Pakistan is a federal parliamentary republic. In 2018 the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party won the most National Assembly seats in the general elections, and the party’s leader, Imran Khan, became prime minister. While independent observers noted technical improvements in the Election Commission of Pakistan’s management of the polling process itself, observers, civil society organizations, and political parties raised concerns regarding pre-election interference by military and intelligence agencies that created an uneven electoral playing field. Some political parties also alleged significant polling day irregularities.
Police have primary domestic security responsibility for most of the country. Local police are under the jurisdiction of provincial governments. Paramilitary organizations–including the Frontier Corps, which operates in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, including the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and the Rangers, which operate in Sindh and Punjab–provide security services under the authority of the Ministry of Interior. The Frontier Corps’ primary mission is security of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, and the Corps reports to the Ministry of Interior in peacetime and the army in times of conflict. The military is responsible for external security but plays a role in domestic security, including as the lead security agency in many areas of the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas. While military and intelligence services officially report to civilian authorities, the military and intelligence services operate independently and without effective civilian oversight. Members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings by the government or its agents, including extrajudicial killings; forced disappearance by the government or its agents; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by the government or its agents; arbitrary detention; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; politically motivated reprisal against individuals located outside the country; arbitrary or unlawful government interference with privacy; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence against journalists, unjustified arrests and disappearances of journalists, censorship, and site blocking; government interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, such as overly restrictive nongovernmental organization laws; severe restrictions of religious freedom; restrictions on freedom of movement; corruption within the bureaucracy; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers by nonstate militant groups; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting members of racial and ethnic minorities; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons by nonstate actors; the existence or use of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults; restrictions on workers’ freedom of association; and the use of the worst forms of child labor.
There was a lack of government accountability, and abuses often went unpunished, fostering a culture of impunity among perpetrators, whether official or unofficial. Authorities seldom punished government officials for human rights abuses.
Terrorist violence and human rights abuses by nonstate actors contributed to human rights problems, although to a lesser extent than in previous years, consistent with an overall decline in terrorist activity. Military, police, and law enforcement agencies continued to carry out significant campaigns against militant and terrorist groups. Nevertheless, violence, abuse, and social and religious intolerance by militant organizations and other nonstate actors, both local and foreign, contributed to a culture of lawlessness. As of December, terrorism fatalities stood at 499, compared with 365 total fatalities in 2019, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, a database compiled by the public interest advocacy organization Institute for Conflict Management, which collects statistics on terrorism and low intensity warfare in South Asia.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were numerous reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. Security forces reportedly committed extrajudicial killings in connection with conflicts throughout the country (see section 1.g.). Government entities investigate whether security force killings were justifiable and whether to pursue prosecutions via an order either from the inspector general of police or through the National Human Rights Commission.
On August 13, Frontier Corps soldiers in Turbat, Balochistan, shot Karachi University student Hayat Baloch in what his family claimed was an extrajudicial killing. Local police launched an investigation and arrested a Frontier Corps soldier following protests in several cities of Balochistan and in Karachi. On July 13, a young man named Ahsanullah Bakhsh was found dead inside a police station in Kharan, Balochistan, where police had held him for interrogation in a murder case. Bakhsh’s family claimed police were responsible for the death, while police claimed Bakhsh committed suicide. Protests took place on July 15-16 outside the Press Club and Deputy Commissioner’s Office in Kharan, with protesters demanding a probe into the death of Bakhsh. The deputy commissioner promised to hold an impartial inquiry into the case, and six police officials were suspended for negligence.
Pakistan Tahafuz [Protection] Movement (PTM) activist Arif Wazir was shot by unidentified actors outside his home in South Waziristan on May 1 and died hours later in an Islamabad hospital. Wazir, a prominent tribal figure and Pashtun rights leader, had recently been released from jail for speeches critical of the Pakistani military establishment when he made a March visit to Afghanistan.
A cross-fire incident between Pakistani and Afghan forces on July 30 near the Chaman border crossing in Balochistan resulted in several civilian casualties, according to Afghan officials. In a July 31 statement, the Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated Pakistan’s military returned fire in self-defense after “Afghan forces opened unprovoked fire on innocent civilians gathered towards Pakistan’s side of the international border.” The crossfire incident followed violent protests on July 30, when the paramilitary Frontier Corps reportedly opened fire on protesters who had been trying to enter the recently reopened Chaman border crossing.
Physical abuse of criminal suspects in custody allegedly caused the death of some individuals. Lengthy trial delays and failure to discipline and prosecute those responsible for killings contributed to a culture of impunity.
There were numerous reports of fatal attacks against police and security forces. On February 18, at least one police officer was killed and two were wounded after an improvised explosive device (IED) hit a police vehicle en route to provide security to a polio vaccination team in the northwestern portion of the country. On May 18, unknown assailants targeted a Frontier Corps vehicle with IEDs, killing six army soldiers in Mach, Balochistan.
Militants and terrorist groups killed hundreds and injured hundreds more with bombs, suicide attacks, and other violence. Casualties decreased compared with previous years (see section 1.g.).
On October 27, a bomb detonated at a seminary in Quetta, killing eight individuals, including six students, and injuring more than 100 others. No group claimed responsibility for the attack.
Kidnappings and forced disappearances of persons took place in nearly all areas of the country. Some officials from intelligence agencies, police, and other security forces reportedly held prisoners incommunicado and refused to disclose their location. The independent nongovernmental organization (NGO) Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) estimated at least 2,100 political dissenters and rights activists were missing in the country, although the actual number may be higher.
On June 16, authorities acknowledged Khyber Pakhtunkhwa human rights defender Idris Khattak had been held incommunicado by law enforcement since November 2019. Khattak, whose work monitored human rights violations in and the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), disappeared after his car was stopped by security agents in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In June authorities admitted they had him in custody and planned to charge him under the 1923 Official Secrets Act, a British-era law that could result in a lengthy prison term or the death sentence.
Human rights organizations reported some authorities disappeared or arrested Pashtun, Sindhi, and Baloch human rights activists, as well as Sindhi and Baloch nationalists without cause or warrant. Some children were also detained in an effort to put pressure on their parents. Activists claimed 500 Sindhis were missing, with more than 60 disappearing in 2020 alone.
On August 10, unknown actors kidnapped Sarang Joyo, a university professor and Sindh human rights activist, from his home in Karachi. Joyo’s wife alleged that uniformed and plainclothes police officers were responsible for his enforced disappearance. Joyo reappeared after six days and was admitted to a hospital showing signs of torture. Journalists, lawyers, and other activists were similarly abducted by unknown actors and released within days of their abduction during the year, including journalists Matiullah Jan, Bilal Farooqi, and Ali Imran; former journalist Sajid Gondal; and lawyer Muhib Leghari. Civil society alleged security forces perpetrated the disappearances.
On June 17, Asif Husain Siddiqui, a worker of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-London, was found shot dead in Karachi, after being missing for several days.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the constitution prohibits torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, the penal code has no specific section against torture. The penal code prohibits criminal use of force and assault; however, there were reports that security forces, including the intelligence services, tortured and abused individuals in custody.
Human rights organizations claimed that torture was perpetrated by police, military, and intelligence agency members, that they operated with impunity, and that the government lacked serious efforts to curb the abuse.
On June 24, a video of three police officers abusing and stripping a man naked at a police station in Peshawar went viral on social media. In January the inspector general of Sindh, Kaleem Imam, claimed some officers of the Counterterrorism Department (CTD) were involved in extortion and wrongful confinement. He claimed some senior CTD officials had encouraged these officers, rather than punishing them, for such abuses.
Media and civil society organizations reported cases of individuals dying in police custody allegedly due to torture. On July 9, the body of a prisoner, Peeral Khaskheli, was found in a police lock-up in Sanghar, Sindh. His family claimed police were responsible for the death, while police claimed the deceased committed suicide.
According to the Conduct in UN Field Missions online portal, there was one allegation submitted in February of sexual exploitation and abuse by a Pakistani peacekeeper deployed to the African Union-UN Hybrid Operation in Darfur, allegedly involving rape of an adult. As of October, the Pakistani government was investigating the allegation.
There were reports police personnel employed cruel and degrading treatment and punishment. The HRCP reported police committed “excesses” in at least 29 cases as of September 24, killing 14 persons and injuring 23. Multiple sources reported police abuse was often underreported.
Impunity was a significant problem in the security forces due to politicization, corruption, and a lack of effective mechanisms to investigate abuses. The government provided limited training to increase respect for human rights by security forces.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Conditions in some civilian prisons and military detention centers were harsh and life threatening due to overcrowding, inadequate food and medical care, and unsanitary conditions.
Physical Conditions: Prison conditions often were extremely poor. Overcrowding remained a serious problem, largely due to structural issues in the criminal justice system that led to a high rate of pretrial detention. According to prison authorities, as of August the total nationwide prison population stood at 82,139 in 116 prisons across the country. The designed capacity of these prisons is 64,099, putting the occupancy at 28 percent above capacity.
Inadequate food and medical care in prisons continued to cause chronic health problems. Malnutrition remained a problem, especially for inmates unable to supplement their diets with help from family or friends. In many facilities the sanitation, ventilation, lighting, and access to potable water were inadequate. Most prison facilities were antiquated and had no means to control indoor temperatures. A system existed for basic and emergency medical care, but bureaucratic procedures slowed access. Prisoners with disabilities usually lacked adequate care. Representatives of Christian and Ahmadi Muslim communities claimed prison inmates often subjected their members to abuse and violence in prison. Civil society organizations reported prison officials frequently subjected prisoners accused of blasphemy violations to poor prison conditions. NGOs reported many individuals accused of blasphemy remained in solitary confinement for extended periods, sometimes for more than a year. The government asserted this treatment was for the individual’s safety, in view of the likelihood that prisoners accused of blasphemy would face threats from the general prison population.
Authorities held female prisoners separately from men. Nevertheless, despite the passage of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2018, which provides for separate places of confinement, NGOs reported prison officials held transgender women with men, and the men harassed the transgender women. Balochistan had no women’s prison, but authorities confined women in separate barracks from male convicts.
Due to lack of infrastructure, prison departments often did not segregate detainees from convicted criminals.
Prison officials kept juvenile offenders in barracks separate from adults. According to the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child, prisoners and prison staff subjected children to rape and other forms of violence.
Although the Islamabad High Court decided to release vulnerable, pretrial, or remand detainees during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Supreme Court overturned the ruling on March 30, halting the detainees’ release.
Administration: An ombudsman for detainees maintained a central office in Islamabad and offices in each province. Inspectors general of prisons irregularly visited prisons and detention facilities to monitor conditions and handle complaints.
By law, prison authorities must permit prisoners and detainees to submit complaints to judicial authorities without censorship and to request investigation of credible allegations of inhuman conditions. There were reports, however, that prisoners refrained from submitting complaints to avoid retaliation from jail authorities. The law also provides for visitation privileges, but overcrowding and lack of adequate visitor facilities in some prisons restricted detainees’ ability to receive visits. In most cases authorities allowed prisoners to observe their religious traditions.
A total of 548 (519 Sindh, 29 Punjab) prisoners under trial detained for petty or minor offenses were released on the orders of two provincial high courts during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Independent Monitoring: International organizations responsible for monitoring prisons reported difficulty accessing some detention sites, in particular those holding security-related detainees. Authorities did not allow international organizations access to detention centers in areas most affected by violence in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the former FATA, and Balochistan. Authorities at the local, provincial, and national levels permitted some human rights groups and journalists to monitor prison conditions of juveniles and female inmates.
Improvements: During the year Punjab, Sindh, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s prison departments continued construction of their own prison academies, focusing on modern prison management techniques that promote human rights and counter violent extremism.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but there were constitutional restrictions. In addition, threats, harassment, abductions, violence, and killings led journalists and editors to practice self-censorship. Government failure to investigate and prosecute attacks on human rights defenders and peaceful protesters led to de facto restrictions on freedom of assembly and association.
Freedom of Speech: The constitution provides for the right to free speech and the press, subject to “any reasonable restriction imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam” or the “integrity, security, or defense of Pakistan, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality.” The law permits citizens to criticize the government publicly or privately, but court decisions interpreted the constitution as prohibiting criticism of the military and judiciary. Such criticism may result in legal, political, or commercial reprisal. Blasphemy laws restrict individual rights to free speech concerning matters of religion and religious doctrine. According to the penal code, the punishments for conviction of blasphemy include the death sentence for “defiling the Prophet Muhammad,” life imprisonment for “defiling, damaging, or desecrating the Quran,” and 10 years’ imprisonment for “insulting another’s religious feelings.” The courts enforced the blasphemy laws, and although authorities had not executed any person for committing blasphemy, allegations of blasphemy often prompted vigilantism and mob lynching. The government restricted some language and symbolic speech based on hate speech and terrorism provisions.
On July 29, Tahir Naseem was shot and killed inside a Peshawar courtroom while on trial for blasphemy. An estimated 5,000 to 7,000 persons spread across multiple rallies in Peshawar demonstrated on July 31 in support of the accused murderer of Tahir Naseem, juvenile Faisal Khan. Protesters called for his immediate release and condemned the government for prosecution. Weekend sermons warned worshippers “not to trust the judiciary after the Asia Bibi [blasphemy] case,” and “We need to take these [blasphemy] matters in our own hands.” Police officers, in a photograph widely circulated on social media, posed for a “selfie” with the accused killer. Naseem’s family alleged that he had a mental disability.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Threats, harassment, and violence against journalists who reported on sensitive issues such as civil-military tensions or abuses by security forces occurred with increasing frequency during the year. Both the military, through the director general of the Inter-Services Public Relations, and government oversight bodies, such as the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), enforced censorship. By law the government may restrict information that might be prejudicial to the national interest. During the year the government gained additional legislative authority to restrict information it deems “prejudicial” to the national interest. Authorities used these laws to prevent or punish media criticism of the government and armed forces. To publish within Pakistan-administered Kashmir, media owners had to obtain permission from the Kashmir Council and the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs, and journalists had to depend largely on information provided by the government and military. There were limitations on transmission of Indian media content. Journalists also protested their inability to report freely on rights violations and forced disappearances in Balochistan, the Pashtun movement’s activities and protests, and the military’s involvement in business enterprises. In January the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication approved the Citizen’s Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules to regulate content on social media platforms. In October the government used those rules to briefly ban the TikTok application, lifting the ban once the application’s company agreed to block users who upload unlawful content. Rights activists reported the government contacted Twitter and asked them to take down accounts of activists deemed problematic.
Journalists alleged PEMRA issued editorial directives to television stations, and media outlets claimed the government pressured stations to halt broadcasting of interviews with opposition political party leaders. In March the Committee to Protect Journalists reported PEMRA contacted cable distributers throughout the country and ordered them to stop transmitting Geo TV or switch its broadcasts to higher channels that are harder for viewers to find. This action followed the arrest of parent company Jang Media Group’s CEO and editor in chief.
The Islamabad office of Radio Mashaal, the Pashto language service of Radio Free Europe, which the Interior Ministry closed in 2018, remained closed at the end of the year.
Violence and Harassment: Security forces, political parties, militants, and other groups subjected media outlets, journalists, and their families to threats and harassment. Female journalists in particular faced threats of sexual violence and harassment, including via social media, where they had a particularly strong presence. Security forces allegedly abducted journalists. Media outlets that reported on topics authorities viewed as sensitive were often the targets of retribution. Additionally, journalists working in remote and conflict-ridden areas lacked basic digital and traditional security skills, which increased pressure to self-censor or not cover a story.
According to observers, journalists were subjected to a variety of pressure tactics, including harassment and intimidation. Assailants killed journalists during the year, but it was unclear whether their journalism was the motive for the killings. On July 23, two gunmen in Balochistan’s Barkhan city shot and killed senior reporter Anwar Jan Khetran of the daily newspaper Naveed-e-Pakistan as he was on his way home. On February 17, Aziz Memon, a reporter for the Sindhi television channel KTN News and Sindhi-language Daily Kawash newspaper was found dead. Prior to his death, Memon reported threats against him by the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party and local police. Police reported three of five suspects were in police custody as of February 26. In May a joint investigation team concluded that his death was premeditated murder. On June 16, unknown individuals stabbed and killed Muhammad Bilal Khan, an independent journalist who ran a YouTube channel.
Journalists were also subject to enforced disappearances and arrests. On July 21, a journalist and outspoken critic of the military establishment, Matiullah Jan, was kidnapped by heavily armed men in Islamabad and released 12 hours later. The abduction was caught on closed-circuit television cameras, images from which were shared widely on social media. The Committee to Protect Journalists said Jan was among the journalists the army accused of sharing antistate remarks on social media in 2018. On September 4, Sajid Gondal, a former journalist and a joint director of Pakistan’s Securities and Exchange Commission, disappeared after being “kidnapped by unidentified persons;” on September 8, Gondal tweeted that he had returned home safely. On September 12, police charged another journalist, Asad Ali Toor, with allegedly spreading “negative propaganda against the state, Pakistani institutions and the Pakistan Army,” citing the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act.
Journalists Saeed Ali Achakzai and Abdul Mateen Achakzai alleged, according to Committee to Protect Journalists reporting, that agents of the Balochistan Levies, a paramilitary gendarmerie that operates as a primary security agency in the province, detained them on June 19 without charges, held them for two days, and beat them. On June 8, the journalists had reported on poor conditions at a COVID-19 quarantine center.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Media organizations generally engaged in self-censorship, especially in reporting news regarding the military, religious extremism, and abuse of blasphemy laws; journalists stated they were under increased pressure to report the predetermined narrative during the year, and PEMRA issued editorial directives to media outlets. For example, some stated they were pressured to publish or broadcast military statements or rebuttals of stories that reflected badly on government officials prominently in their newspapers and news bulletins.
Journalists reported regular denial of permission to visit conflict areas or being required to travel with a military escort while reporting on conditions in conflict areas. They reported pressure to produce articles with a military viewpoint. Other reporting tended to be relatively objective with a focus on facts rather than analysis, which journalists generally regarded as risky. Both local and foreign journalists complained of harassment and intimidation by government officials. Blasphemy and anti-Ahmadi laws restricted publication on certain topics. Government censors reviewed foreign books before they allowed reprinting. Imported movies, books, magazines, and newspapers were subject to censorship for objectionable sexual or religious content. Obscene literature, a category the government defined broadly, was subject to seizure. In September, 50,000 copies of well-known journalist Sohail Warraich’s collection of columns published in Jang were removed from book stalls.
The government fined private television channels for alleged violations of the “code of ethics” and for showing banned content. Authorities reportedly used PEMRA rules to silence broadcast media by either suspending licenses or threatening to do so, or by reassigning the cable channel number of a targeted outlet without notice so that its programming would be hard or impossible to find on most televisions. Many outlets resorted to self-censorship, particularly when reporting on religious or security issues. The Central Board of Film Censors previewed and censored sexual content and any content that glorified Indian heroes, leaders, or military figures in foreign and domestic films.
The government continued to use network access as a tool to exert control over media outlets. Media outlets seen as supportive of the PML-N faced distribution disruptions.
The Jang/Geo media group, the country’s largest media house, also reportedly faced harassment and newspaper distribution blockages. Unidentified individuals reportedly pressured newspaper vendors not to distribute the Urdu-language Jang newspaper and its sister English language paper The News and discouraged advertisers from advertising with the Jang/Geo group’s outlets. Cable operators dropped the Geo news channel from their cable systems or repeatedly changed its assigned channel. PEMRA shut down Geo TV and 24 News, citing problems with their licenses. Both channels, which were critical of the government, were immediately reinstated by the courts. Journalists suspected a political motive behind the government’s actions. Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman, owner and editor in chief of Jang/Geo News, spent eight months in legal custody over a 34-year-old property case before being granted bail on November 9. Many journalists considered Rehman’s charges as a deliberate government intimidation tactic.
Media outlets reported the government increasingly used the infrastructure of the media system, as well as government advertising, which makes up a large portion of media revenue, to suppress information deemed threatening. The economic constriction caused by COVID-19 decreased private revenue further, rendering outlets more dependent on government advertisement. A new policy that would allow media outlets to tap into subscription revenues was stalled in a Supreme Court battle. The government pressured distributors into restricting distribution or changing channels of outlets deemed problematic, incentivizing media companies to censor their content. Media houses also reportedly fired outspoken journalists deemed to be a threat to their revenues or continued ability to operate. In July the only Balochi television channel, Vash, was closed due to nonpayment of dues after its finances suffered because of federal and provincial authorities’ refusal to grant advertisements and associated revenue to the channel.
Libel/Slander Laws: Defamation and blasphemy are treated as criminal offenses. Blasphemy is punishable ranging from a two-year imprisonment to death. In Peshawar, the Awami National Party chairman filed a civil case accusing a political rival and three newspapers of defamation in 2019. The case remained pending.
National Security: Some journalists asserted authorities cited laws protecting national security to censor and restrict media distribution of material that criticized government policies or military or public officials, or that described the country’s security situation in a negative light. The Electronic Media (Programs and Advertisements) Code of Conduct included a clause that restricted reporting in any area where a military operation was in progress.
Nongovernmental Impact: Nonstate actor violence against media workers decreased, but an environment where militant and criminal elements were known to kill, abduct, assault, and intimidate journalists and their families led journalists, particularly in the tribal areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, to self-censor.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution and laws provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but these freedoms were subject to restrictions.
c. Freedom of Religion
In 2018, 2019, and 2020, the Department of State designated Pakistan as a Country of Particular Concern under the 1998 International Freedom Act, as amended, for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at .
g. Stateless Persons
Statelessness continued to be a problem. There is no national legislation on statelessness, and the government does not recognize the existence of stateless persons. International and national agencies estimated there were possibly thousands of stateless persons because of the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan and the 1971 partition of Pakistan and Bangladesh. UNHCR estimated there were sizable populations of Rohingya, Bihari, and Bengalis living in the country, a large percentage of whom were likely stateless, although comprehensive data was lacking.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The constitution provides the majority of citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. Gilgit-Baltistan and the Azad Kashmir area have political systems that differ from the rest of the country, and neither have representation in the national parliament.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: In July 2018 the country held direct elections that resulted in a PTI-majority national government led by Prime Minister Imran Khan. EU observers assessed voting was “well conducted and transparent” but noted “counting was sometimes problematic.” Civil society organizations and political parties raised concerns regarding pre-election interference, including restrictions on freedom of expression, allegedly creating an uneven electoral playing field.
In September 2018 the Electoral College (made up of the members of both houses of Parliament, and of the provincial assemblies) held presidential elections and selected PTI member Arif Alvi to succeed Mamnoon Hussain of the PML-N. Following the passage of the 25th amendment merging the former FATA with the rest of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2019, the government held special elections that gave residents of the former FATA representation in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial assembly for the first time in their history. Politically, the only remaining hurdle for full integration of the former FATA with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is elections for local leaders.
On November 15, Gilgit-Baltistan held legislative assembly elections. according to unofficial results, the PTI won 10 of 24 total seats, a sufficient number for the party to form a government. The elections, originally scheduled for August, had been delayed several months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The opposition parties, PML-N and PPP, complained of alleged “rigging” of the election, although Free and Fair Election Network’s CEO described the elections as “free and fair.”
Political Parties and Political Participation: There were no reports of restrictions on political parties participating in elections, except for those prohibited due to terrorist affiliations.
On October 15, opposition parties alleged authorities arrested more than 400 party workers prior to a large demonstration in Gujranwala on October 16. Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan complained police and other security agencies arrested its workers by claiming it to be part of a verification process. In May the government banned Sindhi nationalist political party Jeay Sindh Qaumi Mahaz, Arisar. The NGO Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and other rights organizations expressed concern over the ban saying the government must distinguish between political parties and terrorist organizations before banning any of them. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement-London alleged that security forces abducted its members and others expressing support for their founder, Altaf Hussain.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa police charged local leaders of the opposition group Pakistan Democratic Movement with violating the province’s epidemic control law for their role in organizing the November 22 antigovernment rally in Peshawar after the district administration had denied the group’s district-level leaders permission for the rally over COVID-19 concerns.
Judges ordered media regulatory agencies to enforce constitutional bans on content critical of the military or judiciary, compelling media to censor politicians’ speeches and election-related coverage deemed “antijudiciary” or “antimilitary.” Organizations that monitor press freedom reported direct pressure on media outlets to avoid content regarding possible military influence over judicial proceedings against politicians and to refrain from reporting on PML-N leaders in a positive way. In most areas there was no interference with the right of political parties and candidates to organize campaigns, run for election, or seek votes. In Balochistan, however, there were reports that security agencies and separatist groups harassed local political organizations, such as the Balochistan National Party and the Baloch Students Organization.
Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: The Elections Act of 2017 stipulates special measures to enhance electoral participation of women, religious minorities, transgender persons, and persons with disabilities. By law women must constitute 5 percent of party tickets, and if less than 10 percent of women vote in any constituency, authorities may presume that the women’s vote was suppressed, and the results for that constituency or polling station may be nullified. The government enforced the law for the first time in Shangla, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, when the Election Commission canceled the district’s 2018 general election results after women made up less than 10 percent of the vote.
Cultural and traditional barriers in tribal and rural areas impeded some women from voting. Authorities used quotas to assure a minimum level of participation of women in elected bodies. There are 60 seats in the National Assembly and 17 seats in the Senate reserved for women. Authorities apportioned these seats based on total votes secured by the candidates of each political party that contested the elections. Women and minorities also may contest directly elected seats, but both women and minorities struggled to be directly elected outside of the reserved seats. Authorities reserved for women 132 of the 779 seats in provincial assemblies and one-third of the seats on local councils. Women participated actively as political party members, but they were not always successful in securing leadership positions within parties, apart from women’s wings. Women served in the federal cabinet.
The law requires expedited issuance of identification cards (which also serve as voter identification cards) for non-Muslims, transgender persons, and persons with disabilities.
The government requires voters to indicate their religion when registering to vote. Ahmadis are required to either swear Muhammad was the final prophet of Islam and denounce the Ahmadi movement’s founder, or declare themselves as non-Muslims, in order to vote. Ahmadis consider themselves Muslims, and many were unable to vote because they did not comply.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
Some domestic and international human rights groups operated without significant government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. The government increasingly restricted the operating ability of NGOs, however, particularly those whose work revealed shortcomings or misdeeds of the government, military, or intelligence services, or that worked on issues related to conflict areas or advocacy. These groups faced numerous regulations regarding travel, visas, and registration that hampered their efforts to program and raise funds. International staff members of organizations, including those from the few successfully registered INGOs, continued to face delays or denials in the issuance of visas and no-objection certificates for in-country travel. The domestic NGO registration agreement with the government requires NGOs not to use terms the government finds controversial–such as countering violent extremism; peace and conflict resolution; IDPs; reproductive health; and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex (LGBTI) persons–in their annual reports or documents. The agreement also prohibits NGOs from employing individuals of Indian or Israeli nationality or origin. Few NGOs had access to certain parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the former FATA, and certain areas in Balochistan.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The 2012 National Commission for Human Rights Bill authorized the establishment of an independent committee, the National Commission on Human Rights. The first commission’s term expired in June 2019, and authorities had not established a second commission as of September. A stand-alone Ministry of Human Rights was reconstituted in 2015. The Senate and National Assembly standing committees on law, justice, minorities, and human rights held hearings on a range of human rights problems.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is a criminal offense, with punishment for conviction that ranges from a minimum of 10 to 25 years in prison and a fine, to the death penalty. The penalty for conviction of gang rape is death or life imprisonment. The law does not explicitly criminalize spousal rape and defines rape as a crime committed by a man against a woman. Although rape was frequent, prosecutions were rare. The law provides for collection of DNA evidence and includes nondisclosure of a rape victim’s name, the right to legal representation of rape victims, relaxed reporting requirements for female victims, and enhanced penalties for rape of victims with mental or physical disabilities.
The government did not effectively enforce the 2006 Women’s Protection Act, which brought the crime of rape under the jurisdiction of criminal rather than Islamic courts. The law prohibits police from arresting or holding a female victim overnight at a police station without a civil court judge’s consent. The law requires a victim to complain directly to a sessions court, which tries heinous offenses. After recording the victim’s statement, the sessions court judge files a complaint, after which police may make arrests. NGOs reported the procedure created barriers for rape victims who could not travel to or access the courts. NGOs continued to report that rape was a severely underreported crime.
The Punjab Protection of Women against Violence Act provides legal protections for domestic abuse victims, including judicial protective orders and access to a new network of district-level women’s shelters. Centers provide women a range of services including assistance with the completion of first information reports regarding the crimes committed against them, first aid, medical examinations, posttrauma rehabilitation, free legal services, and a shelter home. The Punjab government funds four women’s career centers in Punjab universities, 12 crisis centers that provide legal and psychological services to women, and emergency shelters for women and children. The Punjab government established 16 women’s hostel authority in 12 districts to assist women in finding safe, affordable, temporary lodging while looking for work. They also established 68 additional day-care centers, bringing the total to 137 by year’s end. The provincial government also launched other economic empowerment programs, including the Punjab Small Industry cooperation Development Bank and the Kisan Ki Beti project, which aim to improve living standards of rural women through skill development.
Lahore uses a special court designed to focus exclusively on gender-based violence (GBV) crimes. The Lahore Gender-Based Violence Court receives the most serious cases in the district, such as aggravated rape, and offers enhanced protections to women and girls.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa lacks a comprehensive law addressing domestic violence.
There were no reliable national, provincial, or local statistics on rape due to underreporting and no centralized law-enforcement data collection system.
Prosecutions of reported rapes were rare, although there were reports that prosecution rates increased in response to police capacity building programs and public campaigns to combat the lack of awareness regarding rape and GBV. Police and NGOs reported individuals involved in other types of disputes sometimes filed false rape charges, reducing the ability of police to identify legitimate cases and proceed with prosecution. NGOs reported police sometimes accepted bribes from perpetrators, abused or threatened victims, and demanded victims drop charges, especially when suspected perpetrators were influential community leaders. Some police demanded bribes from victims before registering rape charges, and investigations were often superficial. Furthermore, accusations of rape were often resolved using extrajudicial measures, with the victim frequently forced to marry her attacker. Women who reported or spoke up against violence against women often faced pushback and harassment, including by police officials, which, according to civil society, discouraged victims from coming forward.
In the early morning of September 9, two men broke into the vehicle of a woman who, with her two children, had stalled on the road outside of Lahore. The men robbed the family and then raped the woman in front of her children. The woman was initially blamed by a top police official, who, based on his comments, implied the victim had been out too late at night. Police later apprehended one of the suspects.
The use of rape medical testing increased, but medical personnel in many areas did not have sufficient training or equipment, which further complicated prosecutions. Most victims of rape, particularly in rural areas, did not have access to the full range of treatment services. There were a limited number of women’s treatment centers, funded by the federal government and international donors. These centers had partnerships with local service providers to create networks that delivered a full spectrum of essential services to rape victims.
No specific federal law prohibits domestic violence, which was widespread. Police may charge acts of domestic violence as crimes pursuant to the penal code’s general provisions against assault and bodily injury. Provincial laws also prohibit acts of domestic violence. Forms of domestic violence reportedly included beating, physical disfigurement, shaving of women’s eyebrows and hair, and–in extreme cases–homicide. Dowry and other family-related disputes sometimes resulted in death or disfigurement by burning or acid.
Women who tried to report abuse often faced serious challenges. Police and judges were sometimes reluctant to act in domestic violence cases, viewing them as family problems. Instead of filing charges, police often responded by encouraging the parties to reconcile. Authorities routinely returned abused women to their abusive family members. Government officials reported a 25 percent increase in domestic violence incidents during COVID-19 lockdowns in eastern Punjab.
To address societal norms that disapprove of victims who report GBV, the government established women’s police stations, staffed by female officers, to offer women a safe place to report complaints and file charges. There was an inadequate number of women’s police stations, and they faced financial shortfalls and appropriate staffing shortages.
The government continued to operate the Crisis Center for Women in Distress, which referred abused women to NGOs for assistance. Numerous government-funded Shaheed Benazir Bhutto Centers for Women across the country provided legal aid, medical treatment, and psychosocial counseling. These centers served women who were victims of exploitation and violence. Officials later referred victims to dar–ul–amans, shelter houses for abused women and children, of which there were several hundred around the country. The dar-ul-amans also provided access to medical treatment. According to NGOs, the shelters did not offer other assistance to women, such as legal aid or counseling, and often served as halfway homes for women awaiting trial for adultery, but who in fact were victims of rape or other abuse.
Government centers lacked sufficient space, staff, and resources. Many overcrowded dar-ul-amans did not meet international standards. Some shelters did not offer access to basic needs such as showers, laundry supplies, or feminine hygiene products. In some cases individuals reportedly abused women at the government-run shelters, and staff severely restricted women’s movements or pressured them to return to their abusers. There were reports of women exploited in prostitution and sex trafficking in shelters. Some shelter staff reportedly discriminated against the shelter residents, assuming that if a woman fled her home, it was because she was a woman of ill repute.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): No national law addresses the practice of FGM/C. According to human rights groups and media reports, many Dawoodi Bohra Muslims practiced various forms of FGM/C. Some Dawoodi Bohras spoke publicly and signed online petitions against the practice. Some other isolated tribes and communities in rural Sindh and Balochistan also reportedly practiced FGM/C.
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Women were victims of various types of societal violence and abuse, including so-called honor killings, forced marriages and conversions, imposed isolation, and used as chattel to settle tribal disputes.
A 2004 law on honor killings, the 2011 Prevention of Antiwomen Practices Act, and the 2016 Criminal Law Amendment (Offenses in the Name or Pretext of Honor) Act criminalize acts committed against women in the name of traditional practices. Despite these laws, hundreds of women reportedly were victims of so-called honor killings, and many cases went unreported and unpunished. In many cases officials allowed the male involved in the alleged “crime of honor” to flee. Because these crimes generally occurred within families, many went unreported. Police and NGOs reported increased media coverage enabled law enforcement officers to take some action against these crimes.
In May, three men killed two teenage sisters in North Waziristan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, after a video showing them kissing a man circulated online. According to media reports, police arrested the victims’ father and brother for the crime and later apprehended a third suspect. They also arrested the 28-year-old man in the video, whose life was also in danger under tribal custom, on the grounds of “vulgarity.” Police conducted a swift investigation, over objections of tribal leadership and local elected officials. As of September the cases were pending with the trial court.
A Sindh police study publicized in February stated 769 persons, including 510 women, were victims of so-called honor killings in Sindh between 2014 and 2019. According to the report, police brought charges in 649 cases the courts awarded sentences in 19 cases, while the accused in 136 cases were acquitted; as of September, 494 cases were still pending trial. The conviction rate stood at 2 percent against the acquittal rate of 21 percent. On June 27, police found the mutilated body of a 24-year old woman named Wazeera Chacchar, who was stoned to death in a so-called honor killing case in Jamshoro, Sindh. Her post mortem report revealed she was gang raped before being killed and was pregnant at the time of the incident. Her father alleged her husband was behind the killing.
The law makes maiming or killing using a corrosive substance a crime and imposes stiff penalties against perpetrators. There were reports that the practice of disfigurement–including cutting off a woman’s nose or ears or throwing acid in their face, in connection with domestic disputes or so-called honor crimes–continued and that legal repercussions were rare.
The 2016 Sindh Hindu Marriage Act and the 2017 Hindu Marriage Act (applying to all other provinces) codify the legal mechanisms to formally register and prove the legitimacy of Hindu marriages. The 2017 Hindu Marriage Act allows for the termination of the marriage upon the conversion of one party to a religion other than Hinduism. Some activists claimed the latter provision weakens the government’s ability to protect against forced marriage and conversion. The 2016 Sindh Hindu Marriage Act also applies to Sikh marriages. The Punjab Sikh Anand Karaj Marriage Act 2018 allows local government officials to register marriages between a Sikh man and Sikh woman solemnized by a Sikh Anand Karaj marriage registrar.
The 2011 Prevention of Antiwomen Practices Amendment Act criminalizes and punishes the giving of a woman in marriage to settle a civil or criminal dispute; depriving a woman of her rights to inherit movable or immovable property by deceitful or illegal means; coercing or in any manner compelling a woman to enter into marriage; and compelling, arranging, or facilitating the marriage of a woman with the Quran, including forcing her to take an oath on the Quran to remain unmarried or not to claim her share of an inheritance. Although prohibited by law, these practices continued in some areas.
The 2012 National Commission on the Status of Women Bill provides for the commission’s financial and administrative autonomy to investigate violations of women’s rights.
On October 8, the minister of religious affairs banned the use of dowry, with the exception of bridal clothing and bedsheets.
Sexual Harassment: Although several laws criminalize sexual harassment in the workplace and public sphere, the problem was reportedly widespread. The law requires all provinces to have provincial-level ombudsmen. All provinces and Gilgit-Baltistan had established ombudsmen. During the year the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly passed its provincial law for the prevention of the harassment of women.
Meesha Shafi and eight others accused pop singer Ali Zafar of sexual harassment in 2018. He denied the accusations and filed suit against the women. In September the accusers were charged with defamation; if convicted, they faced up to three years in prison.
Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of children, but often lacked access to information and the means to make informed decisions. Couples and individuals did not have the ability to attain the highest standard of reproductive health, free from discrimination, coercion, and violence. The government provided regular access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence. All sexual violence cases reported in a public facility are also reported to the police. Survivors of sexual violence are provided with a clinical exam and treatment; female survivors are offered emergency contraceptives. Other services provided to survivors of sexual violence vary by province. During the year the Lahore High Court declared virginity tests illegal and of no forensic value in cases of sexual violence.
Young girls and women were especially vulnerable to problems related to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights, and often lacked information and means to access care. Spousal opposition also contributed to the challenges women faced in obtaining contraception or delaying pregnancy. Women, particularly in rural areas, faced difficulty in accessing education on health and reproductive rights due to social constraints, which also complicated data collection.
The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Provincial Assembly passed the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Reproductive Healthcare Rights Bill in July 2020, requiring the provincial government to provide reproductive healthcare information, to provide quality family planning services including short-term, long-term, and permanent methods of contraception, and to enable local access to contraceptives. The Sindh Assembly passed the Sindh Reproductive Healthcare Rights Bill in November 2019 to strengthen access to rural health centers and family planning resources, and to reduce the complications related to pregnancy and childbirth.
According to the most recent UN research, the maternal mortality ratio was 140 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2017, a rate attributed to a lack of health information and services. Few women in rural areas had access to skilled attendants during childbirth, including essential obstetric and postpartum care. UNICEF estimated that direct and indirect effects of COVID-19 led to a 14.5 percent increase in child mortality and a 21.3 percent increase in maternal mortality in 2020.
According to the National Institute of Population Studies’ 2017-18 Demographic and Health Survey, 86 percent of women received prenatal care. UNICEF data stated that skilled healthcare providers delivered 71 percent of births in 2019. The World Health Organization, citing 2010-2018 data, reported an adolescent birth rate of 46 per 1,000 women aged 15-19 years.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
Discrimination: Women faced legal and economic discrimination. The law prohibits discrimination based on sex, but authorities did not enforce it. Women also faced discrimination in employment, family law, property law, and the judicial system. Family law provides protection for women in cases of divorce, including requirements for maintenance, and sets clear guidelines for custody of minor children and their maintenance. Many women were unaware of these legal protections or were unable to obtain legal counsel to enforce them. Divorced women often were left with no means of support, as their families ostracized them. Women are legally free to marry without family consent, but society frequently ostracized women who did so, or they risked becoming victims of honor crimes.
The law entitles female children to one-half the inheritance of male children. Wives inherit one-eighth of their husbands’ estates. Women often received far less than their legal entitlement. In addition, complicated family disputes and the costs and time of lengthy court procedures reportedly discouraged women from pursuing legal challenges to inheritance discrimination. During the year Khyber Pakhtunkhwa passed a law for the protection of women’s inheritance rights and appointed a female independent ombudsperson charged with hearing complaints, starting investigations, and making referrals for enforcement of inheritance rights.
Media reported that imams and other marriage registrars illegally meddled with nikah namas, Islamic marriage contracts that often detail divorce rights, to limit rights of women in marriage. In other instances, women signing the contracts were not fully informed of their contents.
During the year civil society actors reported that only 7 percent of women had access to financial inclusion services in Pakistan and that women had limited access to credit.
Most of the historic Jewish community has emigrated. Anti-Semitic sentiments were widespread in the vernacular press. Hate speech used by some politicians and broadcast in some print media and through social media used derogatory terms such as “Jewish agent” to attack individuals and groups or referred to “Zionist conspiracies.”
Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups
Some Sindhi and Baloch nationalist groups claimed that authorities detained their members based on political affiliation or belief. Nationalist parties in Sindh further alleged that law enforcement and security agencies kidnapped and killed Sindhi political activists. Pashtuns accused security forces of committing extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and other human rights abuses targeting Pashtuns.
On May 29, a mob in Quetta’s Hazara town killed a young Pashtun man and seriously injured two others. Accounts varied regarding the cause of the attack. According to one version, the Pashtun men were harassing Hazara women, while another attributed the violence to a monetary dispute. Authorities arrested 12 suspects for their alleged involvement in the attack.
Sectarian militants continued to target members of the Hazara ethnic minority, who are largely Shia Muslim, in Quetta, Balochistan. Hazaras also continued to face discrimination and threats of violence. According to press reports and other sources, Hazara were unable to move freely outside of Quetta’s two Hazara-populated enclaves. Community members complained that increased security measures had turned their neighborhoods into ghettos, resulting in economic exploitation. Consumer goods in those enclaves were available only at inflated prices, and Hazaras reported an inability to find employment or pursue higher education.
On March 25, the Balochistan chief secretary announced, that these two enclaves, Hazara-town and Marribad, were to be sealed off in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, alleging that residents of the enclaves had contracted the virus in greater numbers. Although no Hazara government employee had at the time tested positive for COVID-19, according to media sources, he further furloughed all Balochistan government “staff … belong(ing) to the Hazara tribe.” Hazaras, who are largely Shia, were harassed online by social media users who referred to the virus as the “Shia virus” and alleged that Hazara migrants from Iran had introduced the virus to the country.
Community members also alleged government agencies discriminated against Hazaras in issuing identification cards and passports. Authorities provided enhanced security for Shia religious processions but confined the public observances to the Hazara enclaves.
Other Societal Violence or Discrimination
Societal violence due to religious intolerance remained a serious problem. There were occasionally reports of mob violence against religious minorities, including Christians, Ahmadi Muslims, and Hindus. Shia Muslim activists reported continuing instances of targeted killings and enforced disappearances in limited parts of the country.
Women’s rights groups faced threats of violence from religious groups. On February 25, the political party JUI-F threatened to disrupt the Sukkur’s women’s (Aurat) march on March 8, saying the march promotes vulgarity and is against Islamic values. The march was held amid strict government security, but many NGOs did not participate in the event after receiving direct threats. In Islamabad several individuals were injured after men hurled bricks and stones at the women during the march.