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 preelection 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 that operates in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and includes the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas, as well as the Rangers that operate in Sindh and Punjab, provide security services under the authority of the Ministry of Interior. The Frontier Corps’s 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, they operate independently and without effective civilian oversight. Members of the security forces committed numerous abuses according to domestic and international nongovernmental organizations.
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by the government or its agents; 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; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detention; political prisoners; politically motivated reprisal against individuals in another country, including killings, kidnappings, or violence; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; support to the Taliban, a nonstate armed militant group that recruited and used child soldiers; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including violence against journalists, unjustified arrests and disappearances of journalists, censorship, and criminal defamation laws; serious restrictions on internet freedom including site blocking; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws for the operation of nongovernmental organizations and civil society organizations; severe restrictions of religious freedom; restrictions on freedom of movement; serious government corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence; 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, queer, or intersex persons; the existence or use of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults; restrictions on workers’ freedom of association; and use of the worst forms of child labor.
There was a lack of government accountability, and abuses, including corruption, often went unpunished, fostering a culture of impunity among perpetrators, whether official or unofficial. Authorities seldom punished government officials for reported human rights abuses or acts of corruption.
Violence, abuse, and social and religious intolerance by militant organizations and other nonstate actors, both local and foreign, contributed to a culture of lawlessness. Terrorist violence and human rights abuses by nonstate actors contributed to human rights problems, with terrorist violence exceeding that of the prior year. Terrorist and cross-border militant attacks against civilians, soldiers, and police caused hundreds of casualties. Military, police, and law enforcement agencies continued to carry out significant campaigns against militant and terrorist groups. As of September 30, terrorism fatalities stood at 495, compared with 506 fatalities in all of 2020, 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
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 January 20, a local court sentenced Frontier Corps (FC) soldier Shadiullah to death for the August 2020 murder of university student Hayat Baloch in Turbat, Balochistan. Baloch activists protested that courts did not punish senior FC personnel for their role in the murder and said the senior leadership of the paramilitary forces fostered an institutionalized culture of violence against the Baloch people. On February 27, the body of missing Awami National Party leader Asad Khan Achakzai was found in Quetta, Balochistan.
On March 7, police killed university student Irfan Jatoi in Sukkur, Sindh, claiming he was a criminal. Jatoi’s family denied these allegations and accused law enforcement agencies of kidnapping him on February 10 because of his political beliefs. An autopsy determined that Jatoi’s body had sustained four to five bullet wounds to the chest from five feet away, suggesting he was executed while in custody. Inspector General of Sindh Police Mushtaq Mahar ordered an investigation following a public outcry over the killing.
A cross-border firing incident near the country’s Torkham border crossing to Afghanistan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on August 27 resulted in several civilian casualties on the Afghan side of the border. According to reports, Pakistani military stationed at the border fired at several persons approaching the border fence from the Afghanistan side of the border as they were attempting to enter Pakistan.
Asad Khan went missing in September 2020 while travelling to Quetta from Chaman to attend a political party meeting. In February police arrested a Levies Force official who confessed to the killing.
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.
On August 10, a fact-finding mission of the Ministry of Human Rights recommended charges against police officers for mismanaging the July 30 murder case of Hindu laborer Dodo Bheel in Tharparkar, Sindh. Bheel, a worker hired by a mining company, died after “intense torture” over several days by the company’s guards for alleged theft. Bheel’s postmortem report showed 19 injuries inflicted on him with a blunt object.
There were numerous reports of attacks against police and security forces. Terrorist groups and cross-border militants killed more than 100 soldiers or Frontier Corps members and injured hundreds more. On February 18, five soldiers were killed and another injured when militants attacked a security post in the Sara Rogha area of South Waziristan District, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. On February 22, four female aid workers were shot and killed by unidentified assailants in North Waziristan District, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
On April 4, a Swat District antiterrorism court judge, Aftab Afridi, was among four persons shot and killed in Swabi, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. On May 4, a roadside bomb killed two soldiers and injured two others in Bajaur District, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
On June 14, four FC personnel were killed in an improvised explosive device attack at the Marget-Quetta Road in Balochistan. On June 25, militants killed five FC soldiers in Sibi, Balochistan. The banned Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) claimed responsibility for the attack. On August 8, two policemen were killed and 21 others injured in an explosion near a police van in Quetta, Balochistan.
In August and September there was a significant increase in attacks on police in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claiming responsibility for most of the attacks, including several on police polio-protection details.
Militants and terrorist groups killed hundreds and injured hundreds more with bombs, suicide attacks, and other violence. Casualties increased compared with the previous two years (see section 1.g.). On April 21, five persons, including a police official, were killed and 12 others injured when a bomb exploded in the parking area of the Serena Hotel in Quetta, Balochistan. The TTP claimed responsibility for the blast.
Kidnappings and forced disappearances of persons took place across the country. Some officials from intelligence agencies, police, and other security forces reportedly held prisoners incommunicado and refused to disclose their location. The governmental Missing Persons Commission reported that it had opened 8,100 missing-person cases during the year and had solved 5,853 of these cases as of July.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa human rights defender Idris Khattak was held incommunicado by law enforcement from November 2019 until June 2020. Authorities had charged him under the 1923 Official Secrets Act, a British-era law, that could result in a lengthy prison term or death sentence. Khattak, whose work monitored human rights violations in the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), disappeared after his car was stopped by security agents in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
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 to pressure their parents. Activists claimed 500 Sindhis were missing, with more than 50 disappearing in 2021 alone. On August 26, the Sindh High Court ordered law enforcement agencies to recover all missing persons in Sindh by September 11. A lawyer representing the Sindh Rangers informed the court that of 1,200 missing persons, 900 had already been recovered in the province. Of these, Sindh police located 298 in the last six months.
On 26 June, Seengar Noonari, a political activist affiliated with the Awami Workers Party, was abducted from his home in Qambar-Shahdadkot, Sindh. His family members alleged that the Sindh Rangers kidnapped him in reprisal for his activism against expropriation of land owned by indigenous communities. On August 2 he returned home, 35 days after his abduction.
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 did not make serious efforts to curb the abuse.
On April 28, a police inquiry into the death of a young man at the Criminal Investigations Agency police center in Tando Allahyar, Sindh, revealed that police filed false charges against the deceased and falsely classified his cause of death as suicide while in custody. The report found a police constable responsible for harassment and extortion and recommended closing the special police center.
On June 26, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) said that 19 persons, including two teenagers, died in police custody due to torture since June 2020. HRCP expressed concern over the use of torture by civilian and military agencies and the absence of a legal framework to effectively prosecute police brutality.
Media and civil society organizations reported cases of individuals dying in police custody allegedly due to torture. On June 26, four police officers were charged for killing a man in custody at Tibba Sultanpur police station in Vihari District of Punjab. On July 18, Ejaz Alias Amjad was allegedly tortured to death in police custody in Wahando police station of Gujranwala, Punjab. A case was registered against six policemen, and an investigation committee was formed to investigate the death. On August 31, the body of a young prisoner, Ayaz Sial, was found in a police cell in Jarwar, Sindh. His family claimed Sial was tortured to death by the police, although police claimed the deceased suffered a cardiac arrest while in custody.
According to the United Nations’ Department of Management Strategy, Policy and Compliance Conduct and Discipline Service online portal, there were no new misconduct allegations against Pakistani peacekeepers serving in United Nations peacekeeping operations during the reporting period. The last allegation was submitted in February 2020 concerning sexual exploitation and abuse by a Pakistani peacekeeper deployed to the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur, allegedly involving the rape of an adult. As of October, the Pakistani government was still investigating the allegation.
There were reports police personnel employed cruel and degrading treatment and punishment. HRCP reported police used excessive force on citizens during at least 20 protests from January to August in different parts of the country. The incidents resulted in the death of four protesters and injury to many others. 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 problems in the criminal justice system that led to a high rate of pretrial detention. According to prison authorities, as of September the total nationwide prison population stood at 85,670 persons in 116 prisons across the country. The designed capacity of these prisons was 64,099, putting the occupancy at 30 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. Nongovernmental organizations (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. The passage of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2018 provides for separate places of confinement, but NGOs reported prison officials held transgender women with men, which led to harassment by the men. 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. There is no behavior-based classification system that separates petty offenders from violent criminals or provides opportunities to join rehabilitation programs. 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.
As of September 1, a total of 4,043 inmates and prison officials had been infected by COVID-19 since the first infection was reported in the country’s prisons, with most cases reported in Sindh. In that province in April, health authorities inoculated 2,500 prisoners 50 years of age or older against COVID-19.
Independent Monitoring: International organizations responsible for monitoring prisons reported difficulty accessing some detention sites, particularly 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.
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, but authorities did not always observe these requirements. Corruption and impunity compounded this problem.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Actions (In Aid of Civil Power) Ordinance of 2019 gives the military authority to detain civilians indefinitely without charge in internment camps, occupy property, conduct operations, and convict detainees in the province solely using the testimony of a single soldier. Both before and after the ordinance’s passage, the military was immune from prosecution in civilian courts for its actions in the province. The ordinance also provides that the military is not required to release the names of detainees to their families, who are therefore unable to challenge their detentions in a civilian court. The provincial high court ruled the ordinance unconstitutional in 2018, but the Supreme Court suspended this ruling in 2019. The appeal remained with the Supreme Court at year’s end. Pending the outcome of this appeal, the military retains control of its detention centers, although there is an ongoing transition to civilian law enforcement in the former FATA.
In April the Supreme Court criticized the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) for “randomly” arresting individuals and waiting over one year to file charges against them. On June 3, police in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Kohat District released Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) leader Manzoor Pashteen after keeping him in detention for almost eight hours. Pashteen had planned to attend a sit-in in Bannu District in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to protest the killing of a local resident.
On September 4, during a hearing on money laundering charges against detained National Assembly leader of the opposition Shehbaz Sharif and his son Hamza Sharif, the judge criticized the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) for the unusually slow pace of its investigation.
On September 22, law enforcement officials took a senior journalist, Waris Raza, from his home in Karachi, Sindh. Raza’s family alleged that he was arrested for expressing his political views. He was released after several hours of detention. Ali Wazir, a Member of the National Assembly representing South Waziristan and a prominent activist of the PTM, remained in Sindh police custody in Karachi. He was arrested in Peshawar in December 2020 and extradited by Sindh police on charges of criminal conspiracy and defamation of state institutions and the army. Local activists cite his confinement as illegal and arbitrary, and as reprisal for his criticizing state institutions. On June 1, the Sindh High Court denied his request for bail.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The law provides for an independent judiciary, but according to NGOs and legal experts, the judiciary often was subject to external influences, such as fear of reprisal from extremist elements in terrorism or blasphemy cases and public politicization of high-profile cases. Civil society organizations reported judges were reluctant to exonerate individuals accused of blasphemy, fearing vigilante violence. Media and the public generally considered the high courts and the Supreme Court more credible, but media discussed allegations of pressure from security agencies on judges of these courts.
Extensive case backlogs in the lower and superior courts undermined the right to effective remedy and to a fair and public hearing. Given the prevalence of pretrial detention, these delays often led defendants in criminal cases to be incarcerated for long periods as they waited for their trial to be heard. Antiquated procedural rules, unfilled judgeships, poor case management, and weak legal education caused delays in civil and criminal cases. According to the National Judicial Policy Making Committee, more than two million cases were pending in the court system, with COVID-19 related conditions slowing the case clearance process. A typical civil dispute case may take up to 10 years to settle, although the alternative dispute resolution process may reduce this time to a few months.
Many lower courts remained corrupt, inefficient, and subject to pressure from wealthy persons and influential religious or political figures.
There were incidents of unknown persons threatening or killing witnesses, prosecutors, or investigating police officers in high-level cases.
The use of informal justice systems that lacked institutionalized legal protections continued, especially in rural areas, and often resulted in human rights abuses. Large landholders and other community leaders in Sindh and Punjab and tribal leaders in Pashtun and Baloch areas sometimes held local council meetings (panchayats or jirgas) outside the established legal system. Such councils settled feuds and imposed tribal penalties, including fines, imprisonment, and sometimes the death penalty. These councils often sentenced women to violent punishment or death for so-called honor-related crimes. These councils that are meant to provide “speedier justice” than traditional courts in some instances also issued decisions that significantly harmed women and girls. For example, women, especially young girls, were affected by the practice of “swara,” in which girls are given in marriage by force to compensate for a crime committed by their male relatives. The Federal Shariat Court declared “swara” to be against the teachings of Islam in October. Jirga and panchayat decision making was often discriminatory towards women and girls, frequently issuing harsher sentences than for men.
In the former FATA, judgments by informal justice systems were a common practice. After the Supreme Court ruled that the way jirgas and panchayats operated was unconstitutional, the court restricted the use of these mechanisms to arbitration, mediation, negotiation, or reconciliation of consenting parties in a civil dispute. A jirga, still ongoing, was formed in April 2020 to resolve a high-profile land dispute between two tribes on the boundary of Mohmand and Bajaur after the disputants refused to recognize a government commission on the matter.
The civil, criminal, and family court systems provide for a fair trial and due process, presumption of innocence, cross-examination, and appeal. The constitution protects defendants from self-incrimination. There are no trials by jury. Although defendants have the right to be present and consult with an attorney, courts must appoint attorneys for indigents only in capital cases. Defendants generally bear the cost of legal representation in lower courts, but a lawyer may be provided at public expense in appellate courts. Defendants may confront or question prosecution witnesses and present their own witnesses and evidence. Due to the limited number of judges, a heavy backlog of cases, lengthy court procedures, frequent adjournment, and political pressure, cases routinely lasted for years, and defendants made frequent court appearances.
Police lacked training to properly handle child delinquency, and reports found cases of police brutality against juveniles. Many juveniles spent long periods behind bars because they could not afford bail. According to an NGO, juveniles were at risk for sexual and physical assault by police, adults, and other juveniles as soon as they enter the judicial system, including transportation to detention. Juveniles did not have facilities separate from adult detainees.
The law mandates the creation of juvenile courts and “juvenile justice committees,” intended to expedite the administration of justice for minors by resolving cases that involve minor offenses without resorting to formal judicial proceedings. Despite a directive that the government create these courts and committees within three months of the law’s passage in 2019, implementation has been slow. As of April the government had established three child courts in Lahore and eight in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, including one in the former FATA.
The law bans the application of the death penalty for minors, yet courts sentenced convicted children to death under antiterrorism laws. Unreliable documentation made determining the ages of possible minors difficult.
Some court cases, particularly those involving high-profile or sensitive matters such as blasphemy, lacked transparency. NGOs reported the government often located such trials in jails due to concerns for the safety of defendants, lawyers, judges, prosecutors, and witnesses. Although these safety concerns were well founded, NGOs expressed concerns regarding transparency.
The law allows the government to use special, streamlined antiterrorism courts (ATCs) to try persons charged with terrorist activities and sectarian violence. In other courts, suspects must appear within seven working days of their arrest, but ATCs may extend that period. Human rights activists criticized this parallel system, claiming it was more vulnerable to political manipulation. Authorities continued to expedite high-profile cases by referring them to ATCs, even if they had no connection to terrorism. The frequent use of ATCs for cases not involving terrorism, including for blasphemy or other acts deemed to foment religious hatred, led to significant backlogs, and despite being comparatively faster than the regular court system, ATCs often failed to meet speedy trial standards.
The Federal Shariat Court has exclusive appellate jurisdiction over all cases involving the application and interpretation of the Hudood Ordinances, enacted in 1979 by military leader Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq to implement a strict interpretation of Islamic law by punishing extramarital sex, false accusations of extramarital sex, theft, and alcohol consumption. The court also has power to revise legislation it deems inconsistent with sharia law. Individuals may appeal Federal Shariat Court decisions to the Shariat Appellate Bench of the Supreme Court. A full bench of the Supreme Court may grant a further appeal.
Civil society groups stated courts often failed to protect the rights of religious minorities against Muslim accusers. While the majority of those imprisoned for blasphemy were Muslim, religious minorities were disproportionately affected. Lower courts often failed to adhere to basic evidentiary standards in blasphemy cases, and most convicted persons spent years in jail before higher courts eventually overturned their convictions or ordered their release.
In some cases police arrested individuals after acts of vigilantism related to blasphemy or religious discrimination. Also see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/
Political Prisoners and Detainees
There were reports of political prisoners and detainees. The NAB continued to press corruption charges against opposition figures, but corruption charges were rarely pursued against Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party figures. In September 2020 authorities arrested National Assembly opposition leader and Pakistani Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) president Shehbaz Sharif on charges of accumulating assets beyond his means and money laundering. On April 23, Shehbaz Sharif was released from prison on bail. On August 5, the NAB approved a new inquiry of Shehbaz Sharif relating to an allegedly illegal allotment of land. On July 5, the NAB opened an investigation into former president and Pakistan Peoples Party leader Asif Ali Zardari regarding his acquisition of property.
Many ethnic and religious groups claimed authorities detained their members based on political affiliation or beliefs. The federal government announced a general amnesty in 2015 for Baloch insurgents who gave up arms. On July 7, Prime Minister Imran Khan appointed National Assembly member Shahzain Bugti as Special Assistant on Reconciliation and Harmony in Balochistan to hold talks with Baloch insurgents on behalf of the government. Despite the amnesty offers, illegal detention of Baloch leaders and the disappearance of private Baloch citizens continued. Nonetheless, human rights activists said the commission’s numbers were unreliable and that more cases remained than were reported. Baloch activists complained the commission served no purpose other than to help security agencies identify victims’ families for harassment. According to the NGO Voice for Baloch Missing Persons, 84 missing persons were recovered between January and July; however, another 103 Baloch persons were forcibly disappeared in the province during the same period. On March 17, the Human Rights Council of Balochistan claimed 480 individuals were forcibly disappeared and 177 were killed in the province during 2020. The NGO Voice for Missing Persons of Sindh claimed that 90 persons, mostly workers of nationalist political parties, remained in government or military custody due to political ties.
Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country
Journalists and civil society members in exile in Europe reported targeted harassment and physical violence they believed was linked to their investigative work into the military’s actions and into human rights abuses. In August media reported that law enforcement agencies in the UK warned Pakistani dissidents living in London of credible information of threats against them. The threatened individuals included individuals who have criticized Pakistan’s military in their writings.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
Individuals may petition the courts to seek redress for various human rights violations, and courts often took such actions. Individuals may seek redress in civil courts against government officials, including on grounds of denial of human rights. Observers reported that civil courts seldom issued judgments in such cases, and most cases were settled out of court. Although there were no procedures for administrative redress, informal reparations were common. Individuals and organizations could not appeal adverse decisions to international human rights bodies, although some NGOs submitted human rights “shadow reports” to the United Nations and other international actors.
The law prohibits such actions, requiring court-issued warrants for property searches, but there were reports that the government failed to respect these prohibitions. Police sometimes ignored this requirement and on occasion reportedly stole items during searches. Authorities seldom punished police for illegal entry. Police at times detained family members to induce a suspect to surrender. In cases pursued under the Antiterrorism Act, law enforcement agencies have additional powers, including of search and seizure without a warrant.
Several domestic intelligence services monitored politicians, political activists, suspected terrorists, NGOs, employees of foreign entities, and media professionals. These services included the Inter-Services Intelligence, Police Special Branch, the Intelligence Bureau, and Military Intelligence. Credible reports found that authorities routinely used wiretaps, monitored cell phone calls, intercepted electronic correspondence, and opened mail without court approval. There were credible reports the government used technology to arbitrarily or unlawfully surveil or interfere with the privacy of individuals. The government also used technologies and practices, including internet and social media controls, blocking or filtering of websites and social media platforms, censorship, and tracking methods.
g. Conflict-related Abuses
The military and paramilitary organizations conducted multiple counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations to eradicate militant safe havens. The military’s Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad, launched in 2017, continued throughout the year. Radd-ul-Fasaad is a nationwide counterterrorism campaign aimed at consolidating the gains of the 2014-17 Operation Zarb-e-Azb, which countered foreign and domestic terrorists in the former FATA. Law enforcement agencies also acted to weaken terrorist groups, arresting suspected terrorists and gang members who allegedly provided logistical support to militants. In raids throughout the country, police confiscated caches of weapons, suicide vests, and planning materials. Police expanded their presence into formerly ungoverned areas, particularly in Balochistan, where military operations had become normal, although such operations often were unreported in the press.
Poor security, intimidation by both security forces and militants, and limited access to Balochistan and the former FATA impeded the efforts of human rights organizations to provide relief to victims of military abuses and of journalists to report on any such abuses. In June, PTM’s national leader was detained on his way to address a Jani Khel tribe sit-in and jirga in Bannu, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, following a series of targeted killings of three teenagers and a tribal elder. The Jani Khel tribal conflict continues following the government’s failure to satisfy a settlement agreement to investigate the killings, remove militants from the area, and compensate the families.
Militants carried out numerous attacks on political party offices and candidates. On May 21, armed men attacked a National Party politician in Turbat, Balochistan. The Balochistan Liberation Front claimed responsibility for the attack.
Political, sectarian, criminal, and ethnic violence in Karachi continued, although violence decreased and gang wars were less prevalent than before security operations in the city that started in 2013. On March 30, a religious scholar was shot and wounded in a suspected sectarian attack in Karachi. On June 27, police arrested a suspected Lashkar-i-Jhangvi militant for his alleged involvement in several attacks, including the 2013 assassination of Sajid Qureshi, a prominent leader of the political party Muttahida Qaumi Movement. On August 6, unidentified persons attacked a Shia place of worship in the jurisdiction of Bahawalnagar, Punjab. On August 19, three persons were killed, and 59 others injured in a grenade attack on a Shia procession in Bahawalnagar, Punjab.
Killings: There were reports government security forces engaged in extrajudicial killings during operations against suspected militants throughout the country.
There were numerous media reports of police and security forces killing terrorist suspects in “police encounters.” The trial against Rao Anwar, accused of the extrajudicial killing of Naqibullah Mehsud in a staged counterterror operation in 2018, continued at year’s end. In August, Sindh police reported they arrested or killed 61 terrorists, while they arrested or killed 9,628 suspects in 960 police encounters in Sindh between January and August.
Security forces in Balochistan continued to disappear pretrial terror suspects, along with human rights activists, politicians, and teachers. The Baloch Human Rights Council noted 37 individuals had disappeared and assailants killed 25 persons, including one woman, in the month of June. The NGO Voice for Missing Baloch Persons claimed police killed 27 persons in Balochistan as of August.
There were numerous reports of criminal suspects killed in exchanges with police and the military. On April 20, police in Gujranwala District, Punjab, killed Atif Lahoria in a violent encounter. Five other suspected criminals were killed in police encounters in the Gujranwala region from February through April. On May 31, four FC soldiers and five suspected militants were killed in an exchange of fire in Quetta, Balochistan.
Militants and terrorist groups, including the TTP, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and Islamic State Khorasan Province, targeted civilians, journalists, community leaders, security forces, law enforcement officers, foreigners, and schools, killing and injuring hundreds with bombs, suicide attacks, and other forms of violence. Throughout Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the newly merged districts, there continued to be attacks by militant groups on security forces, tribal leaders, and civilians. Militant and terrorist groups often attacked religious minorities. On January 3, Islamic State militants claimed responsibility for an attack on a coal mine in Macch, Balochistan, that killed 11 coal miners belonging to the Shia Hazara community.
On August 26, three personnel of the paramilitary force Balochistan Levies and a member of the FC were killed in two separate attacks in Ziarat and Panjgur, Balochistan. The Levies were attacked during a mission to rescue four laborers, who were kidnapped by militants while working on a dam construction site. The BLA claimed responsibility for the attack. The attack in Panjgur was claimed by the Baloch Raji Ajoi-e-Sangar. On August 14, a total of 12 members of an extended family, all women and children, were killed and several others injured in a grenade attack on a truck in Karachi. No group claimed responsibility for the incident, but police suspected an extremist group was behind the attack.
Militant groups targeted Chinese nationals in multiple attacks. On March 9, a Chinese national and a passerby were injured after armed men opened fire at a vehicle in Karachi. On July 14, at least 13 persons, including nine Chinese engineers and two FC soldiers, were killed in a bus explosion near Dasu hydropower plant in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. A Chinese engineer was injured when unidentified assailants opened fire on his car in the Shershah area of Karachi on July 28. On August 20, two children and a man were killed and three persons, including a Chinese national, were injured in a suicide attack on a vehicle in Gwadar, Balochistan. A low-intensity separatist insurgency continued in Balochistan. Security forces reportedly committed extrajudicial killings in the fight against militant groups.
Child Soldiers: The government provided support to the Taliban, a nonstate armed militant group that recruited and used child soldiers. The government operated a center in Swat, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, to rehabilitate, educate, and reintegrate former child soldiers.
Other Conflict-related Abuse: On February 22, militants shot dead four women aid workers near Mirali in North Waziristan. Police said the women were working for an NGO to give vocational training to local women. In August and September, the TTP claimed responsibility for several attacks on police protection teams securing polio workers. The TTP particularly targeted girls’ schools to demonstrate its opposition to girls’ education but also destroyed boys’ schools. Militants closed key access roads and tunnels and attacked communications and energy networks, disrupting commerce and the distribution of food and water; military operations in response also created additional hardships for the local civilian population. On June 20, four female teachers were injured after unidentified assailants opened fire on a school van in Mastung, Balochistan.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press, but constitutional restrictions exist. 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 Expression: 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 did not execute 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 January 8, an antiterrorism court (ATC) sentenced three men to death for sharing blasphemous content through YouTube videos and fake social media profiles. According to media sources, this was the country’s first case in which the accused were convicted for sharing blasphemous content on social media.
Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: Threats, harassment, and violence against journalists who reported on sensitive topics such as civil-military tensions or abuses by security forces persisted throughout 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) and Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), enforced censorship. By law the government may restrict information that might be prejudicial to the national interest. Authorities used recently passed laws to prevent or punish media criticism of the government and the armed forces. To publish within Pakistan-administered Kashmir, media owners continued to require 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 political affairs and business enterprises. 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 selected opposition political party leaders. 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 and Voice of America’s Pashto and Urdu websites remained blocked.
In January PEMRA suspended privately owned broadcaster BOL News following a program that criticized the appointment of judges to the country’s highest court. The criticism was considered insulting to the judiciary and thus in violation of the constitutional provision that protects the honor of the judiciary. The ban was later suspended by the Supreme Court. On June 28, the Sindh provincial assembly enacted the Sindh Protection of Journalists and Other Media Practitioners Bill 2021. The law protects journalists against unlawful or arbitrary restrictions on their ability to work and requires the provincial government to take steps to protect media persons from harassment, violence, and threats of violence in both physical and online spaces. It also prevents government officials and institutions from forcing journalists to disclose the identity of their professional sources. The law establishes a Commission for the Protection of Journalists and other Media Practitioners.
In July journalist organizations strongly opposed a law passed by the Punjab Assembly that allowed the Assembly to penalize journalists for offenses including misrepresenting a speech made by members before the assembly or publishing a report or debate prohibited or expunged by the speaker of the assembly. The government reportedly later withdrew the clauses related to penalizing journalists.
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 March 19, a group of armed men shot and killed Ajay Laalwani, a reporter for Royal News TV in Sukkur, Sindh. On April 24, unknown attackers shot and killed a 23-year-old journalist, Abdul Wahid Raisani, in Quetta, Balochistan. Raisani worked for Balochistan’s largest Urdu daily newspaper, Azadi. Journalists also said they were subject to violent reprisals for reporting on cases of gender-based violence. On May 25, unidentified men attacked journalist Asad Ali Toor at his residence in Islamabad. According to the journalist, the attackers warned him against reporting on the Inter-Services Intelligence agency. Toor is a well-known critic of the country’s military and its role in the country’s politics.
On June 7, veteran journalist and member of the Punjab Assembly, Syeda Maimanat Mohsin, was attacked while returning home after addressing a public rally in Okara’s Hujra Shah Muqeem area. Journalists were also subject to enforced disappearances and arrests.
In July prominent journalist and television host Nadeem Malik was summoned by the counterterrorism wing of the FIA concerning his comments involving a high-profile case regarding former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
On August 7, the FIA cybercrime wing took into custody two journalists, Amir Mir and Imran Shafqat, allegedly for their public criticism of the military. They were later released on personal bond.
On August 13, armed men attacked and seriously injured a journalist, Ghulam Qadir Shar, in Sanghar, Sindh, allegedly as reprisal for reporting on a community-sanctioned attack on a woman.
Freedom Network, a media freedom advocacy group, reported an overall 40 percent increase in attacks on journalists during the year, with 39 cases from January to April alone in Punjab.
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. Journalists reported regular denial of permission to visit conflict areas or requirements 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, which journalists generally regarded as less risky than analysis.
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. 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 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 topics. 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 reported the government increasingly used the infrastructure of the media system, as well as government advertising, which made up a large portion of media revenue, to suppress information deemed threatening. The economic contraction caused by COVID-19 decreased private revenue further, rendering outlets more dependent on government advertising. 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 April the Association of Electronic Media Editors and News Directors rejected a PEMRA notification that asked television channels to rely only on press releases and official notifications to report on cabinet meetings. In May, Geo News suspended Hamid Mir, longtime television host and one of the country’s most prominent journalists, following Mir’s public outcry against the country’s military and the intelligence agencies.
Libel/Slander Laws: Defamation and blasphemy are treated as criminal offenses. Blasphemy is punishable ranging from a two-year imprisonment to death. On January 8, an antiterrorism court gave death sentences to three persons for social media posts deemed insulting to the Prophet Muhammad under the blasphemy laws.
On March 12, the Lahore High Court agreed to hear a petition seeking the death sentence for a Christian previously jailed for life after being convicted of sending text messages defaming the Prophet Muhammad.
For more on blasphemy laws, please see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/
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 during the year.
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.
Following the takeover of Kabul by the Afghan Taliban in September, banned terrorist organization TTP issued a warning to journalists and media organizations in Pakistan asking them to refrain from referring to TTP as a “terrorist or extremist” organization. Journalists, particularly those working in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, continued to receive threats and expressed concern regarding the government’s inability to arrest those involved in the killing of journalists in these two provinces.
The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) is responsible for the establishment, operation, and maintenance of telecommunications and has complete control of all content broadcast over telecommunication channels.
The government uses a systematic, nationwide, content-monitoring and filtering system to restrict or block “unlawful” content, including material it deems un-Islamic, pornographic, or critical of the state or military forces. The restrictive 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act gives the government sweeping powers to censor content on the internet, which authorities used as a tool for the continued clampdown on civil society.
The government blocked websites because of allegedly anti-Islamic, pornographic, blasphemous, or extremist content. The PTA’s Web Analysis Division is ultimately responsible for reviewing and reporting blasphemous or offensive content for removal, while the FIA is responsible for possible criminal prosecution. The PTA closely coordinated with other ministries in its enforcement efforts. There were also reports the government attempted to control or block websites that advocated Baloch independence and that the government used surveillance software. There was poor transparency and accountability surrounding content monitoring, and observers believed the government often used vague criteria without due process.
Authorities, particularly in the military, increasingly sought to restrict online space to silence dissidents and curtail content deemed critical of the military. In January, the PTA required social media platforms, including YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, to remove trailers for an allegedly sacrilegious movie titled “Lady of Heaven.” On April 16, the federal government through the PTA temporarily blocked access to social media sites and applications such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and YouTube. The PTA stated the services were blocked as part of a crackdown on the religious extremist party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan.
By law if an account is under suspicion, the social media company is bound to provide account data to authorities.
The PTA also continued to try to control social media and video-streaming services such as YouTube, Twitter, and TikTok. In April the PTA asked Twitter to immediately block or remove content that criticized the country’s judiciary and informed the company that such content was not part of “freedom of expression” and could be a punishable crime under “contempt of court.”
The PTA asked YouTube “to immediately block vulgar, indecent, immoral, nude, and hate speech content for viewing in Pakistan.” Although the PTA claimed its intentions were to stop the spread of pornography and vulgar content, users alleged it was actively targeting critics of government policies, especially those critical of the army. Internet service providers also claimed the PTA wanted to regulate political voices that spread what it deems indecent content. Online users continued to report they feared increasing censorship trends.
On June 28, the Sindh High Court ordered the suspension of access to TikTok in the country until July 8, but subsequently lifted the ban on July 2. The order was issued on a petition filed by a citizen aggrieved by the “immorality and obscenity” spread by content on the mobile app. The federal government did not lift the overall ban on TikTok until November 19, after the government and TikTok had reached agreement on the removal of the objectionable content from the platform.
Access to five popular live-streaming dating applications, including Tinder, Tagged, Skout, Grindr, and SayHi, remained blocked during the year on the pretext they featured immoral and indecent content. The law prohibits homosexuality and extramarital relationships. The PTA noted the five companies failed to respond to its directive within the stipulated time frame, the duration of which was unclear. Despite the PTA’s continuing engagement with some of these dating websites, the bans remained in place under the pretense that the applications were only used to facilitate what authorities viewed as immoral activities.
Long-term communications shutdowns were imposed in rural areas of the former FATA as well as Balochistan, where several districts reportedly have had no mobile internet service since 2017. Others insisted connectivity was hampered by lack of infrastructure, poor internet, and slow service, often provided by the military-operated Special Communication Organization in certain regions.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The government interfered with academic freedom by restricting, screening, and censoring certain cultural events based on limiting dissemination of antistate content and obscenity. The government sometimes required government-issued permits, which were frequently withheld.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa the government continued to use the West Pakistan Maintenance of Peace Order and the British-era Section 144 of the criminal code. These statutes effectively allow authorities to continue the long-standing practice of suspending the right to assemble or speak in the newly merged areas. By law district authorities may prevent gatherings of more than four persons without police authorization. The law permits the government to ban all rallies and processions, except funeral processions, for security reasons.
The constitution states, “A person of the Qadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves Ahmadis) is a non-Muslim.” Authorities generally prohibited Ahmadi Muslims from holding conferences or gatherings. Ahmadis cited the refusal of local authorities to reopen Ahmadi mosques damaged by anti-Ahmadi rioters in past years as evidence of the continuing severe conditions for the community.
During the year the PTM mobilized its predominantly ethnic-Pashtun supporters to participate in sit-ins and demonstrations to demand justice and to protest abuses by government security forces. The PTM continued to operate and hold massive rallies, although under much greater scrutiny after the January 2020 arrest of PTM’s national leader in Dera Ismail Khan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Security agencies continued to arrest, detain, and file charges against PTM leaders during the year in connection with protests and speeches.
On March 10, a doctored video of organizers of a women’s march in Karachi chanting allegedly blasphemous slogans went viral on social media. Organizers quickly released the original video clarifying the actual slogans in subtitles. The religious extremist party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan called the march a foreign-funded conspiracy against religious values and condemned the alleged blasphemy. The TTP issued threats against march organizers, and a Karachi-based cleric associated with Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), Manzoor Mengal, publicly called for marchers to be gang raped. The NGO HRCP said the doctored videos and blasphemy allegations were incitement to violence against women and demanded action against those responsible.
Many politicians, including from mainstream parties, condemned women’s marches for being counter to Islam and traditions.
On March 17, Sindh police filed charges against 60 political workers, journalists, and activists in Sukkur city for protesting the extrajudicial killing of Sindh University student Irfan Jatoi. Human rights organizations condemned the charges under the antiterror law and accused police of conflating the right to peaceful assembly with treason. Following the June 6 protest in Karachi against the Bahria Town housing development project, police arrested more than 120 individuals, including political activists and workers, for incitement. Some of the arrested political leaders were reportedly kept at undisclosed locations for days until police brought them before a court. On August 1, under pressure from city officials, organizers cancelled a women’s march in Faisalabad, Punjab. The march had been called to protest recent brutal murders of women.
Freedom of Association
The constitution provides for freedom of association subject to certain restrictions imposed by law. The government maintains a series of policies that steadily eroded the freedom of international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) and domestic NGOs to carry out their work and access the communities they serve. INGOs, UN organizations, and international missions generally must request government permission in the form of no-objection certificates (NOCs) before they may conduct most in-country travel, carry out certain project activities, or initiate projects. For some UN organizations implementing projects through the government, project NOCs are not required, although if they partner with local organizations, these entities must obtain project NOCs. Some UN organizations worked around NOCs by signing memoranda of understanding with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial government departments for certain projects.
Slow government approvals of NOC requests, insecure finance, and operational uncertainty significantly constrained INGO activity. The onerous NOC requirements, frequent and arbitrary requests for information from the security apparatus, as well as periodic harassment, impeded project operations, particularly in areas that could greatly benefit from support, such as the newly merged districts.
INGOs faced additional barriers to fundraising, opening bank accounts, and obtaining tax-exempt status from the Federal Board of Revenue, as well as visa denials for international staff and consultants. The online registration protocol made the process for obtaining registration laborious, nontransparent, and ultimately elusive for many INGOs. Registration requires extensive documentation, including financial statements, a detailed annual budget, and a letter outlining donor support, among many other requirements. Organizations were subject to constant investigation and harassment by the security apparatus and other government offices during and after the registration process. Organizations targeted often included those that focused on topics the government deemed sensitive, such as democracy promotion, press freedom, religious freedom, and human rights.
Eighty-five INGOs signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Ministry of Interior to obtain foreign funding and implement programs. In 2019 a total of 20 INGOs whose applications for registration were denied by the Ministry of Interior in 2018 appeared before an interagency committee to appeal those initial rejections. At the hearings the reasons for the original rejections were not disclosed, nor did the INGOs receive a clear explanation of actions they could take to restore their legal standing. In 2020 the ministry invited several NGOs that had previously been denied registration to reapply, but local sources reported that many of these decisions were still pending. While foreign assistance to the country has declined in recent years, the lack of transparency and unpredictability of the registration process and operational constraints also contributed to some INGOs withdrawing their registration applications and terminating operations. Local observers reported that approximately two-thirds of INGOs have departed the country since the new registration process was introduced in 2015. In September the Ministry of Finance’s Economic Affairs Division (EAD), which oversees registration for domestic NGOs, circulated a proposal to revise NGO registration policy with stakeholders.
In March 2020 the EAD eased requirements for registered domestic and international NGOs engaged in COVID-19 relief activities. The EAD also issued new Standard Operating Procedures to facilitate INGO projects related to the pandemic. Under these procedures, the government would immediately issue NOCs to INGO projects related to the pandemic, subject to their compliance with new guidelines. Only INGOs with signed MOUs would be allowed to work, and these NGOs would be required to submit four sets of their plan of action with explicit mention of funding sources and areas of operations in the country.
At both the federal and provincial levels, the government impeded foreign-funded local NGOs through a separate registration regime, NOCs, and other requirements. Authorities require domestic NGOs to obtain NOCs before accepting foreign funding, booking facilities, using university spaces for events, or working on “sensitive” human rights matters. Even when local NGOs receiving foreign funding were appropriately registered, the government often denied their requests for NOCs, and they faced regular government monitoring and harassment.
Under directives from federal institutions on security and financial oversight, the Sindh government introduced measures governing registration renewals of NGOs. In August 2020 a group of NGOs challenged the Sindh Charities Registration and Regulation Act of 2019 through a petition at the Sindh High Court. The petition argued the government was curbing freedom of association beyond what was permissible under the constitution. It further argued the purpose of the law was not to regulate NGOs but to incapacitate and debilitate them. As of October the case was ongoing. NGO representatives reported increased government restrictions and harassment by security agencies resulted in major NGOs reducing staff and activities.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement and for uninhibited foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government limited these rights. On March 1, authorities expelled PTM leader Manzoor Pashteen from Balochistan after he attended a condolence meeting for a killed politician in Chaman District. The Balochistan government had banned Pashteen in December 2020 from entering the province for security reasons.
In-country Movement: Citing security concerns, government restrictions on access to certain areas of the former FATA and Balochistan hindered freedom of movement. The government required an approved NOC for travel to areas of the country it designated “sensitive.”
Foreign Travel: The law prohibits travel to Israel, and the country’s passports include a statement that they are “valid for all countries except Israel.”
Passport applicants must list their religious affiliation, and those wishing to be listed as Muslims must swear they believe Muhammad is the final prophet and denounce the founder of the Ahmadi movement as a false prophet. Ahmadi representatives reported authorities wrote the word “Ahmadi” in their passports if they refused to sign the declaration.
According to policy, government employees and students must obtain NOCs from the government before traveling abroad. Authorities rarely enforced this requirement for students, however.
The government prohibited persons on an exit control list from departing the country. The stated purpose of the list was to prevent departure from the country of “persons involved in antistate activities, terrorism, or related to proscribed organizations and those placed on the orders of superior courts,” but according to civil society, authorities also included human rights defenders and critics of the government and military on the list. Those on the list have the right to appeal to the courts to have their names removed.
Exile: The government refused to accept the return of some citizens deported to Pakistan from other countries. The government refused these deportees entry to the country as “unverified” Pakistani citizens, alleging some passports issued by Pakistani embassies and consulates abroad were fraudulent.
Large population displacements have occurred since 2008 because of militant activity and military operations in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the former FATA. Returns continued amid improved security conditions. The government and UN agencies such as the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UNICEF, and UN World Food Program collaborated to assist and protect those affected by conflict, who generally resided with host families, in rented accommodations, or to a lesser extent, in camps. Several internally displaced persons (IDP) populations settled in informal settlements outside of cities such as Dera Ismail Khan, Bannu, Peshawar, Lahore, and Karachi.
The government required humanitarian organizations assisting civilians displaced by military operations to request NOCs to access all districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the former FATA. According to humanitarian organizations and NGOs, the certificate application process was cumbersome, and projects faced significant delays. The government maintained IDP camps inside and near former FATA districts where military operations took place, despite access and security concerns raised by humanitarian organizations. Humanitarian organization workers aiding in the camps faced danger when travelling to and within the former FATA. UN agencies maintained access to the camps and the affected areas mainly through local NGOs.
There were no reports of involuntary returns. Many IDPs reportedly wanted to return home, despite the lack of local infrastructure, housing, and available service delivery and the strict control that security forces maintained over returnees’ movements through extensive checkpoints. Other IDP families delayed their return or chose to stay with family members and remain in the settled areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where regular access to health care, education, and other social services was available. For IDPs who were unwilling or unable to return, the government coordinated support with the United Nations and other international organizations.
Despite large-scale recurring displacements of individuals due to natural disasters and disruptions caused by terrorist activities and counterterrorist operations, the government had not adopted specific legislation to tackle internal displacement problems. In addition, the law does not provide any definition of IDPs or their rights.
The country is not a party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (1967 Protocol) and has not enacted national legislation for the protection of refugees or established procedures to determine the refugee status of persons who are seeking international protection within its territory. The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations to provide protection and assistance to more than 1.4 million refugees (all of whom arrived in the country prior to 2007), asylum seekers, and other persons of concern.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status and the government has not established a system for providing protection for refugees. The law also does not exclude asylum seekers and refugees from provisions regarding illegal entry and stay. In the absence of a national refugee legal framework, UNHCR issued asylum seeker certificates and conducted refugee status determination under its mandate, and the country generally accepted UNHCR decisions to grant refugee status. The country generally allowed asylum seekers, as well as recognized refugees, to remain in the country pending identification of a durable solution.
Abuse of Migrants and Refugees: The government provided temporary legal status to more than 1.4 million Afghan refugees who arrived prior to 2007 by issuing proof of registration (POR) cards that expired on December 31, 2015. Since then, POR cards were renewed intermittently through cabinet decisions but expired without further renewal on June 30, 2020. The country also hosted approximately 878,000 Afghans with Afghan Citizen Cards but did not grant them refugee status. The government typically extended the validity of the Afghan Citizen Cards in short increments but allowed these cards to expire on June 30, 2020, and the government has not since renewed the cards. The government issued a notice in June 2020 directing agencies and departments to ensure that no harassment or adverse action be taken against POR and Afghan Citizen Card holders until the federal cabinet made a formal decision.
In March in collaboration with UNHCR, the government started the Document Renewal and Information Verification Exercise to update information on, and provide biometric cards with June 30, 2023, validity, to registered Afghan refugees and their immediate family members in Pakistan.
UNHCR reported 374 arrests and detentions of refugees by security authorities from January to June, a 38 percent increase from the same period in 2020, when 271 refugees were detained. This increase may be attributed to lockdown measures enforced by the government due to COVID-19. Among this year’s arrests, 81 percent of refugees detained were released without formal charges, 8 percent were charged and detained under the Foreigners Act, and 11 percent were charged with violating administrative orders regarding COVID-19, maintaining law and order, preventing vagrancy, and preventing imminent criminal activities.
Media and civil society reported police in Peshawar arrested 194 Afghan nationals (including POR cardholders, Afghan Citizen Card holders, visa or passport holders, and undocumented Afghans) on Afghanistan’s independence day in August. Media reported Pakistan began deportation proceedings and charged members of the group with rioting, damaging public property, and publicly displaying anti-Pakistan sentiments. Media also reported in September that Pakistan deported more than 200 Afghan nationals, including women and children, who reached Quetta via the Chaman border crossing. Another media report said 750 individuals who entered Balochistan from Afghanistan “illegally” had been taken into custody and deported to Afghanistan as of September 16.
Employment: There is no formal document allowing refugees to work legally, but there is no law prohibiting refugees from working in the country. Many refugees worked as day laborers or in the informal economy, and local employers often exploited refugees in the informal labor market with low or unpaid wages. Women and children were particularly vulnerable, accepting underpaid and undesirable work.
Access to Basic Services: Thirty percent of registered Afghan refugees lived in one of 52 refugee camps or villages, while the remaining 70 percent lived in host communities in rural and urban areas and sought to access basic services in those communities. Afghan refugees could avail themselves of the services of police and the courts, but some, particularly the poor, were afraid to do so. There were no reports of refugees denied access to health facilities because of their nationality. In 2019 the government permitted Afghan refugees to open bank accounts using their POR cards. According to UNHCR, POR cardholders can obtain SIM cards for mobile phones under the law, although some encountered difficulties due to the 2015 expiration date printed on POR cards. The new POR cards with a 2023 expiration date streamlined the process of getting SIM cards for Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
The constitution stipulates free and compulsory education for all children between the ages of five and 16, regardless of their nationality. Any POR cardholder refugee child could be, in theory, admitted to public education facilities after filing the proper paperwork. For older students, particularly girls in refugee villages, access to education remained difficult. In 2020, out of the 417,000 school-aged children, only 83,839 (20 percent) were enrolled in school, of which one-third were in public schools. These enrollment levels translated into a literacy rate for Afghan refugees of 33 percent, with a 7.6 percent rate for girls, and dropout rates as high as 90 percent. Afghan refugees were able to use POR cards to enroll in universities, although there were reports that some universities refused to enroll POR cardholders following the card expiration in June 2020. Afghan students were eligible to seek admission to Pakistani public and private colleges and universities.
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 organizations estimated there were at least hundreds of 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 ethnic Bihari, Bengali, and Rohingya living in the country, a large percentage of whom were likely stateless, although comprehensive data did not exist.