This past Sunday, a prominent Pakistani human rights activist and journalist Khurram Zaki was shot and killed in Karachi in an apparent drive-by gunning incident, which was claimed by a “splinter group of the Pakistani Taliban.” But Zaki, a loud advocate against religious extremism and intolerance in the region, and others like him are not the only ones who are facing this kind of violence.
Pakistan, a country surrounded by Afghanistan and India, finds tensions across its Northern and Southern border - all while dealing with internal political and social stife. To its North, Pakistan deals with the Taliban, the “porous border” with Afghanistan, and the tumultuous Tribal Areas. To its South, tensions primarily manifest in conflict dealing with the MQM (Muttahida Quami Movement) Party--a political party originating from Indian migrants.
Internal conflict in Pakistan primarily stems from a lack of political management--especially when dealing with protecting religious minorities, ethnic groups, and women. Cartels and “vigilante justice” are common, and the government continues to face criticism for improper responses to the discontent of the people and its involvement in the Panama Papers scandal.
Struggling Structure of Human Rights
In the 2015 Human Rights Practices report released by the United States State Department, Pakistan was determined to have “serious human rights problems” including actions like extrajudicial killings, torture, and frequent mob violence carried out by citizens. Most of these crimes have stemmed from sectarian conflict, and continue to be a huge issue in the streets of Pakistan’s metropolitan areas.
Most of these casualties are a result of “justice” without any rule of law or due process to back it up. While the number of religious casualties has decreased since 2014, it still remains a prominent issue. Pakistan is 96 percent Muslim, with the Sunni sect taking the vast majority. Hindus and Christians make up two percent of the population, making them the target of religious minority violence.
“More often than not, Christians bear the brunt of accusations of blasphemy - either insulting the Quran or the Prophet. In a blasphemy case like this, there are no protections. They’re either burned alive or killed by other means,” said Richard Leiby, a senior reporter at The Washington Post and former Pakistan bureau chief for the publication. “A mob forms in the street, and it does whatever it can to kill you. These people who commit these extrajudicial killings are not getting arrested, and that’s where the state has failed.”
Religious tensions have existed for years in Pakistan, and on a high profile level: In 2011, Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti and Punjab governor Salman Taseer were both shot dead because they fought to reform the blasphemy law - which permits the death penalty for all who “insult Islam.”
Women also face a high level of violence, primarily due to “honor-based” reasons and highly traditionalist customs. Reports of informal justice councils sentencing women to “violent punishment or death for so-called honor-related crimes,” as well as “forced marriages, imposed isolation, and being used to settle tribal disputes” were mentioned in the Human Rights report.
“If you decide to go out on a date with a boy that your family hasn’t approved, they have every right to kill you,” said Leiby. “Honor killings happen all the time. In rape cases, the women is often found guilty. Women have a bad time over there.”
No specific federal law currently prohibits domestic violence in Pakistan. The beating, killing, torture, and even use of acid on Pakistani wives were all reported. While various strides have been made to protect women in Pakistan, such as establishing safe havens and female police, women still receive inadequate federal protection. Out of the 150 to 400 reported acid cases in a given year, only two percent are resolved according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. In short, women in Pakistan are treated as “chattel.”
Journalists in Pakistan are another group that faces danger on-the-ground. According to Reporters Without Borders, press freedom within the country has increased since last year, but is still amongst countries like Russia, Malaysia, and Mexico. Due to the outspoken nature of the job, and the nature of the government to shut down potential platforms of criticism, journalists in the region often practice self-censorship to avoid abduction or other forms of retribution.
“The current Pakistani press is timid, but not without its bright sports and courageous journalists,” said Leiby. “Reporters over there have realized that there are red lines. They don’t cross certain places or touch certain topics. If they do write about them, they write almost euphemistically about them.”
Political Strife and Nationalist Pride
Strife between political parties, along with violence within Pakistani society, is probably the most well-known dilemma of the region. The Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, was recently caught in the Panama Papers scandal. Leaked documents from Mossack Fonseca show that three of his children owned offshore companies and assets not previously disclosed in family statements. The companies have reportedly been used avoid taxes, to channel funds, and to acquire more assets. They are reportedly engaged “in at least $25 million in property and acquisition deals.”
“The government of Pakistan doesn’t prioritize women's’ rights or extrajudicial killings. The priority of the government is now the Panama Leaks and how to get rid of this, because the Prime Minister is involved and he is totally worried about his own future,” said Malik Ayub Sumbal, a journalist based in Islamabad. “Pressure is mounting on Prime Minister Sharif to resign because his sons are involved in offshore companies' scandals and they have huge assets outside the country. The Prime Minister himself has a big revenue outside of Pakistan as well.”
Fighting amongst the majority and minority political parties have also made headlines and have taken lives. According to the Human Rights report, there has been an increase in attacks on the Awami National Party (ANP), the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the MQM, as well as other government office holders. The report states:
“Karachi-based political party MQM alleged that the paramilitary Sindh Rangers kidnapped, tortured, and killed some of its members in ongoing security operations in Karachi. They claimed that as of August, 151 MQM members remained missing and that authorities killed, 55 extrajudicially in the operations.”
“Now, the government is trying to solve all these security issues, which is why there’s a crackdown that started against the MQM,” said Sumbal. “They have a very different sort of approach. They are involved in ransom cases, and in murders. This is a party that has a deep criminal background by exploiting the ethnicity, so now, their activities have been watched and restricted.”
total killed in Balochistan Conflict
301 in 2014 | 229 in 2015
Beyond official political parties, nationalist groups also exist and are involved in political violence. The Baloch, an ethnic minority residing in the Balochistan province in Pakistan, do not feel any loyalty towards central authority and “feel strongly deprived and alienated by the government in Islamabad.” Conflict between Baloch nationalists and the central Pakistani government has been ongoing for many years--much like the conflict between the Kurds and the Turkish government.
11,375 people have died and thousands have gone missing since the start of this conflict Balochistan, according to the International Institute of Strategic Studies. The South Asian Terrorism Portal reports that 301 were killed in 2014, and at least 229 were killed in 2015 alone.
The Taliban and the Tribal Region
The Taliban is another large point of conflict within the country. Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which are right along the border with Afghanistan, are where the country’s Taliban groups mostly proliferate.
Uptick in jihadist activity in the country has its origins in the post-9/11 era. For years, the Pakistani government has supported terror groups like the Taliban and the Haqqani Network in order to deter influence from Afghanistan or India. This led to the U.S. involvement in the region in 2004, which sparked major terror attacks like Islamabad Marriott bombing. More recently, the Pakistani Army has waged a military campaign against the Taliban at the urging of the United States--but it is understood that much of the Haqqani force and Taliban leadership are still intact.
“Now, the war is more low-level,” said Leiby. “But it’s still a war.”
The recent military crackdown on the Taliban has not come without its repercussions. In December 2014, the terror group attacked a school in Peshawar and killed 141 people--132 of them being children. According to those on the ground at the time, “the school, which is run by the army, had been targeted in response to military operations.” The attack was called the deadliest terror attack to occur in Pakistan at the time, and it still holds that title today.
While the government and military continues to crack down on Taliban and other jihadist movements, they are now turning their focus to Pakistan’s internal turmoil:
“After [the Peshawar attack], there was the complete crackdown in Pakistan on all kind of activities like sectarianism, violence, and jihadi groups,” said Sumbal. “Pakistan is heading towards very stable Pakistan in which there is no acceptance of any kind of violence, whether it’s sectarianism, jihadism, or hate speech. [...] But there are a lot of jihadis who need a cause, a need, or a job to keep busy, so they moved towards sectarianism as a result, and the Shia-Sunni difference in Pakistan.”
Julia Arciga is the Washington Correspondent for Conflict News, primarily focusing on US foreign policy and the MENA region. Twitter: @JuliaArciga; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Malik Ayub Sumbal is the Editor-In-Chief at The Caspian Times and is currently based in Islamabad. Twitter: @ayubsumbal
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