Seeking Justice in Pakistan, Pashtuns Stage Defiant Rally in Karachi

Members of Pakistan’s Pashtun ethnic minority gathered for a rally in Karachi on Sunday to protest what they say are human rights violations at the hands of Pakistan’s military.

KARACHI, Pakistan — A rapidly growing civil rights movement continued to test Pakistan’s tolerance for democratic dissent with a demonstration that drew several thousand protesters to Karachi on Sunday.

Despite the organizers’ calls for a peaceful protest, Karachi’s paramilitary and police forces had tried to thwart the demonstration, labeling the movement a terrorist group and accusing its leaders of sedition.

The movement has shaken the Pakistani military establishment with its mission: to seek justice for Pakistan’s Pashtun ethnic minority, which activists say has been subjected to years of abuse, discrimination and deadly violence at the hands of the military under the guise of operations against the Pakistani Taliban and other militants in the country’s northwestern region — where most of the country’s Pashtuns live.

The movement’s accusations against the powerful and popular Pakistani military establishment run counter to the official narrative, which lauds the army as being responsible for a hard-earned peace in a country that has suffered at the hands of terrorist groups.

Although the government has not banned the group, the Pashtun Protection Movement, also known as the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, or P.T.M., the activists have clearly struck a nerve in Pakistan’s military establishment. Many have been threatened or detained by the authorities — Pakistan’s army chief has indirectly condemned them — but few local news media outlets cover their events because of pressure from military authorities who want to dampen support for the P.T.M.

The movement has successfully staged rallies that have drawn thousands of people across Pakistan in the last four months. Sunday’s event returned the focus to Karachi, where Pashtuns make up more than 20 percent of the population.

After years of Pashtun outrage over the unchecked power of the security forces, the P.T.M. found its spark in January after the killing of a small group of Pashtun men, including an aspiring model named Naqeebullah Mehsud who was originally from the tribal areas, by police officers in Karachi, a city notorious for violence an ethnic tensions. The officers claimed that the men were militants, but they have been accused of staging a fake shootout to cover up the extrajudicial killings.

The man accused of killing Mr. Mehsud, Rao Anwar, was a police chief in Karachi who regularly talked to the local news media about what he called antiterrorism operations in his district. But the P.T.M. and independent human rights groups have said that the operations were often illegal and singled out innocent civilians. After going into hiding, Mr. Anwar turned himself over to the authorities in late March and is currently in custody awaiting trial.

But Mr. Anwar’s detention has not assuaged supporters of the P.T.M. At Sunday’s rally, the first in the city since the killings in January, chants of “Justice for Naqeebullah” soon became calls for “Justice for Pashtuns.”

In the days before the rally, P.T.M. organizers worked in Pashtun neighborhoods across the city to muster grass-roots support for the event. Among a small group of organizers, men mostly in their late 20s and early 30s, all said their childhoods in Pakistan’s tribal areas were marred by violence and chaos as their villages were caught in the crossfire between militants and the military.

“We grew up surrounded by war,” said Kiffayat Ullah, one of the P.T.M.’s core members. “Until this movement, we were too scared to speak up.” Mr. Ullah said that he understood the immense risk involved in challenging Pakistan’s military establishment, but that the P.T.M.’s popular support galvanized him and others. “After Naqeebullah’s death, I know my blood is expensive,” he said.

Much of Karachi’s Pashtun population migrated from the country’s tribal belt, along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, after heavy clashes between the state and the Pakistani Taliban, known as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan or T.T.P. The fighting left their home provinces all but razed. The military warned most civilians to evacuate the areas, forcing many in the local population to flee to urban centers like Karachi.

But the city offered no respite from the war they fled, said Rizwan Mehsud, a young Karachi resident who helped the P.T.M. organize the rally. “When we left the tribal areas, we thought there’d be peace here,” Mr. Mehsud said. “But here, if the police asked to see my ID and saw where I was from, they’d pull me aside for questioning, asking for a bribe to avoid more problems.”

Credit...Family of Naqeebullah Mehsud, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Many of the P.T.M. activists said they had family members who were missing, and they carried posters with photographs of the missing at Sunday’s rally. They believe that the military establishment is to blame. One of the main demands of the rally was the release of missing persons held by the military or information about their whereabouts.

Before the rally, Mr. Mehsud was ordered to report to the local paramilitary group’s headquarters. After answering questions, he was released but then detained again. P.T.M. organizers believe that he is being held by the Sindh Rangers, the paramilitary group that has overseen antiterrorism efforts in the city since 2013.

P.T.M. leaders say attempts to thwart the group are particularly strong in Karachi. Mr. Mehsud is among dozens who have been detained by the authorities after openly supporting the group. The city’s police registered over 150 cases against the movements’ workers in the days before the Sunday rally, including some of its top organizers, on charges of sedition, terrorism and rioting.

Still, the group was able to stage its rally in the presence of dozens of paramilitary and police units. Saroop Ijaz, a representative for Human Rights Watch in Pakistan, said the fact that the P.T.M. was not banned but was not afforded the same leeway as other political groups in the country left the movement in limbo. “There is clearly confusion caused by this dual policy of simultaneously granting permission and cracking down,” Mr. Ijaz said.

That dual policy could be seen in the obstacles faced by the leader of the movement, Manzoor Pashteen, who had an eventful few days as he made his way to Sunday’s rally: Mr. Pashteen, 26, was turned away from two different airports and stopped at checkpoints multiple times on his way to Karachi.

When he finally arrived at the demonstration, hours after he was scheduled to speak, he took to the stage as supporters chanted “What kind of freedom is this?” and “Behind terrorism are men in uniform!”

Addressing the crowd, Mr. Pashteen remained defiant. “If they kill us now, we’ll die with our heads high,” he said. “We’ll die with some dignity.”

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