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The Killing of Pashtun Activists by State Actors Demonstrates the Inflexibility with Which the Pakistan Government and Army Views Dissent

By Tushar Ranjan Mohanty 

May 11, 2020 

Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) leader Sardar Arif Wazir was killed in an attack at GhwaKhwa in Wana town of South Waziristan District in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) on May 1, 2020. According to reports, unidentified attackers opened fire at him when he was strolling outside his house. Eyewitnesses said two of the attackers were also injured in an exchange of fire with Wazir’s security guards. 

Earlier, on April 17, 2020, Wazir was arrested by the Police in Wana, allegedly for making an ‘anti-Pakistan’ speech during his visit to Afghanistan. Though Police official Usman Wazir accused Sardar Arif Wazir of delivering an 'anti-Pakistan' speech on March 6, 2020, during his visit to Afghanistan, he did not provide any further details. 

Wazir spent 10 days in prison before being released on bail on April 27. 

Wazir has become the 18th member of his immediate and extended family to be killed since 2007. Seven members of Wazir's family were killed in a clash with al Qaeda-linked foreign militants (mostly Uzbeks and Tajiks) near Wana on March 6, 2007. The dead included his father Saadullah Jan and uncle Mirza Alam. 

Wazir was the first cousin of PTM leader Ali Wazir, who was elected as Member of the National Assembly (MNA) from South Waziristan in the General Elections of 2018 as an independent candidate. 

Another PTM leader and MNA, Mohsin Dawar, who represents North Waziristan in the National Assembly as an independent member, blamed the state for the attack. He asserted that the attack was carried out by “good” (state backed) terrorists and added that his party’s “struggle against their masters will continue.” 

Echoing the same sentiment, Aurang Zeb Khan Zalmay, the PTM organiser in Europe who lives In Heidelberg, Germany, issued a statement that the Wazir's killers were 

…state-sponsored militants of Pakistan. The Pakistan military called them as 'Good Taliban' and consider them as their shadow army. Arif Wazir and his family have fought for last two decades against these militants and have burnt their safe-havens in the tribal areas of Pakistan. 

PTM is an ongoing non-violent protest movement for Pashtun human rights in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. 

PTM’s origins lie in the MehsudTahafuz Movement (MTM) started in May 2014 by eight students of the Mehsud tribe, including Manzoor Pashteen, staying at the Gomal University Hostel in Dera Ismail Khan town of KP, to campaign for the rights of the Mehsud community impacted by military operations. The campaigners also demanded removal of landmines from Waziristan and other parts of the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas, now part of KP, and KP. 

However, the MTM came into prominence after the killing of NaqeebullahMehsud, an aspiring model, in a Police encounter by Karachi Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Rao Anwar on January 13, 2018. The incident reignited anger in the Pashtun community. 

Under the leadership of 26-years-old Manzoor Pashteen, MTM turned into PTM, and organised a “long march” of Pashtuns from Dera Ismail Khan to Islamabad to protest the killing of NaqeebullahMehsud. Their peaceful two-week sit-in in Islamabad from January 28 to February 10, 2018, shook the security establishment and compelled them to arrest SSP Rao Anwar and start a criminal investigation into the extrajudicial killing of NaqeebullahMehsud. On March 25, 2019, an anti-terrorism court (ATC) indicted Rao Anwar and 17 others for the murder of NaqeebullahMehsud. Latest reports indicate that, on March 25, 2020, the Court adjourned hearings of the NaqeebullahMehsud murder case till April 9, 2020, due to the coronavirus lockdown. There is no further open source information regarding the case. 

Meanwhile subsequent to the "long march", PTM organized protest rallies in most of the major cities across Pakistan, including Quetta in Balochistan; Peshawar, Swat, Swabi, Bannu, Dera Ismail Khan, in KP; Karachi in Sindh; and Lahore in Punjab. The movement has secured a great deal of traction and is widely seen as the largest non-violent protest in Pakistan and, consequently, has attracted considerable international attention. This has encouraged PTM members to organize more rallies and reiterate their demands, which include: 

removal of the draconian Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR)

release of missing persons

stopping the humiliation of Pashtuns at security checkpoints

removal of landmines in the tribal areas 

Since its emergence, PTM has openly criticized the Pakistan Army and its intelligence agencies, accusing them of human rights violations in the tribal region. The Pakistani authorities, on the other hand, accuse the PTM leadership of getting funds from Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies. 

Islamabad expectedly tried to supress the movement, misusing the state machinery, and has arrested PTM activists from time to time. Amnesty International’s annual report Human Rights in Asia-Pacific: Review of 2019 pointed out that Pakistan authorities had intensified the crackdown on PTM, arresting and arbitrarily detaining dozens of its supporters, subjecting them to surveillance, intimidation, prosecution and threats of violence. 

PTM suffered its first casualty of this state suppression on February 2, 2019, when Muhammad Ibrahim Arman Luni, a college teacher and rights activist, died in the hospital after reportedly being beaten by the Police in the Loralai District of Balochistan for his peaceful sit-in protest. Luni had repeatedly protested alleged targeted killings by the state and had criticized the state for marginalizing Pashtuns. He had also raised awareness for those affected by militancy and Army operations in KP and Balochistan. 

Another prominent PTM activist Gulalai Ismail, a woman human rights defender who campaigned against violence against women and enforced disappearances, was charged with sedition, terrorism and defamation on May 22, 2019. In September, she fled to USA. Her family faced serious intimidation by the law enforcement authorities. 

Meanwhile, the first confrontation between Army and PTM activists reportedly occurred on May 26, 2019, when a crowd led by PTM leaders and MNAs Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir raided Kharqamarcheckpost in the Boya area of North Waziristan District in KP, resulting in a clash in which 13 protester were killed and 25 others, including five soldiers, sustained injuries. A statement issued by the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) claimed, 

Troops at the checkpost exercised maximum restraint in the face of provocation and direct firing on the post. Due to firing of the group, five army soldiers got injured. All injured have been evacuated to army hospital for treatment. 

The statement added that Ali Wazir, along with eight individuals were arrested, while Mohsin Dawar escaped after inciting the crowd. The statement, however, did not mention loss of life of PTM activists.   

Earlier, on April 29, 2019, Major General Asif Ghafoor, Director General, ISPR, had claimed that PTM had received funding from Afghan and Indian intelligence services, and warned, 

want to do everything for the people [of tribal areas], but those who are playing in the hands of people, their time is up. Their time is up. 

In this context, it appears that SFs, at the direction of people at the helm, used disproportionate force.  Indeed, the Government tried to supress information of the massacre. A Human Rights Commission of Pakistan's (HRCP’s) fact-finding team that was trying to reach to the area to investigate was stopped by the Army on June 24, 2019. 

Despite the Pakistan Army’s and Government’s intimidation, PTM organised rallies across different cities of Pakistan through 2019, and continues its protests in 2020 as well.  Protests and sit-ins are organised regularly where the participants reiterate their demands. Speeches of Manzoor Pashteen during PTM rallies have challenged the military in a way that no other civil movement in Pakistan previously had. In every rally, he talks about human rights abuses by the Army in tribal areas. In one of his interviews with British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) on January 27, 2020, he stated, 

It has taken us almost 15 years of suffering and humiliation to gather courage to speak up, and to spread awareness about how the military trampled our constitutional rights through both direct action and a policy of support for the militants. 

PTM mobilization has deeply disturbed the Government and the Army, and the response has been a ‘campaign’ of arbitrary arrests of PTM leaders on charges of sedition and criminal conspiracies. In one such move, the Pakistan Government arrested Manzoor Pashteen on January 27, 2020, from the Shaheen Town of Peshawar, on charges of sedition, hate speech, incitement against the state, and criminal conspiracy. Pashteen reportedly had attended a gathering on January 18, 2020, in Dera Ismail Khan city of KP, where he had allegedly stated that the 1973 Constitution violated basic human rights. He was, however, released on bail by the Islamabad High Court on February 15, 2020.  During the bail hearing Chief Justice Athar Minallah of the High Court remarked, 

We don't expect that a democratic government will curb freedom of expression. An elected democratic government cannot place curbs on freedom of expression. (We) shouldn't fear criticism. 

Manzoor Pashteen is lucky not to face the same fate as Sardar Arif Wazir who, after securing bail, has been brutally killed by suspected state proxies. 

The intimidation and killing of Pashtun activists by state actors demonstrates the inflexibility with which the Pakistan Government and Army views dissent. With the killing of Sardar Arif Wazir, the Government and security establishment have given a warning to all those who dare raise their voices against injustice and human rights violations: their voices will be silenced forever. 

Tushar Ranjan Mohanty is a Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management 

Original Headline: A Grim Silencing 

Source: South Asia Intelligence Review