(New York) - The government of Pakistan should end its crackdown against activists of opposition groups led by the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), Human Rights Watch said today.
Since March 10, 2009, authorities have detained at least 300 activists from the opposition party and affiliated groups from across Punjab province, the party's stronghold. Scores of opposition politicians are in hiding, fearing arrest. The activists have been detained under various provisions of the Maintenance of Public Order Act or simply detained without charge.
"It's a disgrace for elected officials to mimic the discredited military government by using old and repressive laws to stifle political expression," said Ali Dayan Hasan, senior South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The protesters who were arrested should be freed right away and allowed to demonstrate peacefully without fear of violence or arrest."
Supporters of the party, headed by the former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, are being arrested to prevent them from converging on the capital, Islamabad, for a "sit-in" in support of the restoration to office of Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, the Supreme Court chief justice who was illegally fired in November 2007 by Pervez Musharraf, then the country's military ruler.
The Punjab and Sindh provincial governments have imposed a discredited colonial-era legal provision, section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which bans gatherings of four or more people, to prevent the protest march to Islamabad. The Punjab police, acting on orders from the provincial government, have set up police checkpoints and roadblocks across the province.
Pakistan has been gripped by a political crisis since February 25, 2009, when the country's Supreme Court upheld a ruling that banned Nawaz Sharif from contesting elections because of a previous criminal conviction. The court also disqualified Sharif's brother, Shahbaz Sharif, from continuing as the chief minister of Punjab province.
Nawaz Sharif declared "rebellion" against the government and vowed to force a resolution of political disputes "on the streets" at a rally in the city of Lahore on March 5. Along with lawyers seeking the reinstatement of Chaudhry, Sharif announced a protest march to Islamabad, scheduled to arrive in the city on March 16 and culminating in an indefinite sit-in until Chaudhry is restored to office.
Human Rights Watch said that by placing curbs on the rights to peaceful assembly and association, Pakistan's government was making use of the same authoritarian tools it had decried when in opposition.
"Pakistan's transition to democracy is imperiled by the government reacting to a political dispute with unnecessary force," said Hasan. "Regardless of political differences, rights-respecting leaders don't lock up people for trying to participate in their country's political process."