Members of civil society groups take part in a rally to condemn a recent gang rape of a woman on a highway, Karachi, Pakistan, September 12, 2020. © 2020 Fareed Khan/AP Photo

(New York) – Pakistan’s government intensified its crackdown on the media, political opponents, and civil society in 2020, while failing to stem violence against women and minorities, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2021.

Pakistani authorities harassed, and at times, prosecuted human rights defenders and journalists for criticizing government policies. They deployed the National Accountability Bureau, Pakistan’s anti-corruption watchdog, to detain political opponents and critics of the government, including the Jang group editor Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman, who was held without bail for six months.

“Pakistan’s continuing assault on political opponents and free expression put the country on an increasingly dangerous course,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Threatening opposition leaders, activists, and journalists who criticize the government is a hallmark of authoritarian rule, not a democracy.”

In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights. Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. The Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort.

Violence against Pakistan’s Ahmadiyya religious community worsened in 2020, with at least four Ahmadis killed for alleged incidents of blasphemy. Among them was Tahir Naseem Ahmad, who was charged with blasphemy, imprisoned in 2018, and fatally shot in July by an assailant who had smuggled a gun inside a high-security courtroom in Peshawar. The Pakistani government also failed to amend or repeal blasphemy law provisions that have led to arbitrary arrests and prosecutions, and provide a pretext for violence against religious minorities.

In August, leading women journalists issued a statement condemning the “well-defined and coordinated campaign” of social media attacks, including death and rape threats, against women journalists and commentators whose views and reporting have been critical of the government.

In September, nationwide protests took place to demand police reform after the Lahore police chief made a public statement suggesting that a woman who had been gang-raped on a highway in Punjab was herself at fault because she should not have been traveling “without her husband’s permission” on a motorway late at night.

Pakistan had over 350,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19, with at least 7,000 deaths in 2020. With little testing available, the actual numbers were most likely much higher. Partial or complete lockdowns to prevent contagion had a disproportionate effect on women workers, especially home-based and domestic workers. The Sindh provincial government took some measures to protect workers from layoffs and ensure pay. 

Data from domestic violence help lines across Pakistan indicated that cases of domestic violence increased 200 percent from January-March 2020, and further worsened during the Covid-19 lockdowns after March.