Pakistani dissidents hold virtual conference titled ‘Enforced Disappearances, State-sanctioned killings, & Diminishing Democracy in Pakistan.’

Participants from Pakistan, U.S., U.K., France, Netherlands and Canada joined the two-hour long deliberations held online.

Washington D.C : Several Pakistani freethinkers, human rights defenders, peace activists and dissenting voices from around the world gathered virtually on Sunday and took strong exceptions to the state policies post-COVID-19 especially the tactics used by the security establishment to undermine democracy and fundamental freedoms.

The virtual conference was attended by prominent Pakistani human rights defenders, public intellectuals, journalists, scholars living in Pakistan as well as those living in exile in different countries. The prominent participants included politicians Senator Afrasiab Khattak, Farah Ispahani, Mohsin Dawar; activists Gul Bukhari, Gulalai Ismail, Saba Ismail, Waqas Goraya, Annie Zaman; journalists Taha Siddiqui, Marvi Sirmed; and intellectuals like Kamran Shafi, Dr. Saghir Shaikh, and Rasool Mohammad.

In the wake of COVID-19 pandemic, this is the first virtual event organized by South Asians Against Terrorism and for Human Rights (SAATH), a grouping of pro-democracy Pakistanis co-hosted annually by author and former Pakistan ambassador to the U.S., Husain Haqqani and US-based columnist Dr. Mohammad Taqi. SAATH Forum has an established tradition of holding widely attended Annual Conferences since 2016. Earlier this year, 4th SAATH conference was held in Washington DC.

Several participants including left leaning social and liberal democrats; Baloch, Sindhi, Pashtun, and Seraiki nationalists; and intersectional feminists noted with concern that the situation in Pakistan has escalated several notches from being a hybrid democracy to a hybrid martial law. Mohammad Taqi said in his opening address that the purpose of this conference was to do advocacy. “We need to raise our voice since the situation in Pakistan is quite bleak. There is a lot of intellectual suffocation,” Mr. Taqi said.

The conference kicked of with an intervention by Mohsin Dawar, Pakistani parliamentarian and PTM (Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement) leader, who spoke about the current political climate in the country. “Unfortunately, Pakistan’s political parties are compromised. The military is everywhere. They are micromanaging Pakistan. There is a vacuum for a real democratic force in the country,” he told the participants.

Senator Afrasiab Khattak raised the issue of clandestine efforts by the establishment to roll back the provincial autonomy provided by the 18th constitutional amendment. “We must resist the onslaught against democracy and especially the 18th Amendment. Since 2014, there has been a creeping coup and going after the amendment is part of that agenda,” Mr. Khattak said.

Activist Gulalai Ismail raised the issue of thousands of displaced Pashtuns who continue to live without their homes because of militarization of the tribal belt. “This has given rise to Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM). Arif Wazir is just one example of many target killings in tribal areas,” Ms. Ismail said, pointing to the recent high-profile killing of a PTM leader in Waziristan.

Journalist Taha Siddiqui highlighted the recent case of exiled Baloch journalist Sajid Husain, who was found dead in Sweden. “His mysterious death is a concern to all dissidents like us abroad. I hope Swedish authorities can catch the perpetrators, but if its the work of Pakistani agencies, its unlikely that they left a footprint,” Mr. Siddiqui said.

Former Parliamentarian and author Farahnaz Ispahani raised the issue of the violence against and perpetual oppression of minorities in Pakistan. “The minorities in Pakistan are struggling even more due to Covid-19. We must focus our efforts in providing them relief. They are the most vulnerable group in the country in this pandemic,” Ms. Ispahani said.

In his conlcuding remarks, Husain Haqqani also spoke about the pandemic and its impact on Pakistan. “The post Covid-19 environment will only aggravate Pakistan’s crisis. Instead of persisting with old, failed policies, a new approach must be adopted. It should be based on tolerance, democracy, genuine federalism,’ Mr. Haqqani said. He further added that Pakistan has a better chance moving forward as a democracy and a federation. “Unfortunately anti-democracy elements paint democrats and pro-federation voices as anti-Pakistan,’ he added.

Over 30 participants joined the conference that used the #SAATHVirtualConf2020. The hashtag trended in Pakistan. We also received reports that Pakistani users experienced Twitter and other social media websites outages, which we suspect was done to disrupt the Pakistani public from following the conference’s deliberations.

For further details on the deliberations, official posters and screenshots of the conference, please visit the official Twitter account (www.twitter.com/ForumSaath).

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