Amnesty slams Pakistan for disrupting Baloch March against State atrocities

at 12:16 am
Some of women and children picked up by Pakistani police while disrupting 'Baloch Long March' on outskirts of Islamabad today.

Islamabad: Prominent global human rights body Amnesty International today condemned Pakistan for harassment meted out to Baloch protestors in Islamabad, which forced them to end their month-long sit-in against rampant extrajudicial killings and illegal detentions in Balochistan.

Hundreds of women, accompanied by old men and children, had travelled over a thousand miles from Kech in southwestern province of Balochistan to Pakistan’s capital Islamabad under ‘Baloch Long March’ programme to amplify their grievances regarding extrajudicial killings and illegal detentions of young Baloch men and children by the Pakistani forces.

The peaceful protesters, consisting largely of families of victims of enforced disappearances, including people as old as 80 and children as young as two years old, had been sleeping in near-freezing temperatures at the sit-in at the National Press Club, Islamabad since December 22, 2023.

“The Pakistani authorities mounted a campaign of disinformation against them and subjected them to repeated intimidation, arbitrary arrests and detentions,” the Amnesty International said in a statement.

“The Pakistani authorities should be ashamed of the harassment meted out to the Baloch Long March protestors,” the international human rights organization said.

“This is not the end the Baloch women would have hoped for when undertaking the perilous journey with their children to demand justice for their families.

“The authorities have been heartlessly indifferent to the plight and demands of the peaceful protestors camped out in the severe cold for the past month,” said Carolyn Horn, Programme Director, Law and Policy at Amnesty International.

“The denial of the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly have compounded the tremendous social, financial and psychological costs borne by the families of the disappeared.

“The voices of the people must not be ignored in the run up to the national elections in Pakistan. Human rights must be upheld before, during and after the elections,” the Amnesty said.

Speaking with Amnesty International, protest organizer Mahrang Baloch said, “The anti-Baloch attitudes of the state, judiciary, media and state-aligned intellectuals have forced us to conclude this phase of our protest. Over the past month, our peaceful protest has been surrounded from all sides by police … (and) we have been subjected to harassment, profiling and threats on a daily basis.”

On January 21, entry to the ‘International Oppressed Peoples Conference’ organized at the sit-in was denied by police through harassment of attendees and the placement of barbed wire around the area.

Previously, on January 2, the police had prevented supplies of food, tents and blankets from reaching the sit-in protesters.

Electricity to the protest site was also temporarily cut off with protestors complaining of extremely weak mobile signals that prevented them from issuing media updates from the protest site.

“We had to take turns to sleep because blankets were limited. But even then, the pain of sitting in the cold was better than the pain and helplessness we feel when we go back home,” said one of the protestors.

First Information Reports (FIRs) – which initiate criminal proceedings – were filed against protestors from across the country.

Amnesty International said it verified at least 13 such FIRs from Balochistan (Naal, Kohlu, and Hub), Sindh (Karachi, Mirpur Khas and Khairpur), Islamabad and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (Dera Ismail Khan).

Protestors have been charged with a wide range of offences, including terrorism, sedition, unlawful assembly, rioting, hate speech, dacoity, unlawful use of loudspeakers and damage to public property, it said.

On December 4, 2023, Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) leader Manzoor Pashteen was attacked by security forces and taken into custody while on his way to the Turbat sit-in, the human rights watchdog said.

He remains in custody despite having been granted bail three times since then, it said.

At least 20 participants in the march were unlawfully detained on December 17, 2023 in Dera Ghazi Khan in Punjab Province of Pakistan, the Amnesty said.

Video evidence reviewed by Amnesty confirmed the use of police batons against peaceful protestors, including women, it said.

Similarly, batons were used to disperse protestors as they entered Surab, Balochistan on December 10, 2023, resulting in injuries to several protestors, the statement said.

On December 20, 2023, when the march reached Islamabad, the police used tear gas, water cannons and batons against protestors entering the city and those at the National Press Club.

Amnesty International verified the use of force against peaceful protestors through videos and eyewitness accounts immediately after the incident.

On December 21, 2023, two FIRs were registered against the protestors in Islamabad by police and as a result, more than 300 protestors were indiscriminately arrested including women, children, students, older persons, and a woman journalist.

Many of the detainees were not given the opportunity to contact their families or arrange for a lawyer themselves.

Forty-seven women protestors and five children were illegally detained at G-7 Womens’ Police Station, Islamabad for more than 24 hours between December 21 and 22, 2023.

During this detention, the police made several attempts to forcibly transport some of these protestors to Quetta.

These attempts were thwarted only after interventions from civil society and journalists present at the scene.

Speaking with Amnesty International a woman detainee said, “some of the children with us were so traumatized that they could not stop shaking from fear … Even now when (they see) police, the children are terrified … This fear will stay with them even when they grow up.”

Another woman detainee who had been in custody and subjected to verbal abuse said, “they told us that we were here to get attention and get famous.”

While most of the protestors were subsequently released, the cases filed against them for alleged rioting, unlawful assembly, dacoity, and property damage have not been quashed or withdrawn.

Cases have been registered against journalists, including Masood Ahmed Lehri for covering a rally held on January 15, 2024 in Wadh, Balochistan, in support of the sit-in.

Fatima Razzak, a journalist for local media outlet Lok Sujag, was detained and questioned on December 24, 2023. She was asked to turn in her devices to the authorities and threatened with consequences for her reporting of the Baloch protest.

Speaking with Amnesty International, Fatima said, “the media is actively being discouraged and there is paranoia among journalists. It has mentally affected me, and I have been forced to self-censor.”

Furthermore, it has been reported that 44 government employees in Kohlu and Turbat have been suspended for their participation in the Long March. The suspension notices of at least 30 employees have been verified by Amnesty International.

Reiterating the recommendations made previously in its briefing, ‘Braving the Storm: Enforced disappearances and the right to protest in Pakistan’, Amnesty International calls on the Government of Pakistan to end its practice of enforced disappearances and return all victims of enforced disappearances or at the very least inform families of the fate or whereabouts of their loved ones.

“Concrete steps must be taken to criminalize enforced disappearance as per international human rights law, standards and best practice. Pakistan must ratify the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearances.

“Furthermore, all legal proceedings and reprisals against the Baloch protestors must be withdrawn immediately,” said Carolyn Horn.

The Baloch Long March was organized by the Baloch Yakjehti Committee (BYC) and was sparked by the alleged extra-judicial killing of Balaach Mola Baksh, a 24-year-old Baloch man, along with three others, on October 23, 2023 by the Counter-Terrorism Department.

The protesters have been demanding accountability and an end to the practice of extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances in the province.

On January 16, 2024, the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances reported that it has recorded a total of 10,078 enforced disappearances since 2011, with 3485 and 2752 from the provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan respectively.

The practice of enforced disappearances by the Pakistani authorities is a violation of Pakistan’s commitments under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Convention against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment to which it is a state party.