WASHINGTON - The leader of a prominent rights group in Pakistan has welcomed the United States’ decision this week to sanction a former Pakistani law enforcement official for human rights violations.
Manzoor Pashteen, the leader of Pakistan’s Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) , which advocates for Pashtun rights and an end to militancy and military operations in Pashtun-populated regions in the country, told VOA that his movement welcomes the decision and looks up to the U.S. for "upholding justice."
"The decision by U.S. Treasury Department to blacklist Rao Anwar and place economic sanctions on him was a good step. Pashtuns feel that America will take steps to uphold justice," Pashteen told VOA.
The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) last week took action against 18 individuals from six countries, sanctioning them for their roles in human rights abuses.
Among those sanctioned was Anwar, a retired Pakistani police officer.
"Rao Anwar is designated for being responsible for or complicit in or having directly or indirectly engaged in serious human rights abuse," the U.S. Treasury said in a statement released on International Human Rights Day, December 10.
In reaction to Anwar's designation, Pakistan’s Foreign Office (FO) said this week that he is under trial.
"Given the scope of Global Magnitsky’s act we are surprised that the treasury department failed to hold anyone responsible for the most egregious, extensively reported and independently verified human rights violations and abuses being perpetrated in an occupied Jammu and Kashmir by Indian occupation forces," Mohammad Faisal told VOA during a press conference last week, accusing the U.S of not going after India.
Members of PTM credit their movement for the action against Rao.
Mohsin Dawar, a member of Pakistan’s National Assembly and a prominent leader of PTM, said their advocacy group played a key role in raising awareness about human rights abuses by security forces in Pakistan.
"The sanctions placed on Rao Anwar by the U.S. Department of Treasury are a validation, a type of recognition of PTM’s stance," Dawar told VOA.
"If we did not pressurize investigation, he would still be serving as a police officer and instead of killing 400 people, he would have killed hundreds more," he added.
Anwar has been accused of staging numerous fake police encounters in Karachi, in which hundreds of individuals have been allegedly killed.
The most high-profile case that led to the emergence of PTM was the killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud, a 27-year-old shopkeeper-turned-model, during an encounter with police in Karachi.
Anwar, who was the senior superintendent of police (SSP) in the Malir District of Karachi at the time, was in charge the operation that led to Mehsud's death.
Police said at the time that Mehsud had been killed in a shootout with members of the Pakistani Taliban, a U.S.-designated terror group operating in Pakistan.
But an internal inquiry cast doubt on that claim, saying Mehsud had no evident link to any militant group.
The killing sparked days of protests and a weekslong march in Pashtun-dominated northwestern Pakistan last year, and led to the establishment of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, also known as the Pashtun Protection Movement, that has since held dozens of rallies across the country demanding basic rights for ethnic Pashtuns.
The movement demands an end to extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, removal of military checkpoints, and the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission.
The PTM charges that Mehsud was one of several hundred Pashtun men racially profiled and killed by Anwar in Karachi.
"It was not until we raised our voices about Naqeeb (Mehsud) that an investigation finally took place and the other encounters were revealed," Dawar, of PTM, said.
The U.S Treasury Department told VOA the blacklisting is not merely a motion of condemnation, but has serious consequences.
"As a result of Treasury’s designation, all of the property and interests in property of Rao Anwar Khan, and of any entities that are owned, directly or indirectly, 50 percent or more by Rao Anwar Khan, individually, or with other designated persons, that are in the United States or in the possession or control of U.S. persons, are blocked and must be reported to OFAC," the U.S. Treasury told VOA last week in response to an inquiry.
"Accordingly, even when designated individuals do not have bank accounts in the United States, our sanctions often disrupt their ability to do international banking or business," the Treasury said.
PTM leaders accuse Pakistani security officials of abusing their power and getting away with rights violations.
"Rao Anwar and many generals, who abuse their power like him, leave this country and settle abroad after committing or are party to crimes in Pakistan," Pashteen told VOA.
Some Pakistani analysts, such as retired Pakistani General Talat Masood, acknowledge that Anwar was treated differently by the government.
"Rao was given VIP treatment," he said.
"He may have been used by political parties and the establishment in Pakistan, it’s unknown. What is known is that he exercised a lot of power ... power beyond his ranking," he added.
Hussain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. and current director for South and Central Asia at Hudson Institute, said he thinks Anwar’s designation is a "warning shot to Pakistan."
"Pakistan could shrug off the U.S. sanctions against Rao Anwar as it has ignored similar sanctions against various jihadi leaders, but eventually it has to recognize the limitations of its current policies," Haqqani said.
PTM accuses the Pakistani military of forcing evictions of Pashtuns from the tribal region that borders Afghanistan, and accuses the military of extra judicial killings and forced disapprences of ethnic Pashtuns.
Pakistan’s government denies the charges and accuses PTM of receiving support from outside the country.
"On the PTM website, they have got a number that states the amount of funds they have collected from Pashtuns around the world. But tell us how much money did you get from the NDS [Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security] to run your campaign? How much money did RAW [India's Research and Analysis Wing] give you for the first dharna [sit-in protest] in Islamabad?" Major General Asif Ghafoor, spokesperson for the military, said in May of this year.
In reaction to Pakistan's Foreign Office's comments on linking Anwar to what is happening in Kashmir, former ambassador Haqqani said the two are unrelated issues.
"It does not reflect well on the Imran Khan government that it has to defend Rao Anwar by invoking the Kashmir issue even though Rao Anwar’s murderous actions have nothing to do with anything happening in Jammu and Kashmir," he said.
VOA’s Rabia Pir and Mudassir Shah contributed to this report from Pakistan.