Pakistani transgender people and civil society activists in Peshawar condemn the August 16, 2018 fatal shooting of a transgender woman,  August 20, 2018. 

©2018 Muhammad Sajjad/AP Images

(New York) – Pakistani authorities have muzzled dissenting voices of activists and journalists on the pretext of national security, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2019. The government has also failed to ensure the protection of the country’s religious minorities from wrongful prosecution and attacks by militant groups.

“The appeasement of extremist groups by successive Pakistani governments has led to a climate of fear for religious minorities and for those who question the use of the blasphemy law,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The new government needs to summon the courage to stand up to extremists and hold those responsible for violence to account.”

In the 674-page World Report 2019, its 29th edition, Human Rights Watch reviewed human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the populists spreading hatred and intolerance in many countries are spawning a resistance. New alliances of rights-respecting governments, often prompted and joined by civic groups and the public, are raising the cost of autocratic excess. Their successes illustrate the possibility of defending human rights – indeed, the responsibility to do so – even in darker times.

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party won the highest number of seats in parliamentary elections in July 2018, and its leader, Imran Khan, took office as prime minister in August. This was the second consecutive constitutional transfer of power from one civilian government to another in Pakistan. In the campaign, Khan pledged to make economic development and social justice a priority.

Soon after taking office, however, Khan’s government continued the cracked down on international groups, including Save the Children and the Open Society Foundation, ordering 18 of them to end operations in Pakistan. The government also imposed restrictions on foreign funding for local organizations, many of which work with at-risk groups. The authorities pressured media outlets not to report on certain issues, including criticism of government institutions, the military, and the judiciary.

Women, religious minorities, and transgender people faced violent attacks, discrimination, and government persecution.

In October, Pakistan’s Supreme Court quashed the conviction and ordered the release of 47-year-old Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman from a village in Punjab province who had been on death row for eight years. Groups supporting the blasphemy law took to the streets to protest the decision to release her, damaged public and private property, and threatened Supreme Court judges, government officials, and the military leadership with violence.

Blasphemy allegations and similar rhetoric from both private individuals and government officials increased in 2018. However, the government did not amend the law, and instead encouraged discriminatory prosecutions and other abuses against vulnerable groups.

“Prime Minister Imran Khan has an important opportunity to create a rights-respecting government that abides by the rule of law,” Adams said. “As a first step, the Pakistani government should repeal discriminatory laws that encourage and enable discrimination and persecution of its most marginalized citizens.”