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Pakistan watchdog slams 'grim' state of human rights

Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reports rising forced disappearances, rape and attacks on religious minorities.

Pakistani human rights activists rally against missing people in Islamabad [B K Bangash/AP]

An independent watchdog has expressed concern over Pakistan's commitment to protecting human rights amid an increase in enforced disappearances, blasphemy-related violence and extrajudicial killings in the past year.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), a non-profit rights group, launched its annual report on Monday, highlighting the "grim markers" of the state of human rights in the country in 2017. 

"An overarching concern is that even where the protection of legislation exists, the prosecution and conviction of perpetrators has remained at a very low level," the report said. 

The rights group revealed that out of the 868 cases of "enforced disappearances" - higher than previous years - received by the commission in charge, 555 were disposed of.

While the report noted a decrease for the third successive year in deaths caused by "terrorist" attacks, violence against religious minorities was on the rise last year.

Mehdi Hasan, HRCP chairperson, blamed Pakistan's "weak government" for not having an "effective hold on the society".

He said that "most" human rights violations that occur in Pakistan "are committed by the government institutions."

"So, you can't solve the problem, because the government itself is responsible for those violations," he told Al Jazeera in a phone interview from Lahore.

"In fact, you don't see any plan for the well-being of the ordinary man in the agendas of any of the political parties," he added. 

Last year, after a 24-month gap, Pakistan was re-elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), an inter-governmental body responsible for "strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe". 

Zainab Malik, head of advocacy at rights group Justice Project Pakistan (JPP), hailed the development as a "political victory", but warned: "Pakistan has consistently failed to uphold those commitments and voluntary pledges it made."

"There hasn't really been any significant progress made by the government of Pakistan," she told Al Jazeera. 

Religious persecution

According to HRCP, the killings of people from the Ahmadi sect continued unchecked and their persecution was harsher last year than in the past.

Ahmadis are a sect that consider themselves Muslim, but whose faith is rejected by the Pakistani state.

There was also increasing violence associated with the country's blasphemy laws. 

At least 74 people have been killed in attacks motivated by blasphemy accusations since 1990, according to an Al Jazeera tally.

"Sometimes, it just takes something as small as passing a law to have a huge impact on human rights violations."

- ZAINAB MALIK, HUMAN RIGHTS LAWYER

Rights groups, including HRCP, have repeatedly criticised and called for the reform or repeal of the controversial blasphemy laws, which date back to the British empire.

The crime is punishable by death if the Prophet Muhammad is insulted. Other punishments include a fine or prison term, depending on the specific offence.

In a high-profile case in April last year, university student Mashal Khan was killed and two others wounded during a violent mob attack after being accused of committing blasphemy in the northern city of Mardan.

In June, an anti-terrorism court sentenced Taimoor Raza, 30, to death for allegedly committing blasphemy on Facebook - the first such case involving social media.

"This law is being misused by people to take revenge against their opponents, and it is very easy to charge anyone for blasphemy," Hasan told Al Jazeera in a phone interview last year.

Social media crackdown

In January last year, five bloggers, known for their liberal views on social media, went missing within days of each other.

Meanwhile, dozens of social media users were arrested or summoned by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) for posting "anti-military" content or material that was against the national interest.

Those targeted included political and social activists, as well as at least three journalists.

Pakistan ranks 139th out of 180 countries on rights group Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index.

Out of the 60 journalists killed in the country since 1992, 33 of those were targeted for murder, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

In its annual report for 2017, US-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said: "Media outlets in Pakistan remained under pressure to avoid reporting on or criticising human rights violations during counterterrorism operations."

HRCP also raised concern over the threat to freedom of expression, saying that a "climate of fear and culture of silence" prevailed in the country.

"Journalists and bloggers continue to sustain threats, attacks and abductions, and the blasphemy law serves to coerce people into silence," the report said.

HRCP's Hasan believes, in a country where "statement journalism" is popular and investigative reporting is suppressed, freedom of press is in jeopardy.

"The Pakistani media is allowed to reproduce the statements, but it is not allowed to do investigative reporting because in an investigation, powerful people get caught and they don't want that their activities to get exposed to the public," he told Al Jazeera.

Out of the 60 journalists killed in the country since 1992, 33 of those were targeted for murder, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

In its annual report for 2017, US-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said: "Media outlets in Pakistan remained under pressure to avoid reporting on or criticising human rights violations during counterterrorism operations."

HRCP also raised concern over the threat to freedom of expression, saying that a "climate of fear and culture of silence" prevailed in the country.

"Journalists and bloggers continue to sustain threats, attacks and abductions, and the blasphemy law serves to coerce people into silence," the report said.

HRCP's Hasan believes, in a country where "statement journalism" is popular and investigative reporting is suppressed, freedom of press is in jeopardy.

"The Pakistani media is allowed to reproduce the statements, but it is not allowed to do investigative reporting because in an investigation, powerful people get caught and they don't want that their activities to get exposed to the public," he told Al Jazeera.

Sexual violence

During the first 10 months of 2017, more than 5,660 crimes were reported against women across the country, HRCP cited a newspaper report as documenting.

In Pakistan's most populous province Punjab, alone, at least 2,980 rape cases were registered with the provincial police last year - an increase from 2,942 in 2016.

That trend spilled over to the start of 2018 as well.

In a case that sparked outrage and protests across the country, seven-year-old girl, Zainab Ansari, was raped and murdered in Kasur district near Lahore in January.

 

 

The rape and murder of Zainab Ansari was the 12th such case in Kasur district in the last year, according to local media reports.

Reported cases of violence against women in 2017 were considered to be "the tip of a huge iceberg", HRCP said in its yearly review. 

Malik, of JPP, believes Pakistan has "failed" to protect its women and children. 

"The problem with regards to addressing these crimes is that the state narrative seems to be focused on increasing punishment, whereas what is actually needed is to increase child protection measures for the case of sexual abuse of children and for women, we need to increase more safeguards for the protection of women from sexual violence," said Malik, who is also a human rights lawyer.

"Sometimes, it just takes something as small as passing a law to have a huge impact on human rights violations."

Follow Saba Aziz on Twitter: @saba_aziz