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Police detain a supporter of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan during clashes, in Islamabad, Pakistan, May 12, 2023. © 2023 W.K. Yousafzai/AP Photo

(New York) – Pakistani police have carried out mass arrests and detained more than 4,000 people in the wake of protests over the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, including members of the political opposition, Human Rights Watch said today.

Police have arbitrarily detained many opposition political party members as well as people appropriately arrested for engaging in violence. Many have been charged under vague and overbroad laws prohibiting rioting and creating threats to public order. Pakistani authorities should release all those held for peaceful protest or supporting the political opposition and respect the due process rights of all those detained.

“The Pakistani authorities should end their arbitrary arrests of political opposition activists and peaceful protesters,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Anyone committing violence should be appropriately charged and their due process rights respected.”

Violence swept across Pakistan after the police arrested former Prime Minister Khan on May 9, 2023, on corruption charges. Many of Khan’s supporters hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails, and in a few cases, used assault rifles to attack police, and set fire to ambulances, police vehicles, and schools. Police responded with tear gas, rubber bullets, and charged protesters with batons. In the ensuing days, police arrested hundreds of members of Khan’s political party, Tehrik-i-Insaaf, on charges of criminal intimidation, rioting, and assault on government officials. On May 12, Khan was released on bail.

A tense standoff continued between the police and Khan supporters in the city of Lahore, raising concerns about further violence. 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 using less harmful means are not practicable, and only to the minimum extent necessary. Law enforcement officers may only intentionally resort to lethal force when strictly unavoidable to protect life. 

On May 17, police arrested two former parliament members, Shireen Mazari and Maleeka Bukhari. After the Islamabad High Court granted them bail, the police immediately rearrested them on new charges. Mazari’s family members said that she has medical needs that require urgent attention. The authorities should release both women, drop all charges unless for a legally recognizable offense, and ensure that Mazari has immediate access to medical care.

Pakistani law requires all detainees to be brought before a court within 24 hours, which is consistent with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Pakistan is a party.

“The authorities should display restraint and respect for human rights and the rule of law,” Gossman said. “Fundamental guarantees of peaceful protest and due process should not become casualties of Pakistan’s political conflict.”

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