Authorities in Pakistan have arrested the leader of a social movement, which is campaigning against human rights abuses allegedly carried out by military forces during counterterrorism operations in areas near the border with Afghanistan.
Manzoor Pashteen of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) was detained along with six others in an overnight raid in the northwestern city of Peshawar, local police confirmed Monday.
Pashteen, 27, was accused of denouncing Pakistan’s constitution, using insulting and threatening language against the state in one of his recent public speeches, according to a copy of the police complaint filed against him.
A court in Peshawar later authorized police to keep Pashteen in detention for 14 days to investigate the charges against him.
Mohsin Dawar, a key PTM leader and member of the national parliament, demanded immediate release of Pashteen.
"This is our punishment for demanding our rights in a peaceful & democratic manner. But Manzoor's arrest will only strengthen our resolve," he tweeted.
Dawar urged PTM workers and supporters "to remain calm" in the wake of the police action, promising to "devise a strategy after consultations."
PTM activists and leaders, including Dawar, have been arrested previously but this was the first time Pashteen has been detained.
Amnesty International has also criticized the arrest.
"Manzoor Pashteen has been arbitrarily detained for exercising his human rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. He must be released immediately and unconditionally," the organization tweeted.
PTM has emerged recently from Pakistan’s ethnic Pashtun North Waziristan tribal district that until few years ago had been condemned by the United States as the “epicenter" of international terrorism.
Under sustained international pressure and increased terrorist attacks inside Pakistan, mostly traced back to militants entrenched in the mountainous district, the Pakistani military has conducted major ground and air offensives in and around Waziristan since 2014.
Military officials say the operation has dismantled terror infrastructures and cleared the areas of militants. The security action has significantly reduced terrorist attacks in the country and has won international praise.
PTM leaders have drawn large crowds to demand accountability for the military’s alleged heavy-handedness, including illegal detentions, extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances. But Pakistani media allegedly under the military pressure is not allowed to cover the group’s public activities.
The Pakistani military denies the accusations of rights abuses as politically motivated. Army officials, however, do not rule out the possibility of "individuals indulging in unlawful actions" in the conflict zone, saying the institution investigates and punishes personnel found guilty of any such crimes.
PTM leaders reject official charges they are proxies of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s arch-rival India, and receiving funds from abroad to defame the Pakistani military.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani tweeted Monday he was "troubled" by the arrest of Pashteen. Other officials and politicians in the neighboring country also joined Ghani in demanding the release of the PTM leader.
Ghani's statement drew a strong reaction from Islamabad.
"We have noted with serious concern the recent tweets by President Ashraf Ghani, which are a clear interference in Pakistan's internal affairs and hence, unwarranted," said a Foreign Ministry statement.
Such statements, it added, are not helpful to the promotion of "good neighborly" relations between the two countries.