WORLD REPORT 1997 - Pakistan

Human Rights Developments

In the most significant human rights development in Pakistan during the year, the decade-old political and security crisis crippling Karachi entered a new phase as the government adopted a markedly more hardline stance towards the Immigrants National Movement (Mohajir Qaumi Movement, MQM), a political party representing Urdu speakers, about 60 percent of the population of Karachi. Both sides were responsible for severe human rights abuses: the government responded to the MQM=s consistent use of violence and intimidation by labeling the party Aterrorist@ and indiscriminately targeting its constituency.

Following mid-1995 when violence in Karachi reached record levels and security personnel were systematically attacked, the government initiated its latest and most brutal offensive against the MQM, which continued through 1996. Law enforcement agencies routinely used illegal and excessive force against suspected MQM militants with complete impunity. Although the offensive restored a measure of calm to Karachi city after years of spiraling violenceCthe death toll for the first half of the year was 300 people compared to more than 2,000 killings during 1995Cthe country=s internal security apparatus was severely discredited in the process.

As part of a tightly coordinated effort with a streamlined chain of command headed by Home Minister Naseerullah Babar, the police, backed by paramilitary Rangers with sweeping powers of search and arrest, conducted systematic pre-dawn cordon-and-search operations in pro-MQM localities, indiscriminately rounding up all able-bodied males and parading them before informants for purposes of identification. Between July 1995 and March 1996 an estimated 75,000 Urdu speakers were reportedly rounded up in this way; towards the end of the year, hundreds remained in jail awaiting trial.

Several key MQM militants were the victims of extrajudicial executions, either during targeted police raids; or in custody, allegedly after being tortured or severely beaten; or in staged Aencounters,@ often during transit between prisons. Police rationalized the illegal killings on the grounds that witnesses= reluctance to testify against militants in open court made it nearly impossible to secure convictions. Notorious MQM operative Naeem Sharri, accused of scores of murders, was among those summarily executed on March 11, in Karachi, without any court proceeding. His case sparked intense controversy, as strong evidence emerged to refute the police claim that Sharri had been killed in self-defense.

Between mid-1995 and mid-1996 at least 150 alleged militants were killed and 800 suspects arrested. The deputy inspector general of police (DIG) for Karachi, Shoaib Suddle, in March 1996 acknowledged the security forces= abusive conduct, although he rejected accusations that they routinely overstepped their authority. He told The Guardian of London, A[T]here have been a couple of cases where we also feel excessive fire power was used.@ To Human Rights Watch=s knowledge no security personnel were prosecuted for illegal actions. Police authorities made no effort to ensure that proper post-mortems were conducted on the bodies of those killed in custody or in Aencounters.@

A surge in incidents of sectarian violence took place during the year, mostly tit-for-tat attacks by extremist Sunni and Shi=a groups in the Punjab and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), that caused scores of casualties. Although some incidents were extremely serious, such as heavy fighting in mid-September in the NWFP town of Parachinar that left over a hundred civilians dead, the government failed to make a consistent or concerted effort to bring the perpetrators of religiously motivated violence to justice.

Government agents were involved in intimidation of the press during the year. Shaikh Aziz, a senior journalist working at the daily Dawn and Aftab Syed, the news editor of The News, were picked up and interrogated by intelligence agents in Karachi in June and September respectively. On July 5, district police warned journalists in Dadu, Sindh province, against reporting on alleged government harassment of a local opposition leader of national stature. Karachi police, on September 20, severely beat up several reporters and photographers and smashed their cameras. The journalists were covering the death of Murtaza BhuttoCbrother of the prime minister and head of a breakaway faction of the ruling Pakistan People=s PartyCwhich had occurred during an Aencounter@ with the police earlier that night. On October 20, in the town of Khuzdar in Balochistan province, the general secretary of the Khuzdar journalists= union, Hyder Baloch, was illegally confined for thirty-six hours by the local supervisor of the irrigation department for critical reporting. Gas, electricity and the water supply to Baloch=s house were cut off, and his family members were harassed.

The press was given a boost, however, when the Lahore High Court dismissed a defamation action brought by Prime Minister Bhutto against a leading daily newspaper, The News, for reporting that Bhutto had requested the extradition of MQM chief Altaf Husain during a meeting with the U.K. Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd. The court held that those holding public office must be open to criticism by a free press, which played an important role in exposing political corruption.

The status of women in Pakistan remained tenuous, with legal setbacks offsetting positive developments. On March 12, in a long- overdue step, President Leghari ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAR). However, like some other signatories to CEDAR, Pakistan=s ratification included a debilitating reservation to the effect that treaty provisions in conflict with the national constitution would not be implemented. On June 10, the federal cabinet approved a draft bill to abolish the death penalty for women in all cases except for haded (mandatory Islamic punishment) and caisse (retribution) crimes. While these steps were welcome, human rights would have been better served by abolishing the death penalty for everyone without exception and regardless of offense.

In a judgment that represented a stunning setback for women=s rights in Pakistan, the Lahore High Court ruled on September 24 that an adult Muslim woman, even a widow or divorcée, cannot enter into marriage without the consent of her (male) guardian. Without consent she, as well as her chosen spouse, risks imprisonment on charges of fornication, which carries a maximum punishment of death by stoning if the convict is muhsan (a sane, adult Muslim who has previously had lawful sexual intercourse) or one hundred lashes if the convict is not muhsan. The judgment had immediate implications for hundreds of women currently under arrest in connection with their marriages, usually on account of charges filed by their families for marrying without their consent. The court=s decision denied women the constitutional guarantee of equal protection of the law and contradicted the principle of equality of the sexes enshrined in CEDAR.

At the end of the year, women=s groups were hoping that a similar caseCthat of Saima WaheedCpending before a full bench of the same court would overturn the precedent, which had been decided by a single judge. Waheed, aged twenty-two, was fighting a case brought by her father to have her marriage judicially annulled because he did not consent to it. Meanwhile her husband and his family suffered reprisals: Waheed=s husband was imprisoned in May 1996, for allegedly having had the marriage contract registered on a false basis, and was denied bail although charged with a bailable offense. After some of her husband=s relatives were beaten up by thugs, the family went into hiding. Religious zealots attempted to pressure the presiding court by issuing threats of violence, attempting to bring arms into the courtroom, and launching a smear campaign against Waheed and her counsel. Because of such harassment, there was reason to believe that the lives of Waheed, her husband, her husband=s family, and her counsel were in danger.

The institution of karo kari (black deed) or instant killings of suspected adulterers remained unchecked in rural parts of Balochistan, Punjab, and especially Sindh province. There were allegedly two such killings a day in the borderlands between Sindh and Balochistan, and in Sindh proper 246 karo kari murders were reported over a fifteen-month period ending in March 1996; in 148 of the cases, the victims were women. According to tribal custom, any man who suspects a female relative of sexual relations with a man to whom she is not married is obligated to kill both individuals immediately to preserve his family=s honor. The police as a rule refrained from intervening or seeking to prosecute the perpetrators. In any event, convicted karo kari murderers rarely serve more than two years in prison.

Religious minorities in Pakistan continued to face discriminatory laws, such as those against blasphemy, which are used disproportionately against non-Muslim minorities and against the Ahmadi minority. The government, however, did address an issue which has served to marginalize minority constituencies in the political process. In February, the Bhutto government proposed, as part of an electoral reform package, the abolition of the separate electorate laws enacted by former President Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s, under which non-Muslims could vote only for candidates of their own communities standing for reserved parliamentary seats. The proposed law would give non-Muslims the right to cast votes for the general parliamentary seats as well as the reserved seats. Pakistan=s main opposition party and the religious right objected to the proposed reforms, which have yet to be enacted into law.

In a far-reaching decision handed down on March 20, the Supreme Court of Pakistan put an end to the government=s practice of appointing temporary or acting judges against permanent vacancies in the superior judiciary and delaying their confirmations for political purposes. The judgment also prohibited the government from transferring judges at will. The ruling was generally hailed as furthering judicial autonomy by giving judges security of tenure.

In view of mounting international criticism and threats of trade sanctions for its labor practices, Pakistan stepped up implementation of its child labor laws relative to previous years. Enforcement mechanisms were potentially strengthened through reforms that made the Ministry of Labor directly responsible for overseeing enforcement in conjunction with district-level vigilance committees. As one initial step, the Labor Ministry and the International Labor Organization launched a study to estimate the number of children in the workforce. In June the ministry reported that between January 1995 and March 1996 provincial labor departments conducted 7,003 raids on businesses suspected of employing child labor. Authorities prosecuted more than 2,500 employers, of which 395 were convicted and fined. Reflecting international demands, the labor minister asked the commerce ministry to institute a special marking scheme for carpets and footballs to certify that no child labor had been used in production. Human Rights Watch was particularly concerned about the use of bonded labor, including bonded child labor. It remained to be seen whether these efforts would have any significant effect on improving labor practices. There was no evidence of government resolve to tackle the problem of bonded labor in the agricultural sector.

November began on a dramatic note with a change in Pakistan=s political leadership. On November 5 President Farooq Leghari dissolved the National Assembly and dismissed Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto=s government, in a move he said was mandated by unchecked corruption, political violence and financial mismanagement. He appointed a Acaretaker@ government to serve for at least three months until constitutionally mandated elections could be held. The president cited systematic human rights violations, specifically the extrajudicial killings in Karachi (see above), as one of the reasons for dismissing the former government.

The Right to Monitor

Human rights lawyers in Pakistan faced threats of violence more from religious activists than from the government. Asma Jehangir, attorney for Saima Waheed in the case mentioned above, received death threats from those who backed her client=s father=s claim that a woman cannot marry without the consent of her guardian. A case involving a boy who reverted to Christianity after converting to Islam had to be adjourned because of the danger to the boy=s attorney from religious extremists, who said the boy=s reversion constituted apostasy.

In general, human rights organizations were free to criticize the government. On February 26 more than 2,000 lawyers staged a two-hour strike in Karachi to protest the conduct of law enforcement personnel in the anti-MQM offensive. A number of lawyers= professional associations deplored the blatant violations of law that characterized the government crackdown.

A bill allowing for greater government control of nongovernmental and Asocial welfare agencies@ (NGOs) was pending before parliament at the end of the year. Under the bill all NGOs would be required to get their mandates or Aconstitutions@ approved by a government Registration Authority. The authority would have the power to Adissolve@ any NGO that it found to be Aacting in contravention of its constitution.@ NGOs were concerned that the bill would enable the government to restrict their freedom of association and limit the scope of their operations.

The Role of the International Community

Pakistan, along with Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, signed a resolution to eliminate child labor adopted by a ministerial conference of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) held in Rawalpindi in August. The resolution called for an end to all forms of child labor by the year 2010 and of child labor in hazardous occupations by the turn of the century. It also espoused a commitment to move towards universal access to primary education by the year 2000. South Asian countries, including Pakistan, have come under international criticism and faced threats of trade sanctions over the use of child and bonded labor in industries and agriculture. In July, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed an amendment to the appropriations bill to fund inspections of plants suspected of employing child labor in India and Pakistan. Under the European Commission=s legislation guiding the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) trade program, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and the European Trade Union Committee brought a complaint against the government of Pakistan for the continued use of bonded labor in the country. The GSP program is designed to give developing countries preferential trade tariffs. By November the European Commission had still not decided whether to accept the complaint and launch an investigation.

U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture Nigel Rodley visited Pakistan in February and March. His report, published in October, stated that "torture, including rape and similar cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment [were] rife in Pakistan."

In January, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance, Abdelfattah Amor, criticized legal restrictions on freedom of thought and worship in Pakistan. He decried the imposition of the death sentence for blasphemy as Adisproportionate and even unacceptable.@ Amor also criticized Pakistan=s haded ordinances, which prescribe harsh punishments based on Islamic law for crimes such as adultery and alcohol consumption, and he requested that they not be applied against non-Muslims. He urged the removal of religious identifications from Pakistan


The U.S. assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs echoed Amor=s comments at a U.S. Senate hearing on Pakistan=s blasphemy laws in March. Also in March, the U.S. Trade Representative announced that Pakistan=s preferential trade benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program would be suspended in three categories of goods (surgical instruments, sporting goods, and certain carpets) due to the insufficient steps taken by Pakistan to address the problem of child and bonded child labor.

In July, the Europe Council of Foreign Ministers authorized the European Commission to negotiate a new cooperation agreement with Pakistan, which would encompass significant provisions for the promotion of human development. Non-preferential and without a financial protocol, the proposed agreement would also include a clause on human rights, in principle allowing suspension of cooperation in cases of serious infringement.