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Pakistan’s transformation into a police state

Pakistan began 2015 in a state of grief, shock and anger over the horrific Army Public School attack by the Taliban in Peshawar. This came on top of a series of violent attacks that killed hundreds. But the fatal shooting of 138 children placed the Pakistani government under tremendous pressure to hold the perpetrators to account and prevent such attacks in the future. The government did act, but many of its actions were misdirected.

What was needed was some serious introspection by many in the establishment that had allowed militant groups to flourish for narrow political or strategic interests. Instead, the government adopted a flawed National Action Plan to fight terrorism, including tactics that violated basic rights. Authorities established the use of military courts instead of civilian ones in terrorism cases, for a period of two years because “exceptional” measures were needed. Military courts sentenced at least 27 people to death in proceedings shrouded in secrecy, giving rise to fair trial concerns. The authorities did not articulate any criteria for selection of cases to be tried in military courts, giving the impression of arbitrariness. There was no independent monitoring of the process.

The government also ended an unofficial moratorium on capital punishment; more than 300 people were executed in 2015 — among the highest country totals in the world. Although the Peshawar school attack was the justification given for ending the moratorium, only a small percentage of those executed were convicted for “terrorism-related offences”.

One year has passed since the establishment of military courts; yet, the government has not taken any measures to reform the criminal justice system — the very reason the military courts were ostensibly created for. Pakistan needs a functional criminal justice system where those responsible for bombings and shootings of ordinary people can be fairly prosecuted. Knee-jerk counterterror measures are no substitute for serious policymaking and institution-building that is required to address the complex security challenges faced by Pakistan.

The aftermath of the Peshawar school attack also resulted in scapegoating of the Afghans living in Pakistan on the pretext of security. The police have carried out raids on Afghan settlements, detained, harassed and beaten Afghan men, extorted bribes, and demolished Afghan homes.

Pakistan took important initiatives to officially recognise the need to curb incitement to violence and terror financing. The government belatedly acknowledged the need to regulate madrassas (religious schools) and disband militias operating in the country, but took few steps to do so.

Pakistani journalists and activists faced an increasingly hostile climate in 2015, enduring violent attacks, harassment and threats by both the state and militant groups. The Taliban and other armed groups threatened media outlets and targeted journalists and activists for their work. Sabeen Mahmud, a prominent rights activist, was assassinated in April. Pakistani media was also deterred from reporting on or criticising alleged human rights violations in counterterrorism operations.

While human rights defenders and activists are under increasing attack in the country, Pakistan chose to vote against the United Nations resolution for protection of Human Rights Defenders. In 2015, Pakistan also lost its bid to renew its membership at the UN Human Rights Council.

The Pakistani government’s October “Policy for Regulation of INGOs in Pakistan” required all international non-governmental organisations and domestic groups receiving foreign funding to register and obtain prior permission to carry out any activities in the country, and restricted their operations. The policy broadly empowers the government to cancel registrations on grounds of “involvement in any activity inconsistent with Pakistan’s national interests, or contrary to Government policy” — terms that have vague meanings and can be used for political reasons to target critical organisations or individuals.

The cybercrimes bill proposed in 2015 includes provisions that allow the government to censor online content, criminalise internet user activity, and give authorities access to the data of internet users without judicial review. YouTube, banned by the government since September 2012 for hosting “blasphemous content”, remained blocked in 2015.

Violence against women and girls — including rape, murder through so-called honour killings, acid attacks, domestic violence and forced marriage — remained routine. Pakistani human rights non-governmental organisations estimate that there are about 1,000 “honour killings” every year. The government failed to address forced conversions of women belonging to Hindu and Christian communities

The Peshawar school attack was first and foremost an attack on the children of the country; yet, very few steps were taken to safeguard child rights. The Pakistan government failed to pass the long-promised legislation constituting the National Commission on the Rights of the Child Bill, an independent body to protect and enforce child rights. Attacks on schools and the use of child suicide bombers by the Taliban and affiliated militant groups continued.

Rampant sexual abuse of children was exposed in August when police uncovered a child pornography racket by a criminal gang that had produced and sold over 400 videos of girls and boys being sexually abused in Kasur, Punjab. These videos had been filmed over a span of 10 years, affecting 280 children.

Pakistan failed to repeal or amend laws that make religious minorities more vulnerable. At least 19 people remained on death row after being convicted under the blasphemy law. Hundreds await trial.

After the horror of the APS attack, Pakistan could have changed course, focusing on rights protections and taking steps to put an end to violent religious extremism. That opportunity was largely squandered. There is still time to change the approach. Turning the country into a police state is not an answer to grave and daunting challenges. Instead of dispossessing citizens of their fundamental rights, including to life, liberty, free expression, association and due process, the government should take steps to make them truly safe by adopting the universal principles of human rights protections.

Express Tribune