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Manzoor Pashteen, a leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), addresses supporters during a rally in Lahore, Pakistan, April 22, 2018. © 2018 AP Photo
(New York) – Pakistani authorities should immediately release and drop the charges against Manzoor Pashteen, a political activist arrested on January 27, 2020 for criticizing government policies, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should stop using abusive colonial-era laws criminalizing speech to clamp down on critics of the government.

Police in Peshawar arrested Pashteen, the prominent leader of the Pashtun Taffhuz Movement, on the morning of January 27. The authorities registered a criminal case against him in Dera Ismail Khan district, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, based on a speech he gave on January 18. Pashteen was charged with criminal intimidation, promoting enmity between different groups, criminal conspiracy, and sedition. A court sent him to jail on a 14-day judicial remand.

“Pakistani authorities should stop arresting activists like Manzoor Pashteen who are critical of government actions or policies,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Using criminal laws to chill free expression and political opposition has no place in a democracy.”

The Pashtun Taffhuz Movement represents Pashtuns in the region previously known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. 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 United States 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 Pashtun Taffhuz Movement has organized protests against the government to demand accountability for extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and casualties from landmines. The authorities have cracked down on members and supporters, using arbitrary arrests and intimidation as instruments of coercion.

On January 25, the federal government invited the group’s leaders for talks. Defense Minister Pervez Khattak told the media, “We want to bring the [Pashtun Taffhuz Movement] into the national mainstream as the country is passing through a difficult period of its history.” Prime Minister Imran Khan has been vocal about the concerns of the residents of the former tribal areas throughout his political career, and, in April 2019, stated he would address many of the group’s grievances, such as the need to ease checkpoints and remove landmines.

Pakistan’s sedition law, section 124A of the Penal Code, prohibits any words, either spoken or written, or any signs or visible representation that can cause “hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection” toward the government. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Pakistan ratified in 2010, prohibits restrictions on freedom of expression unless they are provided by law, strictly construed, and necessary and proportionate to address a legitimate threat. Vague and overbroad laws must not put the right itself in jeopardy.

“The Pakistan government should find ways of resolving political disagreements with dialogue rather than intimidation,” Adams said. “Peaceful dissent is the essence of democracy and should not be treated as sedition.”

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