Authorities in Pakistan shut down critical women's rights group

Association

Conditions continue to be difficult for civil society organisations in Pakistan, with those involved in human rights monitoring or those critical of government facing forced closure. On 1st September, women's rights group Taangh Wasaib Organisation (TWO) was shut down by police and 8 of its staff members were detained. TWO is run by Dr. Rubina Feroze Bhatti, a prominent Pakistani women's rights activist who works to combat violence against women, religious intolerance and discriminatory laws and policies in the Punjab province of Pakistan. Security forces entered the premises and informed staff members that they were closing the organisation, alleging that TWO was defaming Pakistan and preaching Christianity. When prompted, security forces failed to produce any documentation to support the closure; leading observers to conclude that this was unjustified intimidation and part an ongoing campaign to silence the organisation. The closure is a clear violation of associational rights, and an attempt to restrict TWO's legitimate human rights monitoring work because of its criticism of the government. 

Another Punjab-based civic organisation, the Cholistan Development Council (CDC), was recently barred by Social Welfare Department without reason. Many groups feel the authorities' decision was politically motivated, given that CDC strongly supports stronger ties with India. CDC has consistently advocated for the rights of marginalised groups living in underdeveloped parts of southern Punjab.

Authorities have also made it more difficult for CSOs to carry out projects in other parts of Pakistan. In addition to standard checks, an NGO's permission to operate also now needs to be vetted by the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA), which scrutinises the No Objection Certificate (NoC) that each organisation requires in order to register. Several organisations have reported problems when trying to gain the appropriate accreditation. For example, the Village Development Organisation (VDO), a CSO working in Ghotki district, Sindh province had to stop work due to the unavailability of an NoC. In another incident, authorities refused the South Asia Partnership Pakistan (SAP-PK) an NoC for a proposed project in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan.

Expression

The passing of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) on 11th August attracted criticism from media rights groups. Domestic and international rights groups strongly opposed PECA because of its curtailment of freedom of expression and the right to privacy. The International Centre for Not-for-Profit Law drew attention to the fact that the government is also now able to arbitrarily block or remove any web-based content without a court order, a power that is likely to have a chilling impact on freedom of expression in Pakistan. Civic groups Association for Progressive Communications, Bytes for All Pakistan, and Media Matters for Democracy made a submission to the United Nations Human Rights Committee outlining a series of objections to the act. In a shorter press release, netfreedom.pk drew attention to the the submission and stated: 

Civil society, citizens and journalists have repeatedly raised concerns about the provisions of this legislation and have warned of the undesirable consequences to the state’s fragile democracy. PECA is likely to trample a whole host of rights currently exercised online: the right to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and association, and the right to privacy, among others.

In a positive development, authorities lifted a ban on the film Maalik on 6th September, after a successful court appeal by the film's director Ashir Azeem. The film was banned for depicting the assassination of former Governor of Punjab of Salman Taseer by The Taliban, a proscribed terrorist organisation.

Peaceful Assembly 

The brutal killing of Bilal Anwar Kasi, the president of Balochistan Bar Association by unidentified gunman on 8th August shocked many in Pakistan. Lawyers from across the province of Balochistan and beyond came to pay their respects at the hospital where Mr. Kasi's body was being held when the hospital was attacked in a suicide bombing. Over 70 people, many of them lawyers, were killed in the blast. Several terrorist organisations are said to have masterminded the attack. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, a splinter group Jamaat-ur-Ahrar and Daesh (also known as the Islamic State or ISIS) all claimed responsibility in the days following the bombing. In response, lawyers boycotted courts and staged nationwide protests to decry the acts of terror against their colleagues. 

On 22nd August, Altaf Hussain, leader of Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), addressed members who were on hunger strike to protest against the alleged atrocities committed by the government against the movement. The protest turned violent when the party workers attacked media outlets, ARY, SAMA and Geo TV. One person died and many were injured as the protestors clashed with police.