(New York,) – In April, Pakistani authorities used draconian laws and excessive force to prevent tenant farmers in Punjab province from protesting for land rights, Human Rights Watch said today. Farmers in Okara district had planned to convene on April 17, 2016, the International Day of Peasants’ and Farmers’ Struggles.
The authorities should drop all charges brought against those exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and appropriately punish security force members responsible for abuses against protesters.
In some cases, including that of Mehr Abdul Sattar, the police are refusing to provide information on the whereabouts of those arrested, which amounts to an enforced disappearance in violation of international law. Individuals forcibly disappeared are at a grave risk of being tortured or otherwise ill-treated.
Aisha Bibi, 55, villager, said that her son has disappeared since the crackdown by government forces. “When I asked the police about my son, the officers abused me and said that my son is being taught a lesson for being part of the farmers’ struggle.”
Since April 16, at least 24 farmers have been brought before the anti-terrorism courts and returned to judicial custody. Excessive use of tear gas might have resulted in the death of a 26-year-old farmer, according to his family members. Villagers told Human Rights Watch that security forces have since cordoned off villages in the area of dispute, preventing people, food and public services from entering or leaving.
Pakistan should ensure that security forces follow the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. They provide that all security forces use nonviolent means as far as possible before resorting to the use of force. Whenever the lawful use of force is unavoidable, officials should use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. Lethal force may only be used when strictly unavoidable to protect life.
“The government should promptly release those wrongfully held, provide information on those ‘disappeared,’ and hold accountable soldiers and police who use excessive force,” Adams said. “Efforts to reach an agreement over the longstanding land dispute in Okara will be improved by showing greater respect for human rights.”
Background and eyewitness accounts (names changed):
The dispute between tenant farmers in Okara and the military started 16 years ago. Traditionally, farmers were sharecroppers, handing over part of their produce as rent to the military, which acts as landlord through military-run farms. In 2000, the military unilaterally tried to change the rules, demanding that the farmers sign new rental contracts requiring them to pay rent in cash. The farmers refused, fearing that cash rents would, when times were lean, place them at risk of being evicted from land that their families have lived on for generations.
Human Rights Watch has previously documented a campaign of arbitrary detentions, torture, killings, and summary dismissals from employment by Pakistani security forces against the farmers.
The dispute peaked between May 5, 2003 and June 12, 2003, when the 150,000 people who live in the 18 villages that comprise Okara Military Farms were placed under curfew, with severe restrictions on movement within and into the district. Water, electricity and telephones were disconnected until the farmers agreed to sign the new contracts guaranteeing fixed income to the military owners of agricultural land.
During the election campaign of 2013, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif held a rally in Okara district and promised farmers their right to the lands farmed over generations. However, Sharif’s promise remains unfulfilled and local authorities’ oppression of the Okara farmers continues unabated, which has led to further protests. In July 2014, security forces killed two tenant farmers during a siege and assault in village 15/4 L.
The following accounts are from Human Rights Watch’s visit to Okara district, Punjab from April 21 to 23, 2016.
Arbitrary arrests, detention, enforced disappearances
Human Rights Watch interviewed 14 people who said that their friends or family members were arrested by the authorities on April 16 or on ensuing days. Many remain in custody. Some have not been accounted for and may have been forcibly disappeared. The interviews were conducted in villages 4/4-L and 15/4-L. The local farmers’ movement started in village 4/4-L in 2000, and it is considered by both the government and the farmers as the movement’s headquarters.
Sakina Bibi, a 70 -year-old farmer from village 15/4L, said that her sons were arrested and detained, and she is concerned for their safety:
At about 2 to 2:30 a.m. on April 18, the police broke down the door of my house. There was a lot of noise. They were shouting. There were many of them. First they dragged my elder son Abbas, who is a school teacher from his bed and started beating him with rifle butts. Abbas suffers from hepatitis. Then they grabbed my younger son Javaid, and started hitting him on the head with batons. When I tried to restrain them, one police officer hit me on the head. They kicked and slapped my two daughters-in-law. They also arrested two village chowkidars [caretakers] and an 80-year-old neighbor who came to our house hearing our screams.
I don’t know, where they have taken my sons and why they were arrested. I am more than 70-years-old and cannot pursue the disappearance of my sons. Nobody from the village can go to the police station to check because whoever goes to the police station is arrested.
Why is the National Action Plan being used against farmers? It is clearly because they want to throw us in jails and take our lands.
Muhammad Irfan, a resident of village 15/4L, said that his 60-year-old mother was in custody:
My mother Kaneez Bibi went to get medicine from the city for her diabetes on the morning of April 16. She was in an auto-rickshaw [motorbike taxi] and fell out after she was caught in the firing of teargas shells. She was arrested for attempted murder and under various sections of the Anti-Terrorism Act. We do not know where she is. I can’t even go to the police station to check since I fear that I will be arrested as well. My mother can hardly walk. It is absurd to accuse her of attempting to commit murder.
Aisha Bibi, 55, a resident of village 4/4L, said that her son has disappeared since the crackdown by government forces:
My son Nadeem was arrested on April 17 when he was on his way to Okara city. My son is an auto-rickshaw driver and he was not in the protest of April 16. We have no land and are not even farmers. My husband is dead and my son is the only person in the house that earns a living. The police say that they have sent him to the Okara jail. However, the jail people refuse to talk to me and say that they will give out no information. When I asked the police about my son, the officers abused me and said that my son is being taught a lesson for being part of the farmers’ struggle.
Mehr Abdul Sattar is the secretary general of Anjuman-i-Mazareen Punjab, the group that had organized the April 17 meeting. His arrest, a day earlier, led to the protests. His brother Mehr Abdul Jabbar told Human Rights Watch:
On April 16, I heard footsteps and loud noises coming from the front gate of our house. I ran towards the gate. Around 40 to 50 police officers had broken into our house. I couldn’t recognize any of them, apart from the local Station House Officer. They started dragging and beating my brother. When I tried to restrain them, they started hitting us with rifle butts. They dragged us both out to the front gate. There were at least 12 police vehicles outside in the street. Then they took him away.
The police refused to tell me why Sattar was arrested. The district government officials claim that they have arrested him under the Maintenance of Public Order law. Earlier, on April 13, the district government had asked him to cancel the planned convention celebrating the International Day of Peasants. The district government also imposed section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code to stop the convention. Sattar refused to comply and said it is the constitutional right of the farmers to hold a peaceful, public meeting.
To this day we do not know where the police have taken Sattar. The police and district government refuse to meet us or tell us where he is. I am sure that they are torturing him. I was arrested in 2003 and was kept in “torture cells” for weeks.
Anyone who tries to question the detention of Sattar and the other farmers is implicated in false cases and arrested. Our fault is that we are sons of a poor farmer who have become aware of our rights to our land.
Izhar is a lawyer and a resident of village 4/4L. He said:
They are detaining people without registering arrests. I am a lawyer who has been working for the rights of other villagers. However, now even I can’t go out of the village. For the past one year, I have stopped practicing law because I am afraid of being arrested. There are check posts outside the village and they arrest anyone going in and out. Sometimes they ask for National Identification Card and if the address on the N.I.C. is of our village, the police detain the individuals without any legal cause. The government has used the National Action Plan, which is meant to counter terrorists, to use military force on us. Anti-terrorism cases have been registered against women and children.
Excessive use of force
On April 16, army soldiers and the police responded to several protesters hurling stones and carrying wooden sticks by firing teargas canisters, carrying out baton charges and using steel rods, and shooting in the air. According to accounts, several protesters were badly beaten.
A resident of village 4/4L said that her 26-year-old son died during the protest:
In the morning, on April 16, he left the house to go to the protest against cancellation of the Peasants’ day event. In the evening, he was brought home by fellow villagers. He was very ill, and told me that the excessive exposure to the teargas shells was suffocating him. We called the emergency ambulance service. However, the ambulance was stopped on the way to the hospital by the police at the checkpoint outside the village. My son died in the ambulance. Had the security forces allowed the ambulance to pass through quickly, my son might have been saved.
Muhammad Aslam, 50, a farmer from the village of 4/4L, described the security forces’ use of force at the protest on April 16:
We had gathered that morning to protest the arrest of our leader, Mehr Abdul Sattar. There was a heavy presence of police and army troops. At about 10 a.m., the police attacked to disperse us without any warning. They started beating us, men, women, and children, mercilessly. I have marks on my body, which you can see. They used rods and batons to beat us. I cannot even go for a medical examination since I am afraid that I will be arrested on my way to the hospital. The entire village is hostage now. Nobody goes out.
The police have registered cases against us under the anti-terrorism law. The only terror acts that were committed are by the police and army. We were unarmed and peaceful.
How is it a crime to commemorate the International Day of Peasants? Is it a crime to be a farmer? The government treats us farmers as criminals and traitors. For the past one year, even if four or five farmers are seen together, they are arrested. They detain us for a few days without registering our arrest. They torture us and give us dirty water to drink while in custody. They want to break our resistance.
Rasheedan Bibi, a farmer from the village 4/4L, said:
I am over 50-years-old, a woman suffering from multiple illnesses. On April 16, I went to the protest against the cancellation of the peasant convention and arrest of our leaders. We had not blocked any road. We were unarmed and simply chanting slogans demanding release of our leaders and for granting us rights to our lands. The police and the army troops charged at us without any warning. They beat us with batons, kicked us, and dragged women on the road. My finger was fractured as a result of the beating and my knees are injured. My only crime is that I am a poor, farmer woman.
Muhammad Shabbir said he and his mother were beaten by the army and police officers for being part of the protest:
I work as a laborer in the fruit market in Okara city. I don’t own even an inch of land, so I’m not a farmer. However, I went to the protest on April 16 in solidarity with the rest of the villagers. The army and the police attacked for us no reason. We posed no threat to them. When they were beating my mother with batons, I pleaded with them to stop, as she is old. For this, a police constable hit me on the head repeatedly, even as I bled. I needed stitches on my head. My mother has a broken hand and bruises all over her body.