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A riot police officer looks on after firing tear gas to disperse supporters of former Prime Minister Imran Khan during clashes in Lahore, Pakistan, March 15, 2023. © 2023 AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary

(New York) – The police in Pakistan have used abusive measures in the escalating confrontation between police and Imran Khan’s supporters, Human Rights Watch said today.

They have charged protesters with batons and detained them under sweeping counter-terrorism laws. The authorities should appropriately prosecute any of the former prime minister’s supporters who have engaged in unlawful acts of violence, uphold the right to peaceful protest, and refrain from the unlawful use of force.

“The use of Pakistan’s vague and overbroad anti-terrorism provisions against opposition protesters is very worrying,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “If the authorities believe that Khan’s or his supporters’ actions have resulted in violence or constituted a real threat to public safety, they should be charged under the appropriate laws.”

Dozens of Pakistanis of Khan’s political party, Tehrik-I-Insaaf (PTI), including Khan have been charged with terrorism offenses, criminal intimidation, rioting, and assault on government authorities following violent clashes between the police and party members outside a courthouse in Islamabad on March 18. The clashes erupted when Khan arrived at court to face charges of corruption. Dozens of police officers and other people were injured while several vehicles and a police checkpoint were burned in the violence. The police have arrested nearly 200 PTI members for “arson, vandalism and the attacks on police.”

The United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism has criticized legal definitions of terrorism that include property crimes, saying they should be limited to acts “committed against members of the general population, or segments of it, with the intention of causing death or serious bodily injury, or the taking of hostages.”

Violent clashes between the police and Imran Khan’s supporters have continued for the past two weeks in Lahore and Islamabad, with police using teargas and rubber bullets against protesters and charging them with batons. Protesters have used sticks and stones to attack the police and have set fire to police vehicles. Dozens of police officers and supporters of Khan’s party have been injured.

The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, which set out international law on the use of force in law enforcement situations, provide that security forces shall as far as possible apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force. Whenever the lawful use of force is unavoidable, the authorities 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.

Under the basic principles, in cases of death or serious injury, appropriate agencies are to conduct a review and send a detailed report promptly to the competent administrative or prosecutorial authorities.

Governments should ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offense. Superior officers should be held responsible if they knew or should have known that personnel under their command resorted to the unlawful use of force and firearms but did not take all measures in their power to prevent, suppress, or report such use. The protesters have a responsibility to be peaceful and abide by the law.

“All sides should display restraint and respect for human rights and the rule of law,” Gossman said. “It is vitally important for the police to respect the right to peaceful assembly while holding those responsible for unlawful violence to account.”

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