Pakistan records worsening crackdown on dissent in 2020 – Report


Pakistan government harassed and at times prosecuted human rights defenders, lawyers, and journalists for criticising government officials and policies in 2020, Human Rights Watch said in World Report 2021, the organisation’s published annual report.

Women, religious minorities, and transgender people continued to face violence, discrimination, and persecution, with authorities often failing to provide adequate protection or hold perpetrators to account, the rights group said in the report.

They deployed the National Accountability Bureau, Pakistan’s anti-corruption watchdog, to detain political opponents and critics of the government, including the Dawn 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 criticise the government is a hallmark of authoritarian rule, not a democracy.”

A climate of fear continues to impede media coverage of abuses by both government security forces and militant groups. Journalists who face threats and attacks have increasingly resorted to self-censorship.

In July, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) ordered 24NewsHD, a television news channel, off the air indefinitely for the alleged “illegal transmission of news and current affairs content.”

Journalists and opposition activists claimed that it was being punished for airing criticism of the government.

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 while in court.

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 at fault for travelling without a male guardian.

Violence against women and girls—including rape, murder, acid attacks, domestic violence, and forced marriage—remains a serious problem throughout Pakistan. Human rights defenders estimate that roughly 1,000 women are killed in so-called honour killings every year.

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% from January-March 2020, and further worsened during the pandemic lockdowns after March. (Source: HRW)