Pashtun Tahaffuz [Protection] Movement has called for peaceful protests across Pakistan and abroad in response to the arrests.
SALEEM SHAH reports from Pakistan on the response to a state crackdown on civil rights and peace protests led by the Pashtun Protection Movement
ON Sunday, January 26 Manzoor Pashteen, leader of the Pashtun Tahaffuz [Protection] Movement (PTM) was arrested by Pakistani police in a midnight raid in Peshawar, along with nine other Pashtun civil rights activists.
Before police confiscated his mobile phone, Pashteen sent a message alerting PTM activists to the arrests.
PTM parliamentarian Mohsin Dawar, a member of Pakistan’s National Assembly, spent Sunday night phoning police stations in Peshawar to locate arrested civil rights activists. Police denied all knowledge until media coverage forced them to confirm the arrests.
Police initially refused to state the reasons for Pashteen’s arrest. He was transferred to Peshawar central prison on a 14-day judicial remand by a magistrates hours after he was arrested in handcuffs like a common criminal.
Subsequently, police in the city of Dera Ismail Khan 200 miles south of Peshawar confirmed arrest charges were issued on January 18 against the PTM leader under Pakistan’s penal code for “criminal intimidation” (Section 506), “promoting enmity between different groups” (153-A), “criminal conspiracy” (120-B), “sedition” (124) and “condemning the creation of Pakistan and advocating abolition of Pakistan’s sovereignty” (123-A).
Although this is the first time since the rise of the PTM in January 2018 that Pashteen has been arrested by Pakistani authorities, numerous other Pashtun lawmakers and activists have suffered police and army repression – as Pashteen reported last month in a Morning Star article “The Tale of Two Pakistans.”
PTM human rights activist Gulalai Ismail, founder of Aware Girls Youth Peace Network and the Women’s Democratic Front, reported that on Monday PTM lawyers made a bail application and are now waiting for the court’s decision. If bail is refused Pashteen will be transferred to D I Khan prison.
PTM called for peaceful protests across Pakistan and abroad in response to the arrests. The hashtag #ReleaseManzoorPashteen and #PTMWorldWideProtests was trending yesterday as demonstrators posted film of mass sit-downs and protests from Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad (Pakistan’s capital), Jalalabad and Khost (in eastern Afghanistan), as well as smaller provincial towns such as Musakhel, Sanjawi, Musa Khel and Lorali (in Balochistan), Miran Shah (in North Waziristan) Shewa (in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), Mingora (in Swat), Drazinda (in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area) and outside Pakistan’s embassies in Washington and Brussels.
Arrests of PTM leaders are timed to disrupt a rally in the city of Quetta in Balochistan province previously announced for February 12. The 14-day judicial remand blocks Pashteen from addressing the gathering and PTM claims is the real reason for the arrests.
The accusations against Pashteen stem from PTM’s rising popularity and successful public rallies including recently a “Long March to Bannu” in Waziristan on January 12.
Pakistani state media and government supporters have concentrated propaganda attacks on Pashteen previously by alleging involvement of governments of Afghanistan and India in an effort to undermine his popularity with the mass of Pakistan’s people.
It is surely no coincidence that the arrests were made on the eve of PTM’s latest initiative, a grand jirga (council of elders), which began on January 27 in support of tribal protests in Waziristan calling for compensation for destruction of tribal people’s property.
As he was taken to prison he told reporters, “I am not worried. I am happy to be handcuffed so that the people can see what this state is doing.”
He continued, “This is nothing. Poets are writing songs for me and singers are singing them. This is an unprecedented love of my people. I can sacrifice everything for them.”
At a press conference called by PTM at the National Press Club in Islamabad on Monday, Pashtun politician and writer Afrasiyab Khattak claimed Pashteen’s arrest was intended to jeopardise attempts at a peace process in Afghanistan. Khattak argued Pakistan’s security services see PTM as a barrier to its policy of collaboration with the Taliban.
Khattak added that Pashteen is the victim of undeclared, de facto martial law in Pakistan.
At the same press conference parliamentarian, Mohsin Dawar argued PTM is “Neither against the state of Pakistan nor opposed to the constitution. We are just fighting for our rights.” He added that the charges against Pashteen and fellow detainees are fake.
Farhatula Babar representing the Pakistan People’s Party condemned the arrest, demanding his immediate release. Leaders of the Awami National Party and Pukhtunkhwa Millie Awami Party also spoke condemning the arrests.
Pakistan’s UN Human Rights Commissioner, Amnesty International and many civil rights activists also joined calls for his immediate release.
Significantly, the arrest of a popular civil rights leader quickly became an international diplomatic incident with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his Vice-President Amrullah Saleh also condemning Pashteen’s arrest and joining calls for his release.
The Afghan President’s twitter account @ashrafghani tweeted yesterday: “I am troubled by the arrest of Manzoor Pashteen and his colleagues. I fully echo the concerns raised by Amnesty International in this regard and hope for their immediate release.
“While our region is suffering from atrocities caused by violent extremism and terrorism … governments in the region must support and encourage peaceful civilian movements for justice and must avoid any means of force and violence against these movements. On the contrary, differences with such peaceful movements must be resolved through dialogue and engagement.”
In addition to Pashteen, another PTM leader Said Alam Masood was reported missing the same day. Progressive democratic voices within Pakistan have also condemned his arrest and are demanding his immediate release.
Protest rallies are expected in several Pakistani cities and abroad in coming days. One PTM activist @SheraliSahebzoy tweeted: “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”