(New York) – Pakistan authorities should impartially investigate the deaths of at least three people during violence between Pashtun activists and the army in North Waziristan on May 26, 2019, Human Rights Watch said today.
Both the army and supporters of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), which campaigns for the rights of ethnic Pashtuns in the former tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, accuse the other of initiating a clash at a military checkpoint at Khar Kamar. In addition to the deaths, several people, including soldiers, were injured.
“The uncertainty surrounding the deaths at Khar Kamar requires a prompt, transparent, and impartial investigation by Pakistani authorities,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Upholding the rule of law is critical for maintaining security and protecting human rights in North Waziristan.”
The incident arose during a protest at the checkpoint by local residents following the arrest of two men after a military search operation. The search operation was in response to two attacks on army personnel, on May 6 and May 24, that killed one soldier and injured three others.
A key PTM leader, Mohsin Dawar, told the media that as the group’s elected representative, he and his supporters had gone to meet the demonstrators at the checkpoint. Dawar said that while he was meeting with the protesters, soldiers opened fire without provocation.
After the incident, the army issued a statement that a group led by Dawar and Ali Wazir, another leader of the Pashtun group, attacked the military checkpoint to force the release of a suspected terrorist facilitator. “In exchange of fire,” the statement said, “three individuals who attacked the post lost their lives and 10 got injured.” The prime minister’s office endorsed the military’s statement. The authorities registered a criminal case against Wazir and eight other PTM members who have been arrested. On May 27, the army issued a statement that five more bodies were found close to the area where the clash occurred.
The PTM says that it represents the Pashtuns of the region previously known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The tribal areas were governed by colonial-era regulations that allowed collective punishment for entire communities, including property destruction and denial of access to courts. In recent years, the area has experienced attacks by the Taliban, government military offensives, and US drone strikes. In May 2018, Pakistan’s parliament passed a constitutional amendment merging the tribal areas with the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province and extending the constitutional protections previously denied to the people of the tribal areas.
The PTM has organized protests against the government to demand accountability for extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and casualties due to landmines. The government has cracked down on PTM members and supporters, using arbitrary arrests, intimidation, and surveillance as instruments of coercion. On May 28, authorities arrested a journalist, Gohar Wazir, for reporting on the group’s demonstrations and interviewing its leaders.
PTM activists have accused the authorities of arbitrary arrests and intimidation. On May 22, a criminal case for inciting violence and defaming state institutions was registered against Gulalai Ismail, a leader of the group. The case was initiated following a speech she made at a protest demonstration against the rape and murder of Farishta, a 10-year-old girl in Islamabad. Ismail has since gone into hiding.
On February 2, several Pashtuns protested the death of another leader of the group, Arman Luni, in Balochistan province’s Lorelai district. The police said that Luni died of a heart attack following clashes between police and protesters, but his supporters alleged that he died from torture in police custody.
Law enforcement, including the military, should provide security during anti-government demonstrations in accordance with the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms. The principles provide that whenever the lawful use of force is unavoidable, security forces need to use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. Law enforcement officials should not use firearms against people except to protect against the imminent threat of death or serious injury. Protest organizers should take steps to deter their supporters from committing violence during demonstrations.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has been vocal about the plight of the residents of the tribal areas throughout his political career, and has said that he would address many of the PTM’s grievances, such as the need to ease checkpoints in the former tribal areas and to remove landmines. In January, he approved a draft law criminalizing enforced disappearances – another key demand of the Pashtun group that would benefit all Pakistanis.
“The recent incident at Khar Kamar is just the latest violence involving the military and Pashtun activists,” Adams said. “Local authorities should ensure that basic rights and freedoms are respected and that genuine efforts are made to address the plight of the people in the region.”