Authorities expanded their use of draconian sedition and counter terrorism laws to stifle dissent, control media, and strictly regulated civil society groups critical of government actions or policies.
In 2021, the Pakistan government intensified its efforts to control the media and curtail dissent. Authorities harassed, and at times detained, journalists and other members of civil society for criticizing government officials and policies. Violent attacks on members of the media also continued.
The authorities expanded their use of draconian sedition and counter terrorism laws to stifle dissent, and strictly regulated civil society groups critical of government actions or policies. Authorities also cracked down on members and supporters of opposition political parties.
Women, religious minorities, and transgender people continue to face violence, discrimination, and persecution, with authorities failing to provide adequate protection or hold perpetrators to account. The government continues to do little to hold law enforcement agencies accountable for torture and other serious abuses.
Freedom of expression and attacks on civil society groups
A climate of fear impedes media coverage of abuses by both government security forces and militant groups. Journalists who face threats and attacks have increasingly resorted to self-censorship. Media outlets have come under pressure from authorities not to criticize government institutions or the judiciary. In several cases in 2021, government regulatory agencies blocked cable operators and television channels that had aired critical programs.
Several journalists suffered violent attacks in 2021. On April 20, an unidentified assailant shot and wounded Absar Alam, a television journalist, outside his house in Islamabad. Alam has been a prominent critic of the government. On May 25, Asad Ali Toor, a journalist, was assaulted by three unidentified men who forcibly entered his apartment in Islamabad, bound and gagged him and severely beat him. A few days later, on May 29, the Geo news channel “suspended” its talk show host Hamid Mir after he spoke at a protest in solidarity with Toor.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported intimidation, harassment, and surveillance of various by government authorities. The government used the “Regulation of INGOs in Pakistan” policy to impede the registration and functioning of international humanitarian and human rights groups.
Freedom of religion and belief
Members of the Ahmadiyya religious community continue to be a major target for prosecutions under blasphemy laws as well as specific anti-Ahmadi laws. Militant groups and the Islamist political party Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) accuse Ahmadis of “posing as Muslims” that the Pakistan penal code also treats as a criminal offense.
According to a Pakistani human rights organization, the Centre for Social Justice, at least 1,855 people were charged under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws between 1987 and February 2021.
On May 17, dozens of people attacked a police station in Islamabad to lynch two brothers charged with blasphemy, breaking into the facility and battling with police officers before the station was brought under control. No one was prosecuted.
On June 4, the Lahore High Court acquitted a Christian couple, Shafqat Emmanuel and Shagufta Kausar, of blasphemy after spending seven years on death row. The couple was convicted in 2014 of sending “blasphemous” texts to a mosque cleric.
In August, an 8-year-old Hindu boy in Rahim Yar Khan, Punjab, became the youngest person to ever be charged with blasphemy in Pakistan after he was accused of defiling a carpet at a religious seminary. Following his release on bail, a mob attacked a Hindu temple, causing damage. All charges against the child were subsequently dropped.
Police and Security Forces Abuses
Pakistan law enforcement agencies were responsible for numerous human rights violations, including detention without charge and extrajudicial killings.
Pakistan has still not enacted a law criminalizing torture despite Pakistan’s obligation to do so under the UN Convention against Torture. In July, the Pakistan Senate unanimously approved a critically important bill outlawing police torture and otherwise seeking to prevent deaths in police custody.
Pakistan has more than 4,600 prisoners on death row, one of the world’s largest populations facing execution. Those on death row are often from the most marginalized sections of society.