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Dissent Is Not A Crime. End The Persecution Of Gulalai Ismail & Her Family

In September 2015, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism submitted a report on the issue area under his mandate. In paragraph 46, it was explicitly provided that States, in their efforts to combat terrorism, must ensure that they “do not adopt measures that could have a negative impact on civil society”. Accordingly, paragraph 46(b) goes on to provide that States should “ensure that their counter-terrorism legislation is sufficiently precise to comply with the principle of legality, so as to prevent the possibility that it may be used to target civil society on political or other unjustified grounds”.

On 25 June 2019, five United Nations Special Procedures mandate holders wrote to the Government of Pakistan concerning the “imminent risk to the life of two female human rights defenders, Ms. Gulalai Ismail and Ms. Sanna Ejaz”. Gulalai Ismail and her family have been subjected to systematic abuse of power and manipulation of existing laws by the State of Pakistan prior to issuance of this communication by the Special Procedures to the Government of Pakistan, and this persecution persists today.

The joint urgent appeal from June 2019 stipulated that two FIRs were registered against Gulalai Ismail in two different police stations on 22 and 23 May 2019. She was charged with defamation, promoting enmity between different groups, sedition and terrorism. Gulalai Ismail subsequently went into hiding fearing for her safety, after which “eight police vehicles with uniformed police and other armed men in black uniforms raided her house, searched it and destroyed property”.

On 28 May 2019, Gulalai Ismail’s name was placed on a State “kill list” along with three other women and eleven men. Prior to this, in February 2019, Gulalai Ismail was disappeared for around 40 hours.

A few months later, on 26 July 2019, eight UN Special Procedures mandate holders again sent an urgent appeal to the Government of Pakistan on the detention of Gulalai Ismail, as well as the criminal proceedings against her, and the harassment of her family and friends. In this urgent appeal, the mandate holders clearly stated, in response to the reply Pakistan had shared following the previous letter: “Whilst we appreciate the reply by your Excellency’s Government to this communication, we raise concern as to information communicated therein which strongly appears to conflate the legitimate and crucial human rights work of Ms. Ismail with incitement to hostility against the State”.

It merits mention here that Gulalai Ismail is the co-founder and Chairperson of “Aware Girls”, which was established by her when she was only sixteen years old.  Gulalai and her organization have won awards in this regard for their advocacy and educational work.

The aforementioned statement by the Special Procedures encapsulates in just one paragraph the fatal flaw in the State of Pakistan’s strategy in dealing with dissent.  There have been countless raids against persons associated with Gulalai Ismail since 2019 alone. Moreover, after the registration of FIRs against Gulalai Ismail in May 2019, terror-financing cases were also registered against her parents in July 2019.  While the Court disposed the case, another case of aiding and abetting terror attacks was also registered against her family. If one is to examine the charges leveled, the absurdity of the entire exercise stands exposed. As per Gulalai’s own statement, she was “accused of financing and buying weapons for banned terror outfits”, while her parents were accused of aiding terrorist attacks in 2013 and 2015.

On September 30 2019, Gulalai’s parents were indicted by an Anti-Terrorism Court, and their consistent and unending harassment and persecution continues. That the space for criticism and dissent has been shrinking exponentially in the last three years is beyond dispute. What is increasingly alarming though is how dissent is being suppressed through use of religion, reminiscent of Zia ul Haq’s tenure where any opposition to Zia was construed as opposition to Islam. Thus we see a strategy of silencing dissent through use of colonial laws, anti-terrorism laws and the blasphemy law.

On 11 November 2019, four Special Procedures mandate holders wrote an allegation letter to Pakistan concerning the case of Professor Muhammad Ismail. In it, the mandate holders clearly stated that Gulalai Ismail’s parents had been placed on the Exit Control List to prevent them from leaving the country. This is clearly contrary to the concluding observations issued by the Human Rights Committee on Pakistan’s initial State Party report (which was submitted in August 2017). The Human Rights Committee recommended that the State of Pakistan must review legislation and policies pertaining to travel control lists, so as to bring these into compliance with Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to ensure that freedom of expression is not unjustifiably restricted.

Additionally, the treatment meted out to Professor Ismail in detention amounts to torture and cruel and inhumane treatment. As the allegation letter provides: “Mr. Ismail suffers from various health issues requiring regular medical attention, including hypertension, severe back pain and skin allergies. He has been denied access to a doctor and is forced to sleep on the floor”.

For those fighting for human rights in Pakistan, particularly the right to freedom of expression and equality of women, every day reminds us of the long, perhaps unending road ahead. For every step forward, the State seems to take ten steps back. And the damage caused to Pakistan’s reputation and credibility internationally as a result of this is unaccounted for at the State level. It almost appears as though there is deliberately orchestrated chaos, either to discredit and humiliate the ‘civilian’ government or to coerce it into compliance. Either way, the global impression of Pakistan as a responsible State, to be taken seriously, seems to be a distant dream.

The reality is that Pakistan voluntarily undertook a range of international legal obligations under the ICCPR, and now the state is actively violating the provisions contained therein, despite the fact that this will have a negative impact not just on Pakistan’s international image but also on our economy.

Who will account for the pain inflicted on countless families, including Gulalai Ismail’s?

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