1338 Suicides in year that Pakistan Forgot Human Rights’

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has documented 1338 suicides in the country during 2018. This reflects a rise in suicides resulting from depression over the country’s political and economic situation. At the launch of its flagship annual report, State of Human Rights in 2018, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) noted that, “in a year of general elections, it was inevitable perhaps that the progress and observation of human rights issues might be suspended, if not forgotten. The elections themselves were plagued by allegations of pre-poll manipulation and vote rigging – never fully resolved – and some appalling outbreaks of violence. Nonetheless, there were more women candidates for general seats in these elections than in any past election, and for the first time, transgender candidates contested the polls.”

Further, HRCP commented on “the unprecedented level to which the fundamental right to freedom of expression was overtly violated, particularly in the run-up to the elections,’ adding that ‘in the guise of “national security concerns”, restrictions on media coverage were stepped up, journalists took increasingly to self-censorship, the distribution of a national newspaper was severely curtailed, and a media blackout was imposed on coverage of certain events.”

The HRCP also noted “reports of enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, the abuse and murder of children, violence towards women, child labour, religious intolerance, the persecution of minorities, and crimes committed in the name of “honour”. Women, children and labour remained highly vulnerable. HRCP monitoring data showed at least 845 incidents of sexual violence against women, and 316 crimes in the name of ‘honour’ perpetrated against both men and women. In Thar, Sindh, 638 children died of malnutrition in 2018.”

Finally, the HRPC pointed out that “While the interventions of the Supreme Court attracted much attention, the long-awaited reform of the criminal justice system remained on the back burner and the steady accumulation and growth of the backlog of cases went unchecked in all the courts. By year-end, there were close to 1.9 million cases pending in over 250 lower, special and superior courts. At the end of the year 4,688 prisoners were on death row. At least 500 have been executed since 2014, 14 of them in 2018.”

Stop harassment of human rights activists and journalists

Harassment of journalists and human rights activists, torture of civil society activists, and censorship of the media has been rampant in Pakistan for many years now. We at New Pakistan have routinely spoken out about it and brought to the forefront every time something like this happens. We are therefore perturbed by the recent attempts to malign Pakistani academic Dr Arfana Mallah and the lodging of a FIR against well-known journalist Shahzeb Jillani.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has “expressed alarm at the frequency with which human rights defenders and journalists are made the subject of propaganda amounting to incitement.”

The HRCP “stands in solidarity with both Dr Mallah and Mr Jilani. The fact that an unverified news item implying that Dr Mallah expressed “anti-state” sentiments was broadcast by the channel 92 News is troubling. In addition, the FIR lodged against Mr Jilani under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016, accusing him of casting aspersions on state institutions, is baseless and absurd. While 92 News has already apologised to Dr Mallah, HRCP urges the channel and all media houses to institute higher reporting and verification standards, especially given that civil society voices are already subject to intimidation and harassment at the slightest provocation. HRCP also demands that the FIR against Mr Jilani be quashed: questioning a journalist’s “loyalty” or “patriotism” for having criticised state institutions must cease to be the norm.”

HRCP: Govt of Pakistan must pass a bill against forced conversions

Pakistan has always ranked high in the ranks of countries where minorities face religious persecution and threats. In the last few days two minor Hindu girls in Ghotki were abducted and forcibly converted to Islam and a Christian married mother of three was also abducted, raped and forcibly converted.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has called on the Sindh Assembly to “take swift, serious measures to resurrect and pass the bill criminalising forced conversions. It is imperative this bill be passed and steps taken to implement it. At present, forced conversions are too easily – and too often – disguised as voluntary conversions, leaving minor girls especially vulnerable. The ugly reality of forced conversions is that they are not seen as a crime, much less as a problem that should concern ‘mainstream’ (Muslim) Pakistan. The two young girls reportedly abducted in Ghotki are a case in point: that their families were unable to lodge an FIR is shocking. This should be the first line of defence in all such cases.”

As HRCP points out “‘The state has a responsibility to all its citizens to protect their freedom of religion or belief. This implies serious introspection into why the 2016 bill against forced conversions was not ratified by the governor at the time, Justice Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui. No reasons were given, nor is it clear whether he returned the bill officially or left it pending. Equally, the Sindh government should not have given in to pressure from a minority of religious parties who had objected to the bill. The present Sindh Assembly is morally bound to revisit the bill and ensure it is passed without capitulating to the religious far right or to any individuals or parties that object to its contents or underlying spirit.’”

HRCP: Government must compensate Kartarpur residents

We at New Pakistan always welcome dialogue, discussion and positive moves between India and Pakistan. In this context we welcome the Kartarpur corridor that will benefit our Sikh brothers and allow them to visit their holy sites inside Pakistan.

However, this should not happen at the cost of people’s homes and livelihoods. A fact-finding mission of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has “expressed strong concern” that “at least six villages will be affected by the land acquisition – two of which will be demolished entirely.”

According to the statement released by HRCP “The Ministry of Religious Affairs is said to have acquired 1,500 acres around the Kartarpur gurdawara. The deputy commissioner in Narowal estimates that another 1,500 acres may be required in the future. This land has been acquired under the colonial Land Acquisition Act 1894, which is skewed in favour of the state rather than those affected by land acquisition. Many small landowners say they have no knowledge of how the acquisition plan will be sequenced and whether they are even to receive any compensation – not only for their land, but also for the crops destroyed in the process. The residents of the village of Dodhy, which is home to 1,500 to 2,000 families, also fear it will be demolished, but they are unaware of any plan in place for their resettlement and rehabilitation.”

Further, “‘Any allegedly forcible evictions are unacceptable and the right to fair compensation must drive all land acquisition. Equally, the right to information is vital. Many of these families have lived here for generations and it is not clear how long they will have to wait to be compensated. Migrating elsewhere and rebuilding their homes and livelihoods – when most of them have farmed all their lives and do not have the skills needed to change occupations – is an enormous task, which the Land Acquisition Act 1894 does not address. Moreover, while the deputy commissioner in Narowal has said that the government will ensure that residents are compensated for their land at a higher rate than scheduled, he too has acknowledged that delays in compensation are likely.”

Finally, HRCP urged “the government to ensure that no involuntary resettlement occurs until a systematic census and inventory has been carried out to the satisfaction of the residents affected by the project. Given the lack of information that many have complained about, there should be a transparent and efficient grievance redressal mechanism to address any violation of people’s economic, social or cultural rights. Their demand for fair compensation – keeping in mind the likely increase in price of agricultural land in Kartarpur – and for alternative land to farm must be given due consideration. In the longer term, the government must seriously consider amending the Land Acquisition Act 1894 to institute a rights-based approach to all land acquisition in Pakistan.’”

Pakistan still has to do the hard part of combating extremism

In recent days, Pakistan has once again taken action against some extremist groups and sought to demonstrate to the world that this time round it is serious about acting against terrorism. One of the key reasons Pakistan has undertaken these acts is to get off the ‘grey list’ of FATF (Financial Action Task Force). The next meeting of FATF is in June and Pakistan would like to demonstrate that it has taken action.

However, as veteran journalist and columnist Irfan Hussain wrote in Dawn recently “this was the easy part and has also been attempted by past governments. But soon, the political bill is presented, and judicial and bureaucratic lethargy kicks in. Those arrested are released due to a lack of evidence as witnesses are often terrified of appearing against vicious killers. And judges, too, have been known to succumb to fear.”

Husain notes that “we’ve been here before. Déjà-vu. Grabbing the suspects is the easy part as they have been free to roam around in public despite being on several terrorism lists. The hard part is to try and sentence them. And the toughest bit is to drain the swamp of the extremist venom that has poisoned the public discourse.”

Further, he states “In Pakistan, an entire generation has grown up thinking it is normal for terrorist gangs to operate freely, apparently with the blessings of the state. So whenever there’s a terrorist atrocity in our neighbourhood, and a Pakistan-based organisation claims credit for the operation, the mantra from the Foreign Office, talking heads on TV, and much of the public is: ‘where’s the proof?’”

Hussain quotes a very senior air force officer who when asked “about our use of jihadi militants in Kashmir. “You civilians don’t understand,” he said in an obnoxiously superior tone. “With about 5,000 fighters, we have tied up several divisions of the Indian army in Kashmir. Had it not been for our boys, these divisions would have been on our border.””

Further, “By appearing to use militancy as an instrument of policy, we were becoming isolated in the community of nations. Even those who feebly support the Kashmir cause are critical of the unconcealed presence of an array of jihadi groups in Pakistan.”

Finally, Hussain notes that “In earlier FATF meetings, Pakistan had stonewalled by claiming that organisations like the militant Islamic State group, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed fell into the ‘low to medium risk’ category. Really? ‘Low risk’? Now they have been upgraded to the high-risk category where they belong. But as our negotiating team has discovered, the rest of the world is neither blind nor stupid. In fact, Pakistan has been given a lot of time on the grey list to block channels of terrorist financing. Now, the vice is tightening, and if our tottering economy is to avoid a mortal blow, the authorities had better deliver on their promises.”