Political Rights, Freedoms Of Expression And Religion Under Threat In Pakistan: HRW

In its World Report, Human Rights Watch says 2023 saw a return of violent terrorism, persecution for religious beliefs, intimidation and harassment of refugees and a poor situation for women and girls

Political Rights, Freedoms Of Expression And Religion Under Threat In Pakistan: HRW

The year 2023 saw the political and economic crises in Pakistan deepen together with rising threats and attacks on the media, religious persecution of minorities, increased terrorism, and undignified treatment of refugees, while violence against women and girls posed a serious problem.

This was stated in a report on the state of human rights in Pakistan during 2023 issued by the global rights body Human Rights Watch (HRW) earlier in the week.

The World Report 2024 by the HRW reviewed the situation in Pakistan during 2023.

Of the political and economic crises in Pakistan during the year, the report said that the coalition government led by the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) and prime minister Shehbaz Sharif followed a similar playbook as its predecessors to clamp down on the media, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and political opponents.

Attacks on media and free press

The report said that government threats and attacks on the media created a "climate of fear" among journalists and civil society groups, with many resorting to self-censorship. The biggest example was the months-long arrest of television anchor and journalist Imran Riaz Khan, who was arrested as he attempted to take a flight out of the country.

"Imran Riaz Khan returned home on September 25; he has not been presented in court at any time since his arrest," it said.

Separately, police arrested Fayad Zafar, a reporter for the Pashto-language news service Voice of America Deewa (VOA Deewa), after a magistrate issued an order accusing Zafar of spreading "fake, offensive and hateful content to defame and incite the public" against the government and law enforcement agencies.

The report further noted that politicians who found themselves in the opposition too did not spare the media. 

"In the violence following the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, members of his political party, Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf (PTI), attacked the offices of public broadcaster Radio Pakistan and the state-owned news agency Associated Press of Pakistan in Peshawar," it said.

The report said the government used vague and overly broad laws against critics.

"The authorities used draconian counterterrorism and sedition laws to intimidate peaceful critics," it said. HRW said that in March, the Lahore High Court declared the sedition law unconstitutional, but the government filed an appeal in the Supreme Court against the decision, with the appeal still pending. 

In the interim, the government used the law to arrest in Islamabad and charge lawyer Imaan Mazari-Hazir and politician from South Waziristan Ali Wazir.

Religious freedoms under threat

The report said that in 2023, violence was perpetrated against religious minorities on charges of blasphemy with the blasphemy laws of the country in vogue.

Members of the Ahmadiyya religious minority continued to be a major target for prosecutions under blasphemy laws and specific anti-Ahmadi laws. 

The report said that on July 25, a mob vandalised an Ahmadiyya place of worship in Karachi. On August 18, a mob attacked a factory owned by an Ahmadi in Lahore, accusing him of blasphemy. Instead of prosecuting the attackers, the authorities charged eight members of the Ahmadi community with blasphemy.

The prosecution of minorities was not limited to Ahmadis alone. 

On August 16, 2023, several hundred people attacked a Christian settlement in Faisalabad district after two members of the community were accused of committing "blasphemy." 

The mob, armed with stones and sticks, vandalised several churches, dozens of houses, and a cemetery. While the police arrested 130 people alleged to have been involved in the attacks, residents told local rights activists that hours before the attack, the police warned them a mob was coming but claimed they could do nothing to stop it.

Violence against women and girls

The report said that during 2023, the government did little to stop early and forced marriages, with incidents of violent attacks against women causing widespread public outrage but little action.

It noted there was nationwide outrage after a woman was raped at gunpoint in a park in Islamabad on February 2. Two weeks later, the Islamabad police claimed that both alleged perpetrators were killed in an exchange of gunfire while attempting to arrest them.

Moreover, some 10,365 cases of violence against women were reported to the police in just the first four months of 2023, according to a local NGO.

The Federal Ombudsman Secretariat for Protection Against Harassment statistics showed that rates of sexual harassment at workplaces have increased, with women disproportionately impacted. 

Despite the prevalence of sexual harassment at work, the government has not ratified the International Labour Organisation Violence and Harassment Convention (C190), which requires comprehensive protections to end violence and harassment, including gender-based violence, at work.

Child rights

HRW found that of the 19 million out-of-school children, most were girls because there were insufficient schools, costs associated with studying, child marriage, harmful child labour, and gender discrimination.

The employment of children as domestic workers remained prevalent despite attempts to prohibit it. In July, the country was shaken by the case of Rizwana, a 14-year-old child brutally tortured for months while employed by a judge's family, spotlighting the issue of abuse and mistreatment of child domestic workers. Earlier in February, an 11-year-old child domestic worker, Qabool, was beaten to death by his employer in Karachi.

The report said child sexual abuse remains common, with children's rights organisation Sahil reporting an average of over 12 cases daily of child sexual abuse across Pakistan for the first six months of 2023.

Rise in terrorism and violent attacks

The report noted that 2023 saw a drastic increase in terror and violent attacks in the country.

Groups such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Al-Qaeda, the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) and their affiliates carried out indiscriminate attacks in which security personnel and hundreds of civilians were killed and injured during the year.

Violence also swept across the country on May 9, 2023, after former prime minister Imran Khan was arrested on corruption charges.

Many of Imran Khan's supporters attacked police officers and set fire to ambulances, police vehicles, and schools, the report said, adding that Imran's supporters also targeted the military headquarters in Rawalpindi and houses of senior military officials. 

Following the clashes, the police arrested thousands of members of Imran Khan's political party, the PTI, on charges of criminal intimidation, rioting, and assault on government officials. Many were charged under vague and overbroad laws prohibiting rioting and creating threats to public order.

Those accused of breaking and entering into restricted access military installations were tried in military courts, violating principles of due process and fair trial. 

Gender identity

The Federal Shariat Court in May ruled that provisions of the Transgender Act of 2018 on transgenders being recognised by the government as gender "X" and granting them the right to inheritance were "un-Islamic". 

"This ruling caused great apprehension in the transgender community. The appeal against the Federal Shariat Court decision remained pending in the Supreme Court by the end of the year," the report said. However, NADRA resumed registering people who identified as gender "X" in September.

In Sindh, the provincial Human Rights Commission, an independent statutory body, issued guidance to the police to stop harassing and arresting people who identify as transgender. The guidance said that offences related to poverty and homelessness should be decriminalised, an important step towards changing discriminatory laws, policies, and public attitudes in Sindh province.


In October, the government took an unprecedented step to expel all "illegal immigrants" and warned that law enforcement agencies would forcibly deport these individuals unless they left voluntarily.

The report noted that the government justified its decision to forcibly deport Afghans by claiming that Afghan nationals were involved in most of the suicide bombing attacks in Pakistan in 2023.

The report noted that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and UN independent human rights experts had also raised concerns that Afghans in Pakistan have been subjected to arrests, exploitation, and undignified treatment.

HRW noted that Pakistani authorities continued to intimidate and harass Afghans living in Pakistan. At the same time, undocumented Afghans remained vulnerable to abuse by police and district administrations and faced difficulties in accessing employment and education.

The report said that after an HRW report documenting barriers to accessing health care in Pakistani prisons, including for prisoners with disabilities, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif ordered measures to improve sanitation and access to health care in Lahore's central prison, including a dedicated hospital. He also vowed to initiate prison reforms throughout the country.