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Pakistan: Immediately release Gulalai Ismail and protect democratic space for dissent

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(Kathmandu/Bangkok) – 12 October, 2018: The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) strongly condemns the detention of Pashtun woman human rights defender Gulalai Ismail by immigration authorities at Islamabad airport and demands her immediate release without any delay.

Media reports suggest that Gulalai Ismail returned to Islamabad from London and was told by Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) officials at the airport that her name was on the Exit Control List. Subsequently she was detained and taken into custody by FIA. In August 2018, a First Information Report (FIR) was registered against her and 18 other people for their involvement in the public gathering organised by the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM). Earlier this year, a smear campaign was also launched against her on social media falsely accusing her of blasphemy.

Gulalai co-founded Aware Girls, an organisation dedicated to women empowerment, gender equality, and peace in Pakistan. Gulalai has courageously operated in a difficult environment and has often been targeted for her activism by radical groups like Taliban and state authorities alike. Her organisation was reportedly forced to close down for several months now.  Gulalai and her family have faced constant threat and intimidation as a result of her human rights work.

FORUM-ASIA believes that Gulalai Ismail has been targeted for her human rights work and strongly condemns targeted attack on peaceful dissent, and the citizen’s right to liberty. FORUM-ASIA demands the Government of Pakistan to take all measures to ensure the safety and security of Gulalai and release her immediately. Harassment against human rights defenders needs to stop and the government must protect dissent with utmost sincerity and commitment. The Government of Pakistan has an obligation under the Constitution and international treaties it ratifies to guarantee the right to freedom of expression and other fundamental freedoms at any time.

Background information: Since their inception in January 2018, members of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), are being targeted by the military and militants alike. PTM is a group of activists in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) region of Pakistan, and are protesting for the clearance of landmines in the area, multiple military check posts, and for the recovery of missing persons during military operations. On 22 April, 2018, the police arrested several PTM leaders and activists before a planned protest in Lahore. In May 2018, police registered cases against over 150 PTM activists on charges of sedition and terror.

On 3 June 2018, Taliban militants and the Pakistani security force alike, opened fire on PTM’s gathering, injuring 25 and killing several. On 6 June, 2018, 37 activists of PTM, including several students were detained and are being charged with sedition. They were calling for an end to extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and human rights violations in FATA.  They were reportedly housed in an overcrowded prison and denied bail while their cases were referred to an anti-terrorism court.