Pakistan's clampdown on human rights defenders highlighted by attack on editor of HRCP annual report

Barely three days after the launch of the State of Human Rights in 2017 report in Lahore, its editor Maryam Hasan — a consultant engaged to edit the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) annual report — received some unwelcome visitors at night. The annual reports are a detailed document assessing the state of injustice in Pakistan and in the past too, human rights defenders have been attacked, harassed, even killed and there have been attempts to intimidate HRCP.

The HRCP, founded in 1987 by the late Asma Jahangir (who was also targeted and attacked) and other leading public figures, has been unwavering in its mission of documenting abuses through fact-finding and upholding its mission in very difficult circumstances in a country which much like India, gives human rights short shrift. The raid on Maryam Hasan’s house was roundly condemned by HRCP and the details in its statement indicate that this was no common burglary.

Read on Firstpost: Remembering the life and legacy of Asma Jahangir, Pakistan's indomitable 'lioness'

Two armed men broke into her house at night and took away her laptop, hard drives, her mobile phones and even some cash and jewellery. “They told Ms Hasan, who lives alone, that they had also come the day before, but not committed burglary since she had not been at home. They questioned her about her professional engagements and intimidated her in a roundabout manner, finally leaving at 10 pm,” the statement issued on 20 April said.

People chant slogans during a protest demanding justice for Sabeen Mahmud, a human rights activist who was shot by gunmen, outside the Press Club in Karachi, Pakistan, April 30, 2015. Pakistani investigators have found no match for casings of bullets that killed a prominent human rights activist, dashing hopes for quick answers to a murder that has raised fears for the safety of dissenting voices. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro - GF10000078677

Human rights activists at a protest in Karchi. File Photo/Reuters

HRCP also suspected that the two “suave” raiders were “no ordinary thieves” and demanded the arrest of the culprits. Something that is unlikely to happen. As Reema Omer, international legal advisor (Pakistan), International Commission of Jurists commented via email to Firstpost, “What makes this all the more troubling is that not a single perpetrator has been successfully brought to justice in such cases, and the State’s response has only been silence, denial, or hollow condemnation.” The raid was preceded by not only by the launch of the HRCP’s blistering annual report but a constant  flow of media statements on the abysmal condition of human rights in Pakistan. The HRCP has been nothing short of heroic in its consistency and commitment to defend human rights.

Omer said that the “raid” is deeply alarming.  If HRCP and its staff are no longer secure, it shows the vulnerability of each and every human rights worker and organisation and the rapid pace at which the space for such work in shrinking in the country. Ironically, HRCP’s annual report itself has documented in detail the increased clampdown on human rights defenders in recent months. Last year, the UN Human Rights Committee too expressed concern at the harassment, disappearance, and killing of human rights defenders, she added.

In her introduction to the 300-plus page report, Maryam Hasan didn’t mince words: Painting a grim picture of the situation in 2017, she doubted if Pakistan’s commitment to human rights can be fulfilled, an observation which cannot have delighted the establishment.

In 2017, there were 333,103 cases pending in various courts and  HRCP reported 868 cases of ‘enforced disappearances’ received in 2017 by the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances, of which 555 were disposed of — but the real numbers are likely to be far higher. There was no abatement in violence against religious minorities, with Christians, Ahmedis, Hazaras, Hindus and Sikhs all coming under attack.

The report said journalists and bloggers continue to sustain threats, attacks and abductions, and the blasphemy law served to coerce people into silence. While the number of deaths linked to terrorism continued to decline, violence against ‘soft targets’ such as religious minorities and law enforcement agencies increased. In total, more than 5,660 crimes were reported against women in Pakistan’s four provinces during the first 10 months of the year. A study shows more Pakistanis died in incidents described as ‘encounters’ than in gun violence or in suicide attacks in 2017. The year also witnessed an increase in blasphemy-related violence and mob attacks.

Ironically, 2017 was also the year when Pakistan was elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council which was hailed as a diplomatic success, and also the year when Pakistan’s human rights situation was assessed during the third Universal Periodic Review (UPR), on 13 November 2017 in Geneva. In March, when the government had to adopt the outcome of the UPR, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and HRCP slammed Pakistan saying it had missed another opportunity to show its commitment to address key human rights issues during the United Nations backed review.

According to HRCP, the Pakistani government accepted 168 of the 289 recommendations it received from UN member states during the UPR while 117 recommendations were ‘noted’ and four were rejected. It did not accept any of the 14 recommendations that called for the repeal or amendment of blasphemy laws as well as a recommendation to take steps to protect freedom of expression online.

HRCP deemed Pakistan’s response to review its human rights situation was inadequate. During the UPR, among several aspects, the country did not commit to ending the death penalty, or accept recommendations that called for an end to the use of military courts for the trial of civilians. Neither did it commit to protecting the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community. None of the 10 recommendations that called for the adoption of measures aimed at protecting religious minorities and the right to freedom of religion or belief enjoyed the government’s support.

As in Pakistan, Indian human rights campaigners have also claimed that India commits to implementing UPR recommendations but does little on the ground. There is little to cheer in the human rights record of both countries. A recent Amnesty report said that India and Pakistan still recorded significantly higher numbers of death sentences imposed as compared to other countries. Little wonder that those who dare to show a mirror to the government are “burgled”.


Updated Date: Apr 23, 2018 20:49 PM

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