Archive for June, 2016

The Abuse of Anti-Terror Laws in Pakistan

June 27, 2016

Mubbashir Rizvi


On the night of April 15, 2016, the Pakistani state opened up a new front in its counter-terror strategy by attacking a peasant organization, Punjab Tenants Association (hereafter AMP), for convening their annual “International Day of Peasants’ and Farmers’ Struggles”. Mazhar, a resident of village 15/4L recalls the night when the military and police personnel descended on his village going door to door beating and arresting leaders and people who they thought were active members of AMP. According to Human Rights Watch (5/4/16) the military rounded up 60 men and 2 women and registered 4000 cases against the villagers under the National Action Plan (NAP), the newest anti-terror policy which has reinstated the death penalty and transferred juridical powers over terrorism cases to the military courts. The goal of this comprehensive program is to consolidate emergency powers under military coordination to shut down terrorist militants.However, there is one big problem. The peasants in Okara are not terrorists, they are tenant sharecroppers who are trying to retain rights to the land they’ve been tilling for the past hundred years. The HRW report offers harrowing testimony of beatings, and abduction of ordinary tenant farmers.

The dispute between the military and the tenants started in 2000 when the Pakistan military decided to replace sharecropping with cash contracts. These tenants feared that they will be evicted from this highly valuable irrigated land. The tenants rejected the cash contracts which they feared was designed to evict them in lean times. The tenants questioned the military’s intentions when they discovered that the land belonged to the Punjab government and not the military. The military responded with force, it employed emergency powers, counter-terror laws to clamp down on the tenant farmers. The AMP was subjected to a violent military campaign of arbitrary arrest and torture that reached its peak in 2004 (HRW 2004). The military tried to use older anti-terror charges against the farmers but a rash of bad press about the Pakistani military and police forced their withdrawal from the villages and the AMP gained some provisional success– until now.

The AMP mobilization is a critical event in Pakistani history, where a diverse group of peasants farmers cutting across lineage, caste, religion and gender risked their lives to challenge the Pakistan military’s plans to commoditize land relation on the land they’ve been tilling for the past hundred years. The tenants showed great resilience as they lived through months of siege, loss of crops and real uncertainty about their physical well being – but persisted under the banner of “whoever sows the seed should reap the harvest.” Women took a leading role in confronting the soldiers and challenging the state narrative about AMP as criminal or terrorist organization. The AMP opened up the political space for other political protests and critiques about the Military’s economic and political interests. The Pakistani state was forced withdraw from these farms in 2004 as the land dispute simmered into a detente.

However, the AMP mobilization stands in a very precarious place at the present moment. The deterioration of the security condition and the fallout from wars in Afghanistan has created the space for grassroots protest is closing down fast with the state’s expansive use of anti-terror policies to crack down on speech and political expression in order to privatize the tenant’s farmland. The military operation in military farms, after several years of relative peace, is an ominous sign that the state has invoked the National Action Plan to suspend constitutional protections in order to fight terrorism. The controversial National Action Plan was forged through a rare consensus between elected civilian leadership and the Pakistan military to give the military extra-judicial powers to counter-terrorism and bring an end to militancy. The NAP was passed in the traumatic aftermath of attack on Army Public School where Taliban militants indiscriminately assassinated students and staff. However, as the events at the Okara Military Farms show, there is a major disjuncture between the rhetoric of counter-terrorism and the state’s actual use of these emergency powers.

The Pakistani state is playing a dirty game by using NAP and Anti-Terror legislation to clamp down to arrest peasant leaders, labor union leaders and activists like Baba Jan who was arrested for demanding fair compensation for flood affected families in Northern Pakistan. The state has been zealously applying NAP to arrest dissident activists but remains silent on religious clerics like Abdul Aziz and leaders of sectarian groups like ASWJ that openly promote violence against religious minorities and progressive social activists. Indeed, as Human Right Watch, Human Rights Council of Pakistan and prominent lawyers like Asma Jahangir point out that the counterterrorism are more commonly applied against peasant farmers, labor union leaders, and journalists than they are against known militant groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and their leaders, who operate openly throughout Pakistan.

Pakistanis got another reminder about the impunity by which sectarian militant groups operate the very next day after the government ordered a major crackdown on peasant farmers. Khurram Zaki, one of the most vocal critics of pro-Taliban cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz was shot and killed on the street in an outdoor restaurant in Karachi. Zaki gained national prominence last December when he led a group of civil society activists to protest the sectarian firebrand Aziz in front of his compound in Islamabad, when the cleric publicly justified the murder of 143 students and teachers at the Army Public School. Zaki was arrested for organizing this protest, while Aziz remains free and unscathed in his compound. Zaki was shot dead by Taliban assailants, who later issued a statement that Zaki’s murder was carried out in revenge for his criticism.

The Pakistani military is selectively using extra-judicial powers to carry out its agenda of land privatizations in Okara military farms, to impose massive development projects in Baluchistan despite local concerns about displacement. However, the state has not taken a hard line against known militants or taken any measures to offer basic protections to its most vulnerable citizens and activists who continue to give their lives for an open democratic society. The Pakistani state’s use of anti-terror laws to suppress free speech, right of assembly and protest is part of a disturbing pattern in the region that is which justifies unwarranted surveillance at home and abroad. These policies spawn greater distrust from state institutions, sowing divisions and create the conditions of possibility for greater militancy fueled by exclusion and dispossessions.