Pakistan: Release Pashtun human rights defender immediately and unconditionally
Pakistan’s authorities must immediately and unconditionally release Gulalai Ismail, a Pashtun human rights defender, who was detained on her arrival at Islamabad airport today, Amnesty International said.
Gulalai Ismail is a supporter of the nonviolent Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), which has been campaigning across Pakistan against enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions and discrimination against the country’s Pashtun ethnic minority.
“Gulalai Ismail must be immediately and unconditionally released. There is no justification whatsoever for her detention or for imposing a travel ban on her. She is being detained solely for her peaceful human rights work,” said Rabia Mehmood, South Asia Researcher at Amnesty International.
Gulalai Ismail, who is the founder of the Seeds of Peace network and the 2017 winner of the Anna Politkovskaya award, was detained at Islamabad airport on her return from London.
Upon her arrival in Islamabad, she was informed that her name had been placed on the “Exit Control List”, which imposes a ban on her from traveling outside the country.
Over the past year, the authorities have banned peaceful rallies organized by the PTM and some of its leading members have been arbitrarily detained and prevented from traveling within the country. Some members have also faced a series of charges for alleged sedition and cybercrimes.
Hayat Preghal, a social media activist and supporter of the PTM, was released on bail on 3 October, after enduring more than two months in jail simply accused for social media posts that were deemed critical of the Pakistani authorities.
Gulalai Ismail issued a WhatsApp audio message to friends and supporters from the offices of Pakistan’s Federal Investigative Agency (FIA), where she said she was about to be arrested. “I was taken into custody at the airport,” she said in the audio message. “I was brought to the main branch of the FIA, where the police is coming to arrest me for speaking for making speech for PTM in the Swabi [rally].”
Gulalai was one of 19 people named in a police complaint report for organizing and speaking at a PTM rally in the northwest town of Swabi on 12 August. The charges against PTM activists include “unlawful assembly”, “punishment for rioting” and “punishment for wrongful restraint”.
In her message, Gulalai Ismail said that her arrest was the latest sign of how much the civic space is shrinking in Pakistan. “This is not an attack on Gulalai Ismail, or PTM,” she added. “This is an attack on civic freedoms. This is an attack on our liberty to speak out. This is an attack on our freedom of speech.”
“This is an extremely worrying move. The new government of Prime Minister Imran Khan had said it would protect human rights and engage with members of the PTM to address issues such as enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions,” said Rabia Mehmood.
“Gulalai Ismail’s arrest severely tests those commitments. Instead of trying to silence human rights defenders, the new government must work to create a safe and enabling environment for those who raise their voices for justice.”
Gulalai Ismail’s recorded audio message:
“I’m Gulalai Ismail. The state and non-state actors have been doing illegal crackdown against me for my human rights activism and for raising voice for peacebuilding. My name was put on ECL today. When I was coming back from London, at airport immigration I got to know that my name has been added in the ECL. I was taken into custody at the airport. I was brought to the main branch of FIA, where the police is coming to arrest me for speaking, for making speech for PTM in the Swabi jalsa. So the police is coming to arrest me. This is an example of how the state is shrinking space for civil society organizations. The space is shrinking and closing out spaces for civic voices, voices who are raising for peace. We are speaking for peacebuilding…This is not an attack on Gulalali Ismail, or PTM. This is an attack on civic freedoms. This is an attack on our liberty to speak out. This is an attack on our freedom of speech.”