Pakistan: drop criminal charges against peaceful protesters
The ICJ is urging the Pakistani Government to immediately release, and drop all charges against, dozens of people arrested on 26 and 30 July in the context of a peaceful protest against forced evictions in Islamabad.
“This is yet another illustration of the Government using Pakistan’s counter-terrorism laws against peaceful protesters to clamp down on dissent,” said Sam Zarifi, ICJ’s Director for Asia and the Pacific.
“Peaceful protest is not an act of terrorism but a fundamental human right recognized by the Constitution as well as international human rights treaties that Pakistan is a party to,” he added.
The protest, forcibly dispersed by the police, was organized against the demolition of houses and the forceful eviction of over 8000 people residing in a slum in the city.
The Government alleges the slum is illegal and all residents are encroachers; the inhabitants claim that under Pakistani law, all informal settlements must either be formalized or the inhabitants must be provided alternate housing.
At least 66 individuals arrested were booked under Section 7 of the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997 (ATA) for “obstructing the authorities”, “demonstrating force with a view to terrorizing citizens” and “creating mischief”.
Following a court order, they have been placed in police remand (custody of the police) for interrogation, where they may be at imminent risk of torture and other ill-treatment.
An anti-terrorism court released four of the detainees today. The rest, however, remain in police custody, and according to reports received by ICJ, many of them are being denied access to families and friends.
“The risk of abuse is inherent in the Anti-Terrorism Act, which defines terrorism in vague and overbroad terms. The Government must urgently amend the ATA to ensure it meets the internationally recognized tests of necessity, legality and proportionality,” Zarifi said.
Pakistan has a long history of using the ATA against political activists and human rights defenders.
In 2014, a dozen political activists, including Baba Jan, a prominent human rights defender from Hunza, were sentenced to life imprisonment by an anti-terrorism court for protesting against the government’s failure to assist victims of a landslide.
Before that, six power loom workers from Faisalabad were arrested in the context of a protest demanding minimum wage. In 2011, they were sentenced to 81 years in prison each under the ATA.
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Pakistan ratified in 2008, obligates States to recognize the right to an adequate standard of living, which includes housing.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan too has reminded the Government of its duty to provide shelter to the people of Pakistan and make arrangements to provide alternate housing to inhabitants of informal settlements.
“Forcibly evicting people from their homes without providing them any alternate housing can in itself be a human rights violation. Arresting peaceful protesters and denying their right to a fair trial even further adds to the culpability of the authorities,” Zarifi added.
Sam Zarifi, ICJ Asia Pacific Regional Director (Bangkok), t: +66 807819002; email: sam.zarifi(a)icj.org
Reema Omer, ICJ International Legal Advisor, South Asia (London), t: +447889565691; email: reema.omer(a)icj.org
Under Article 11(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which Pakistan ratified in 2008, States Parties recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.
States Parties are to take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right, recognizing to this effect the essential importance of international co-operation based on free consent.
The right to peaceful assembly is guaranteed under international human rights law, including Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Pakistan ratified in 2010 and is legally obligated to implement.
The UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders also reiterates that everyone has the right to participate in peaceful activities against violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and obligates the State to take necessary measures to ensure the protection by the competent authorities of peaceful protestors against “any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of his or her legitimate exercise of the rights”.
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