Two Pakistani lawmakers held after protests by rights activists

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistani authorities on Monday detained two lawmakers belonging to a rights movement as they and hundreds of supporters across the country gathered to protest the arrest of their leader on charges of sedition.

Manzoor Pashteen, leader of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), which has campaigned against military excesses during anti-terrorism operations, was arrested on Monday in the northwestern city of Peshawar.

On Tuesday, hundreds of the group’s supporters, joined by other rights activities and some politicians, rallied in several cities. Two members of parliament belonging to the PTM were picked up by law enforcement officials at the Islamabad demonstration.

“Today they came and disrupted our peaceful protest held to demand the release of PTM leader Manzoor Pashteen, and arrested Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir along with other activists,” Afrasiab Khattak, a veteran politician and a former member of parliament, told Reuters.

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

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

Dawar and Wazir had earlier spent close to four months in jail under anti-terrorism laws before being released on bail.

Demonstrations were also held in other cities in Pakistan, including Pashteen’s home district of Tank, located close to Pakistan’s restive tribal areas, the focal point of a decade-long insurgency by Islamist militants and anti-terrorism operations by the Pakistani military, which has displaced millions of people.

Demonstrations in solidarity with Pashteen were also held in cities across the border in Afghanistan, whose president, Ashraf Ghani had earlier criticized his arrest. Many of PTM supporters are ethnic Pashtuns originally hailing from the borderlands with Afghanistan.

(Reporting by Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar, Saud Mehsud in Dera Ismail Khan and Asif Shahzad in Islamabad; additional reporting by Orooj Hakimi in Kabul; Writing by Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Angus MacSwan)