Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.