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Supporters of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan throw stones after police fire tear gas to disperse them protesting against the arrest of Khan in Lahore, Pakistan, May 9, 2023. © 2023 K.M.Chaudary/AP Photo

(New York) – Pakistan’s police have fired on and used excessive force against protesters following the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan on corruption charges on May 9, 2023, Human Rights Watch said today. The government’s cutting of mobile internet services, and restrictions on access to Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms, is overbroad and indiscriminate in violation of basic rights.

Khan’s supporters around the country have used rocks, Molotov cocktails, and in a few cases, assault rifles, to attack police and have set fire to ambulances, police vehicles, and schools, and destroyed property. Police have responded using tear gas, rubber bullets, and charged at protesters with batons. Following the violent clashes, police have arrested hundreds of members of Khan’s political party, Tehrik-I-Insaaf, on charges of criminal intimidation, rioting, and assault on government officials. At least one man died in Quetta after police opened fire on protesters.

“The Pakistani government should uphold the right to peaceful protest while responding to violence with the minimum force needed,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Criminal acts should be promptly investigated and appropriately prosecuted.”

The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials provide that security forces must use the minimum necessary force at all times. In dispersing violent assemblies, firearms may only be used when other less harmful means are not practicable but must still be used to the minimum extent necessary. Law enforcement officers may only intentionally resort to lethal force when strictly unavoidable to protect life. 

The government contends that the internet shutdown was necessary to protect public safety and curb the spread of misinformation. Internet and social media platforms remain intermittently functional. However, this sweeping measure denies ordinary people access to lifesaving information, interferes with access to health care, and restricts the ability of journalists to upload photos and videos documenting government overreach and abuse. International human rights law prohibits broad, indiscriminate, and indefinite restrictions on fundamental freedoms, including the right to free expression and to provide and receive information, Human Rights Watch said.

“Pakistan’s current charged environment is resulting in cycles of violence and counterviolence,” Gossman said. “It is vitally important that the authorities act in a manner that doesn’t let the situation spiral out of control.

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