Why are Sanitation Workers in Pakistan Killing themselves? HRCP Explains the Suicides

A society is known by whether or not it is able to protect its weakest citizens. In the last few months there has been a steady rise in suicide attempts by sanitation workers in Pakistan.

These workers are “at the lowest tier of the sanitation services. They maintain, inspect, clean and unclog sewers and, when needed, descend via manholes into fecal sludge, without protection equipment or tools. They do not have a voice. There is no union or federation of sanitation workers — unlike in other countries — to let us hear their collective voice. We only know that the majority of these workers belong to a minority community, discriminated against and shunned by the majority. We come to know of their existence when they suffer fatal accidents in the line of duty, or when they are treated inhumanly in the most unpardonable manner like an injured worker from Umerkot was reportedly treated in hospital.”

According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) “arbitrary layoffs and the non-payment of wages have continued for months. This is taking a brutal toll on a section of the workforce that is often considered ‘invisible’, despite providing vital labour.”

HRCP condemned “the indifference of the federal and provincial governments, and of municipal corporations, to such workers who consistently face hazardous working conditions. The Commission aims to work closely with sanitation workers’ associations across the country and demands that their grievances are heard and redressed fairly and promptly. Sanitation work demands the same dignity and welfare benefits as any other occupation.”

Nankana Incident Shows Limits of Pakistan’s Khalistan Agenda

Pakistan has often been described as one of the worst offenders of religious freedom and minority rights. While Prime Minister Imran Khan and his advisers may claim things have improved this Friday January 3’s events in Nankana Sahib, one of the holiest shrines of the Sikh community, show how far Pakistan has still left to go. Gurdwara Nankana Sahib, also known as the Gurdwara Janam Asthan, is the site where the first Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Nanak, was born and is regarded as one of the holiest sites in the religion.  

In August 2019, a First Information Report (FIR) was filed in the Nankana police station against six people who were accused of abducting and forcibly converting a Sikh woman, Jagjit Kaur. On Friday scores of protesters staged a sit-in outside the Nankhana Sahib Gurdwara, led by the family of the man accused of the abduction and conversion, Ehsan.

Many Pakistani activists streamed videos of the sit in and the tense situation at the gurdwara.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) also issued a statement on twitter condemning the incident and asking the government to protect the Gurdwara.

In the end the protesters dispersed only after obtaining the release of the arrested person.

‘Another Blasphemy Conviction That Shows Inherent Injustice of Pakistan’s Law’

After six years of being in prison under blasphemy charges, 33-year old Junaid Hafeez, professor at Bahauddin Zakaria University in Multan, was awarded the death sentence.

Hafeez “obtained a Master’s degree in the US on a Fulbright Scholarship, specialising in American literature, photography and theatre. After returning to Pakistan he took up a lecturer position at Bahauddin Zakariya University (BZU) in Multan, where he worked until his arrest. He was accused of having insulted Islam’s Prophet Muhammad and its holy book, the Quran, verbally and on Facebook in 2013. Hafeez has been held in solitary confinement due to security concerns since 2014 when his lawyer, prominent rights activist Rashid Rehman, was murdered. The attack came after Rehman had been threatened in open court by religious leaders and lawyers associated with the prosecution.”

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) expressed dismay at the verdict. “HRCP believes that the blasphemy laws are heavily misused. This is compounded by a trial process ridden by delays and pressures at the level of the lower judiciary. The offence itself is already associated with vigilantism and entrenched impunity – underscored by the 2014 murder of Mr Hafeez’s lawyer, Rashid Rehman. The resulting pressure on lower courts becomes apparent when most such verdicts are overturned by the High Court or Supreme Court. In five years, at least eight judges have heard Mr Hafeez’s case, making a fair trial virtually impossible. Meanwhile, he has undergone six years’ imprisonment in solitary confinement. Aasia Bibi, who was charged similarly, was acquitted after eight years’ incarceration. There are grave implications here for access to justice in such cases. HRCP reposes its faith in the higher judiciary and hopes that the verdict will be overturned in appeal.”

‘Finally, a court in Pakistan dares convict a military dictator for suspending constitution’

On December 17, 2019, a special anti-terrorism court sentenced former military dictator Pervez Musharraf to death in absentia on Tuesday on treason charges stemming from his imposition of a state of emergency in 2007. While the verdict was not publicly available it was a majority verdict, with two judges deciding against Musharraf. In a country that has had 4 military dictators in its last 72 years, Pervez Musharraf is the first former army chief to be charged with treason.

As predicted the army issued a strongly worded statement that spoke of “pain and anguish” in the ranks and added that: “The due legal process seems to have been ignored.” The army statement also asserted that the case had been concluded in haste and that Musharraf “fought wars for the defence of the country (and) can surely never be a traitor.”

Many analysts have critiqued the ISPR statement, notably well known lawyer and analyst, Babar Sattar, South Asia Adviser for International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) Reema Omer, former Member of National Assembly Bushra Gohar, analyst and commentator Mohammad Taqi and former ambassador and author and public intellectual Husain Haqqani.

‘Lahore Lawyers Bring Shame as They Attack Hospital, Causing Suffering for Patients’

If Quaid e Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah was alive today, that Inner Temple lawyer would have been ashamed and embarrassed at the behavior of lawyers in the city of Lahore. On December 12th, “hundreds of charged lawyers attacked the Punjab Institute of Cardiology (PIC), allegedly tortured doctors and attendants and damaged hospital property and forced the critical patients to rush for life, according to police and witnesses. The raiders were apparently on a mission to avenge a group of lawyers, who had been beaten up at the PIC a few weeks ago, soon after some video clips went viral on the social media showing some doctors making fun of the lawyers while recalling the incident. The outraged attackers, mostly young faces dressed in black suits and sporting neckties, spared no one present on hospital premises, where several serious cardiac patients are under treatment at any given time.”

As reported by Dawn, “there was chaos as beds were hastily dragged to hideouts, in a few cases the washrooms down the corridor away from the wards, after the mob carrying clubs and rods forced its entry into the government-run hospital. One of the known victims of the frenzy was Punjab Information Minister Fayyazul Hassan Chohan, who was manhandled when he arrived for damage control. Many journalists, including a woman, and police personnel besides attendants of the patients were also dealt with brute physical force. The attackers also snatched cameras from the journalists. The police acted on finding the information minister under attack by lawyers and fired tear gas, baton-charged before arresting many protesters. Fierce clashes broke out between the protesting lawyers and law enforcers after a police van had been set on fire. There were reports that some protesters in the mob carried weapons and fired into the air.”

As analyst and commentator Khurram Hussain asked in his latest column “Are we living in naya Pakistan or the Planet of the Apes?” According to Hussain, “What happened at the PIC on Wednesday is a stain on our collective humanity. After the Sahiwal killings, there was similar public revulsion, and a promise of ‘speedy justice’ from the prime minister himself. That was back in February. By October, however, all six policemen involved in that incident had been acquitted. The government promised to appeal. There has been no word henceforth. The incident has been quietly brushed under the carpet and everything has moved on. If the same thing happens in this case, the stain on our collective humanity will be permanent. Already the bar council stalwarts are gearing up for a fight with the government, and some ministers are keen to give this affair a political colour. Faisal Vawda, for example, claimed in a tweet that “these were the criminals at the behest of the PML(N)”.”