People protest demanding the release of Manzoor Pashteen, young firebrand leader of a human rights movement, in Lahore, Pakistan, Jan. 28, 2020.
People protest demanding the release of Manzoor Pashteen, young firebrand leader of a human rights movement, in Lahore, Pakistan, Jan. 28, 2020.

WASHINGTON - Despite criticism by international human rights organizations, opposition leaders and activists, authorities in Pakistan have not released the leader of a prominent rights group in Pakistan who was arrested last month on charges of sedition and contempt for the country’s constitution.

Authorities arrested Manzoor Pashteen, the leader of Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), in January in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.  

His movement advocates for end to militancy in Pashtun-populated regions, equal rights for Pakistan’s ethnic Pashtuns, an end to forced disappearances, illegal detention, and extrajudicial killings allegedly carried out by Pakistani security forces.  

According to the first incident report (FIR) filed against Pashteen by the police, charges against him include conspiracy, promoting enmity between different ethnic groups, threatening Pakistan’s sovereignty, and sedition for a speech he delivered that allegedly criticized the constitution of Pakistan.  

However, his supporters charge that demanding changes in the constitution is not a crime. 

“Demanding changes in the constitution is not sedition. To silence our voices, they [the military] are involving us in these kinds of fake cases. But they can’t silence us for demanding change, justice and equality.” Mohsin Dawar, a member of Pakistan’s National Assembly and a prominent leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), told VOA.

Dawar, who has been arrested by authorities several times for his activism in the past, was also briefly detained after the arrest of Pashteen during a rally where protesters demanded his immediate release.  

Since Pashteen’s arrest, thousands of ethnic Pashtuns have organized big rallies across multiple cities in Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan, demanding his release.  

Rights organizations

Prominent rights organizations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have also demanded the “immediate and unconditional release” of Pashteen.   “

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,” Amnesty International said in a tweet following Pashteen’s arrest.  

Human Watch Watch, a global rights group, has also voiced concerns over the arrest of Pashteen. 

“Pakistani authorities should stop arresting activists like Manzoor Pashteen who are critical of government actions or policies,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement released by the rights group.  

Speech in DI Khan  

While addressing his supporters during a speech last month in Dera Ismail Khan region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Pashteen accused the Pakistani establishments of systematic discrimination against ethnic Pashtuns and criticized the country’s constitution for not treating Pashtuns fairly.  

“The constitution is not right. It is not based on human rights. It is not based on the equality of ethnic groups. It based on minority and majority. Punjab [ethnic group] will always be the majority and you [Pashtuns] will always be the minority.  The constitution was made with the intention of excluding you from power so that they will be in power or their favored ones will be in power. These mistakes need to be changed,” he said in Pashto.

Several days later, authorities arrested him for contempt of the constitution. He has appeared twice before a court and will have another hearing Tuesday.  

According to his lawyers, due to the sheer number of cases against him, the government picks a different case against him every time he secures acquittal from the court on the previous case.   

“Pashteen has several cases against him; he may be granted bail for some charges but could remain under detention or be arrested again based on the other charges filed against him,” Syed Akhtar, Pashteen’s lawyer, told VOA.  

Government’s reaction

The Pakistani government has issued no official statement regarding the arrest of Pashteen and other PTM members that the police have taken into custody.  

VOA reached out to both the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the military’s public affairs office and the country’s Foreign Office (FO) for comments, but received no response.

The Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the military’s public affairs office and the country’s Foreign Office (FO) did not respond to VOA requests for comments.  

A senior government official, however, reacted to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s tweets in regards to Pashteen’s arrest and labeled Ghani’s remarks as interference.  

"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,” Firdous Ashiq Awan, the special assistant to Pakistan’s prime minister on information, said in a tweet in Urdu.   

“We believe that such statements are not helpful to the promotion of good neighborly relations between the two countries… Pakistan is a sovereign state. It is Pakistan's law to take legal action against elements who are against the Constitution…Troublemakers cannot be allowed to play with peace,” she added.  

Ghani expressed concerns over Pashteen’s arrest and urged authorities to deal with peaceful movements through dialogue and engagement.  

“…While our region is suffering from atrocities caused by violent extremism and terrorism…governments in the region must support and encourage peaceful civilian movements for justice and must avoid any means of force and violence against these movements. On the contrary, differences with such peaceful movements must be resolved through dialogue and engagement,” Ghani said.  

Accusations

Authorities in Pakistan have accused PTM leadership of receiving support from intelligence agencies of India and Afghanistan, a charge denied by Pashteen and his PTM members.  

Last year, Asif Ghafoor, the previous Director-General of Inter-Services Public Relations (DGISPR), accused PTM of receiving funding from outside.  

“They [PTM] have a lot more money than they claim to have on their official site. We have details. Why don’t they tell us how much they have? Also, who and where did the money come from? According to finances on March 22, 2018 the NDS gave them money to keep their protests going,” Ghafoor said.

Pashteen has rejected the allegations against PTM as baseless. In an interview with VOA last year, he said that there is no proof of them receiving outside support.  

"These are baseless accusations that we receive funding from foreign intelligence agencies. They cannot produce a single evidence," Pashteen said.  

"They [military] train militants here and then the militants carry out attacks in my country and other countries of the world. With PTM's emergence as a movement, the military can no longer operate with impunity to do that and their so-called business has been faced with difficulties," he added.  

Since its establishment, dozens of prominent PTM activists have been arrested and some have been released on bail. This is the first time that authorities have gone after the founder of the group.

VOA’s Adnan Bitani contributed to this report from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.