State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 – Pakistan
Pakistan remained a volatile place for religious and ethnic minorities during 2011. This was highlighted by the murders of two prominent politicians who spoke out against the country’s controversial anti-blasphemy laws. Critics say the legislation, which levies penalties including life in prison and death, have unfairly targeted religious minorities such as Christians and Ahmadis, but also mainstream Muslims themselves.
The January assassination of Punjab governor Salman Taseer marked a troubling start to the year. The governor had earlier publicly supported a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who was sentenced to death for blasphemy. Then in March, Shabhaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s Minister for Minority Affairs and the only Christian member of the cabinet, was gunned down while on his way to work. The UN Independent Expert on Minority Issues, Gay McDougall, called Bhatti’s death ‘an attack on the rights of all religious minorities and on human rights in Pakistan’.
The consequences of Taseer’s death continued to reverberate through the year. In the aftermath of the January killing, the ruling Pakistan People’s Party backed away from proposed reforms to the legislation. This drew criticism from one prominent member of the party, who warned that the ‘appeasement of extremists will have a blow-back effect’.
In October, Taseer’s former bodyguard was sentenced to death for his murder; sympathizers demonstrated in support of the accused before court appearances.
In April, human rights monitors say more than two dozen residents of a Christian community in Gurjanwala, in north-east Punjab province, were hurt after they were attacked by a mob, comprising more than 2,000 Muslims. A local NGO, Human Rights Focus Pakistan (HRFP) says the mob attacked homes, schools and churches in the community. The assailants had accused a member of the Christian community of burning a Qur’an.
The next month, HRFP reported that two Christian women were forcibly converted to Islam. Local police subsequently refused to investigate the matter – a common occurrence that is rendering women from minority religious communities, including Hindus and Christians, particularly vulnerable.
Minorities within the Muslim faith also faced persecution throughout the year. In one example, assailants shot and killed a 55-year-old Ahmadi man in Punjab province in what was a suspected hate crime. In May, Ahmadis in Lahore marked the one-year anniversary of one of the deadliest attacks on the community in Pakistan. In 2010, 88 Ahmadis were killed when assailants attacked Ahmadi places of worship. Relatives of the dead bemoaned the sluggish pace of the resulting police investigation. HRW also recorded 18 separate attacks on Shi’a Muslims during the year.
The wider regional conflict continued to affect the Pushtun community in Pakistan. Large-scale bomb attacks occurred near Peshawar, the provincial capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. For example, a pair of suicide bombers attacked a paramilitary training centre in May, killing more than 80 people. Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, often referred to as the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility. Though it was initially described as a ‘revenge attack’ for the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, killed in Pakistan by US forces two weeks earlier, local police told media the attack was more likely the latest in a long-standing battle between the Pakistani army and Taliban forces. In August, a suicide bomber killed 48 people at a mosque in Jamrud.
Also in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, The Guardian newspaper reported on the increasing militarization of the Kalash valley – a development that could pose a threat to the Kalash people. The Pakistani military has been deployed to the Kalash valley for the first time, it was reported, though locals feared they would be caught in the crossfire between the army and the Taliban.
Either way, the continued strength of the Pakistani Taliban remains a serious concern for religious minorities – particularly women. In December, religious extremists destroyed two important Sufi shrines in the Khyber Agency, a region where Pakistani Taliban forces have been active in the past. They have been blamed for at least 25 similar attacks on religious sites in recent years.
In a 2011 report, the NGO Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), predicted that the situation can only worsen for the country’s minorities, citing a ‘direct link between the rise of the Taliban and the suppression and oppression of the minorities and all of those whose beliefs differed with those of the extremists’. Women in tribal areas of north-west Pakistan are particularly threatened by the Taliban. The Taliban continue to oppose education for girls, setting back education targets for minority women in areas where the Taliban hold sway. Maryum Bibi, an official with Peshawar-based NGO Khwendo Kor, told media that women remain fearful: ‘Despite the official stance that the Taliban have been defeated, they remain present in remote areas.’
Throughout the year, Pakistan’s development of natural resources fuelled conflict in resource-rich areas where minority communities live, such as Sindh and Balochistan provinces. In April, several campaigners with a Sindh group that advocates for greater local autonomy over natural resource exploitation were abducted. The AHRC pointed a finger at law enforcement and state intelligence agencies, charging that the abductions are part of a long line of ‘enforced disappearances’ at the hands of state actors.
Balochistan remained a severe and under-reported example of how the development of natural resources without the full consultation of local communities can drive conflict. The south-western province, one of the country’s most ethnically diverse, boasts a wealth of resources, including potentially lucrative mineral deposits and rich natural gas reserves. Yet control over such resources has stoked tensions and given rise to a nationalist Baloch movement that has clashed with government forces. Added to a mix that includes foreign interest in resource extraction and the province’s prime location on the borders with Iran and Afghanistan, the resulting conflict has had violent and deadly consequences for civilians.
State actors play a central role in the violence, targeting ethnic Baloch suspected of engaging in nationalist activities. HRW recorded the killing of at least 200 Baloch nationalist activists and dozens of disappearances in 2011. In its 2012 World Report, the organization concluded that conditions had ‘markedly deteriorated’ during the course of 2011. Prominent cases included that of Abdul Ghaffar Lando, a Baloch nationalist activist who had been abducted in 2009 and whose body was found in 2011. When the family had gone to the police to register the abduction, the police stated that Lando was being held in detention. In a July report, HRW recorded the cases of 45 recent alleged disappearances; three of the victims were children, the youngest of whom was 12 years old when he was abducted. Human rights activists and academics were also targeted. The local coordinator for the HRCP, Siddique Eido, was killed in 2011. The situation led The Guardiannewspaper to label the secretive conflict as Pakistan’s ‘dirty little war’.
Nationalist militants have targeted non-Baloch minority groups perceived to be against the movement. Sunni and Shi’a militants have also been active. In May, an extremist Wahhabi organization claimed responsibility for the murders of 13 Hazara Shi’a Muslims.
As Pakistan battled with severe flooding in Sindh province through September, rights groups reported to MRG that Dalits were being discriminated against because of their caste. Advocates said Dalit families had been turned away from government relief camps and been given unequal access to relief supplies.