Pakistani rights activist arrested on charges of sedition, protests threatened

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) – Pakistani authorities on Monday arrested the leader of a rights movement that has made allegations of human rights violations by the military during anti-terrorism operations, officials said.

Supporters of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) led by Manzoor Pashteen threatened nationwide protests in response to his arrest.

PTM’s unusually direct criticism of the powerful military has brought it into conflict with Pakistani authorities, who accuse PTM of being bankrolled by hostile neighbors Afghanistan and India.

The PTM denies that allegation. The military and the government deny PTM’s allegations of human rights abuses.

Pashteen was arrested by police from Peshawar in the early hours of Monday on a number of charges, including “sedition,” a senior police official of Pakistan’s northwestern province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa told Reuters.

The arrest was criticized by Afghanistan.

“While our region is suffering from atrocities caused by violent extremism and terrorism, governments in the region must support and encourage peaceful civilian movements for justice,” President Ashraf Ghani said on Twitter.

In response, the Pakistan foreign office described Ghani’s tweet as unwarranted interference in Pakistan’s internal affairs. It said “such statements are not helpful to the promotion of good neighborly relations … and urges the Afghan side to work together for the common objective of peace and stability in Afghanistan and the region.”

Many of PTM’s supporters are ethnic Pashtuns who hail originally from the borderlands with Afghanistan, the focal point of a near-decade long insurgency by Islamist militants and subsequent anti-terrorism operations by Pakistan’s military, which displaced millions of people from the area.

The group also had two members elected as lawmakers in Pakistan’s parliament in 2018 general elections, both of whom were arrested under anti-terrorism laws last year and detained for close to four months before being released on bail.

One of the two lawmakers, Mohsin Dawar, told reporters on Monday that PTM and its supporters would demonstrate against Pashteen’s arrest.

Pakistani authorities have previously attempted to bar protests by PTM and brought legal cases against people who have taken part in demonstrations.

Previously, Gulalai Ismail, an active campaigner for PTM, fled Pakistan for exile in the United States because of what she termed threats against her and her family made by Pakistan’s security apparatus. Her father, a university professor who remained in Pakistan, was arrested on charges of “hate speech.” He was released on bail after being detained for a month.

(Reporting by Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar, Saud Mehsud in D.I. Khan and Gibran Peshimam in Islamabad; editing by Grant McCool)