(New York) – Pakistan’s government should ensure that pro-independence political groups in Pakistani-administered Kashmir are free to organize peaceful political gatherings in the run-up to legislative assembly elections on July 11, Human Rights Watch said today.

In 2001, when pro-independence groups attempted to participate in the previous elections for the legislative assembly of Azad Kashmir, Pakistani authorities responded with arbitrary arrests and detention, harassment and beatings.

Under Azad Kashmir’s constitution, which Pakistan imposed in 1974, election candidates are pre-screened to ensure that only those who support Kashmir’s union with Pakistan can contest elections. About 60 pro-independence candidates, belonging to the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), the All Parties Nationalist Alliance (APNA) and some smaller groups, filed nomination papers for the July 11 elections. All have been barred from the contest by election authorities.

Human Rights Watch fears that a repeat of the 2001 violations is likely as the elections approach and nationalist parties organize protest rallies in the run-up to polling day. A major nationalist protest rally is planned for July 10 in the Kashmiri city of Rawalakot.

“The electoral law undermines Kashmiris’ basic political rights by barring them from seeking office if they oppose Kashmir’s accession to Pakistan,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Those who favor independence invite the ire of Pakistan’s abusive intelligence agencies and military, and they risk being beaten and jailed.”

To prevent those who support Kashmiri independence from circumventing the constitutional bar, the Azad Kashmir electoral law disqualifies a person from running for elected office if: “He is propagating any opinion or acting in any manner prejudicial to the ideology of Pakistan, the ideology of the State’s accession to Pakistan or the sovereignty, integrity of Pakistan or security of Azad Jammu and Kashmir or Pakistan, or morality, or the maintenance of public order, or the integrity or independence of the Judiciary of Azad Jammu and Kashmir or Pakistan.”

Human Rights Watch called upon the Pakistani government to ensure free and fair elections in Azad Kashmir through the repeal of constitutional restrictions and election laws that limit participation on the basis of peaceful expression.

Moreover, the electoral law bars from seeking elected office anyone “who defames or brings into ridicule the Judiciary of Azad Jammu and Kashmir or Pakistan, or the Armed Forces of Pakistan.”

Human Rights Watch expressed particular concern about the provision of the law that bars candidates who “bring into ridicule” the Pakistani military. Behind a civilian façade, the Pakistani military effectively rules Azad Kashmir with little regard for basic protections from arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and other mistreatment. This law and other similar provisions effectively penalize any criticism of the ruling authorities.

“Under current laws, Kashmiris who have suggested that the Pakistani military mishandled earthquake relief could be disqualified from holding elected office,” said Adams. “The restrictions on political participation and the harassment and persecution of Kashmiri nationalists in Azad Kashmir violate international standards on free expression and expose the Pakistani government’s hypocrisy about Kashmir.”

Appendix: Selection of accounts collected by Human Rights Watch related to unlawful arrests, mistreatment, and curbs on freedom of expression during the 2001 elections to the Azad Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly