking Ahmadis. These statements belie official claims of guaranteeing protection for non-Muslim citizens and can only add to the prevailing discrimination and hostility they suffer.

Toll of terrorism: Terrorism continues in many forms. As always, the worst sufferers are ordinary citizens. In Balochistan, at least 120 bomb blasts and 123 rocket attacks between January and August 2005 have greatly damaged peace of mind and security for people across the province. It is unknown who is behind these attacks, or what their motives are in spreading harassment and fear. Ordinary citizens are as such the primary victims of both terrorism and counter-terrorism measures.

Afghan refugees: Afghan refugees still face harassment and are subjected to arrest on the slightest pretext. Many Afghans are in jail as they are unable to provide the local sureties needed to secure bail while the harassment by police of refugees in Peshawar, Quetta, Islamabad and other cities continues. HRCP reminds authorities of the need, at all times, to respect human dignity in its treatment of refugees.

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