May 5th, 2021
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) on May 3, 2021, released its annual flagship report The State of Human Rights in 2020.
The document assesses the COVID-19 crisis through the lens of human rights, and has found that the pandemic has aggravated a number of already persisting inequalities and ongoing rights abuses in Pakistan, which have been outlined in detail.
The annual report noted the wave of mass unemployment following the imposition of a countrywide lockdown in early April of last year, with daily-wage labourers bearing the brunt of the economic setback.
Pakistan’s education sector was severely disrupted due to the pandemic and resulting restrictions. The Higher Education Commission’s (HEC) decision to mandate online classes negatively impacted the academic careers of thousands of students in underdeveloped areas in Balochistan, the tribal regions of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan due to the absence of quality internet provisions.
Prison inmates also faced a high risk of exposure to COVID-19 due to overcrowding, dismal hygiene, and notable laxity in implementing standard operating procedures by administrators.
Although freedom of movement was necessarily curtailed all across the country in order to prevent further spread of the novel coronavirus disease, however the HRCP pointed out a pattern of arbitrary application of emergency restrictions, with political gatherings facing greater curbs than mass religious congregations.
A total of 85 legislations were passed in 2020: 20 federal and 65 provincial Acts. In addition, the Federal Government issued eight Presidential Ordinances that same year, which the HRCP held circumvented parliamentary procedures.
The report termed the passage of the Zainab Alert, Response and Recovery Act (ZARRA) via the National Assembly a key achievement in aiding protection to children through a prompt response mechanism.
The HRCP condemned the National Accountability Bureau’s (NAB) curtailing of fundamental human rights, including denying the right to fair trial and due process, the right to dignity, freedom of movement and privacy, and the freedom to trade and do business.
The release of some 200 men convicted by military courts on orders of the Peshawar High Court was termed a “scathing indictment of the miscarriage of justice”.
Moreover, the report took note of an overt move to intimidate dissenting judges into compliance apparent in the Presidential Reference filed against Supreme Court Judge Justice Qazi Faez Isa on charges of holding assets beyond justifiable means.
The death penalty was awarded to 177 individuals in the past year according to data gleaned from press reports, a 69.38% decrease from 2019 where the death sentence was handed down to 578 individuals. The report mentioned that no executions were reported to have been carried out in 2020.
INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS MECHANISMS
A report submitted by civil society at the 75th session of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), made several crucial recommendations including the need for a functional and effective national machinery to extend protection to women’s rights in Pakistan.
Requests for visits by UN Special Rapporteurs on extrajudicial executions, the situation of human rights defenders, the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism, freedom of religion or belief, and torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment remained pending in 2020 as they did in 2019.
NATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS INSTITUTIONS
The report noted that a number of relevant bodies remain dysfunctional or with vacant posts. The National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) has been dysfunctional since May 2019 as the appointment of a new chairperson is still pending.
The National Commission on the Status of Women meanwhile is still awaiting the appointment of a chairperson from November 2019.
Although the Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) Legislative Assembly constituted a commission to monitor the human rights situation in the region, it was still not made functional as of the end of 2020.
The Ministry of Human Rights (MoHR) notified the National Commission on the Rights of the Child, nearly a year after the enactment of the law.
LAW AND ORDER
According to the Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies, militancy decreased in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa while simultaneously increasing in Sindh, Punjab and erstwhile-FATA. Suicide attacks notably waned however target killings saw an uptick, with 49 such incidents reported in 2020 as compared to 24 in 2019 according to data gathered from news reports.
The murder of Hayat Baloch, an unarmed university student by a Frontier Corps personnel in Turbat, Balochistan on August 13, 2020, was pointed out a blatant transgression of a security agency with regards to the rights and safety of innocent civilians. Police violence also saw a rise, particularly in Punjab.
In October of last year, the Inspector General (IG) of police in Sindh was abducted by security agencies and forced to issue arrest orders for an opposition party politician, reflecting unjustified pressure on the police even at the highest levels.
The average prison occupancy rate according to the Federal Ombudsman was 124%, with 79,603 detainees residing in 116 jails meant to hold 64,099 inmates.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the high courts of Pakistan had ordered the release of certain prisoners on bail to reduce overcrowding and avert possible outbreaks within prison facilities. However, the HRCP regretted that these decisions were overturned by the Supreme Court.
Revisions to the Punjab Prison Act and Rules were still pending approval by the end 2020.
Despite assurances by the current government since 2018, a bill aimed at criminalizing enforced disappearance as a separate, autonomous offense, was still not passed by the end of last year.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa recorded the highest number of enforced disappearances, according to the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances (COIED). By the end of 2020, a total of 2,942 missing person cases were registered in the province alone.
However, the HRCP report pointed out that official figures released by the COIED are an inaccurate reflection of the situation on the ground, with anecdotal reports indicating that people were picked up and released throughout the year and that many families were reluctant to pursue such cases for fear of reprisal.
Despite a scathing review from the International Commission of Jurists, which held that the COIED had utterly failed to address the pattern of impunity for perpetrators of enforced disappearances, the government extended the body’s mandate by another three years.
On November 13, 2019, human rights defender Idris Khattak was forcibly disappeared at the Swabi Interchange in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Following international outcry, the Ministry of Defence on June 16, 2020 (some six months after he was picked up) confirmed that Khattak was in their custody and had been charged with treason under the Official Secrets Act of 1923.
Senior journalist Matiullah Jan was abducted in broad daylight in Islamabad, allegedly by security agencies, and kept in illegal detention for nearly 12 hours in what the report terms an attempt to curb political dissent and instill fear.
The report provided that local government elections were delayed long past the deadline in all four provinces in direct violation of the Elections Act 2017, a development which also negated the spirit of the 18th Constitutional Amendment. Moreover, the inclusion of the merged tribal districts in the mainstream has yet to be fulfilled.
In 2020, the voter gender gap shrunk as women comprised the majority of new voters added to the rolls.
FREEDOM OF MOVEMENT
In October of last year, Member of the National Assembly and senior Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) leader Mohsin Dawar was barred from entering Quetta allegedly because of ‘security risks.’
Reports of the Federal Government’s plans to fence Gwadar for security reasons raised concerns among locals and residents that their freedom of movement would be curtailed.
FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY
Karachi Police in December registered an FIR against several PTM leaders under charges of ‘inducing persons to commit offences against the state’ a day after the party held a public gathering in the city. MNA Ali Wazir was subsequently arrested and remains in detention as of the end of 2020.
Students in Balochistan and the tribal districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa demonstrating against the academic losses they were forced to bear due to lack of quality internet provisions in their areas were booked and arrested under section 144 of the PPC, which had been summarily imposed to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus disease.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The HRCP held that the strict registration policy for NGOs severely hampers their operations, Moreover, fears are about that the aim of the various provincial charities acts is to curtail freedom of association far beyond what was permissible under either the Constitution or Pakistan’s international legal obligations.
The matter of student unions also remained an unresolved issue in 2020, despite the approval of a 2019 bill approved by the Sindh Assembly to restore student unions which was expected to set a precedent. However, no other province followed suit.
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
In 2020, at least 10 journalists were murdered while several others were threatened, kidnapped, tortured and arrested during discharge of their professional duties in Pakistan per the Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE).
The arrest of the head of the Jang group of publications, Mir Shakil- ur-Rahman on the grounds of a nearly three-decades long property case has been widely regarded as an overt attempt to pressurise media groups into toeing the line. Express Tribune journalist Bilal Farooqi was arrested for alleged sedition and detained for several hours before securing bail: his arrest was considered an attempt to silence independent voices.
Anwar Khetran’s murder is believed to be due to his journalistic work upsetting influential tribal lords in Balochistan.
The passage of the Punjab Tahaffuz-i-Bunyad-i-Islam Bill 2020 by the Punjab Assembly earned condemnation as an attempt to quash independent expression and dissent. The bill was eventually recalled after outcry from civil society.
A number of districts in Balochistan and erstwhile-FATA in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa remained deprived of quality internet services or were completely bereft of internet connectivity due to ‘security concerns’. Moreover, the management of internet services by ‘special communications organizations’ in Gilgit-Baltistan and AJK affected connectivity. The poor state of internet provisions in the aforementioned areas considerably affected students’ learning during lockdown.
The notification of the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules in November under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 gave the government legal cover to issue blanket bans on digital content.
In October, the popular digital app TikTok was temporarily banned on the grounds that it encouraged ‘obscenity’ and ‘immorality.’
FREEDOM OF RELIGION
The HRCP recorded 31 instances of forced conversions in the past year, six of which involved minors.
Police data shows that at least 586 persons were booked on charges of blasphemy in 2020 with an overwhelming majority of cases being reported in Punjab.
Data from the Ahmadiyya community indicates that at least 24 cases were lodged against community members on religious grounds, including a jeweller who was booked in Toba Tek Singh for sacrificing a cow and distributing the meat among Sunni Muslims. At least three members of the Ahmadiyya community were killed in separate targeted attacks, including an elderly differently-abled man accused of blasphemy who was shot dead inside a courtroom of the Peshawar Judicial Complex on July 29, 2020.
Extremist groups and mainstream political parties allied with the ruling party protested against the proposed construction of a Hindu temple in Islamabad by the government, vowing that the slated Krishna Temple will not be built.
To the consternation of civil society, the National Commission for Minorities constituted under the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony was neither autonomous nor a statutory body as envisioned by the Supreme Court’s 2014 judgment.
Pakistan was ranked at 151 out of 153 by the World Economic Forum on the global gender gap index in 2020.
HRCP registered a rise in complaints of domestic and online violence, indicating increased vulnerability of women during the pandemic.
Based on data collected from press reports, HRCP recorded 430 cases of honour killing in 2020 involving 148 male and 363 female victims.
The gang-rape of a woman on the Lahore-Sialkot motorway in the presence of her children on the night of September 10, 2020, elicited shock and outrage. The outcry was compounded when the Capital City Police Officer (CCPO) in Lahore Umar Sheikhs that the rape survivor should have ‘chosen her route more carefully’ laid the onus of the rape on her rather than the culprits.
Activists gained a victory for women’s rights in Pakistan after challenging the archaic and demeaning ‘two-finger test’ for virginity in the Lahore High Court.
In a particularly shocking incident in Turbat, three men gunned down a woman in her home and wounded her four-year-old daughter during an armed robbery. Claims that the men had been sent by the alleged local leader of a ‘death squad’ ignited waves of anger across Balochistan.
The report cited one estimate of some 2,960 cases of child abuse documented across the country in 2020, although it mentions that the actual number of such cases may be much higher. The crimes were particularly heinous – from abduction to rape, gang rape and murder – and some incidents involved infants barely even a year old.
A family in Rawalpindi who tortured eight-year-old domestic worker Zohra Shah to death after she accidentally released some caged parrots in June sparked widespread outrage.
In another case of child abuse, the body of an eight-year-old boy was found hanging from a tree in Killa Abdullah, Balochistan. An autopsy confirmed the boy had been sexually assaulted by two people.
LABOUR AND UNEMPLOYMENT
The Pakistan Steel Mills’ decision to lay off over 4,500 employees following a move to privatise the company was lambasted by labour rights activists.
The Punjab Government exempted factories from inspections, a decision which is in contravention of internationally ratified conventions and local labour laws.
According to one estimate, 2,437 bonded labourers were released from ‘slavery’ under orders of the Sindh High Court. Per estimates provided by the Pakistan Central Mines Labour Federation, 116 miners died in onsite accidents, despite which Pakistan still failed to ratify ILO Convention 176 which specifies a maximum depth that is deemed safe for miners. Additionally, there were renewed calls for the provincial governments to hold tripartite labour conferences under ILO Convention 144.
The HEC’s mandate for online classes during the COVID-19 crisis was observed to benefit only those students and teachers who were fortunate enough to have access to reliable internet. Others residing in rural or underdeveloped areas were left to fend for themselves. Furthermore, education experts and observers vocalized their concerns that the disruption to learning caused by lockdowns would increase the proportion of out-of-school children.
The report highlighted the use of excessive force by the police against university students across the country demonstrating against hikes in tuition fees and demanding fee waivers.
The coronavirus pandemic exposed the shortcomings and fragility of the country’s healthcare sector in both preparedness and facilities. As scores of COVID-19 patients flocked to hospitals for treatment, many major health institutes were forced to close out-patient departments (OPDs), exacerbating the ongoing health crisis. Moreover, the pandemic diverted focus and funds away from other concerns, such as the annual polio vaccination campaigns and dengue control drives which regrettably remained suspended till the end of 2020, which may have had an impact in setting back whatever grounds these drives were able to cover over the course of several years.
SOP implementation also remained a pressing concern in the past year. Confusing directives issued by the government and lax implementation of health protocols failed to alert the public as to the severity of the coronavirus pandemic. Observance of SOP by the public also waned following a brief period of reduced infections and deaths following the first wave, contributing to the sudden and dangerous reemergence of the virus during the second wave.
The report called attention to the significant reduction in environmental pollution due to reduced human activity during the lockdown. However, by the end of 2020 when most restrictions had been lifted, Faisalabad and Lahore overtook Delhi as the world’s most polluted cities with air quality reaching hazardous levels.
The Sindh Government declared 20 districts ‘calamity-hit areas’ after heavy monsoon rainfall across the province prompted flash floods and other structural destruction, in which at least 30 people lost their lives.
An official inquiry investigating encroachment and illegal deforestation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa revealed that huge swathes of endangered forests had been illegally turned into commercial and residential schemes by land developers and builders in Haripur.