Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistan‘s military has accused a prominent ethnic Pashtun rights movement of being funded by foreign intelligence services, warning its leaders that “their time is up”, according to the military’s spokesperson.
Major General Asif Ghafoor, speaking at a press conference at the military’s headquarters in the northern city of Rawalpindi on Monday, levelled allegations that the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) had been funded by India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and the Afghan intelligence agency, National Directorate for Security (NDS).
“The way they are playing into the hands of others, their time is up,” he said, in the military’s most forceful statement yet against a group that has faced arbitrary detentions, treason charges against its leaders and a blanket ban on media coverage of its events.
“No one will be hurt and nothing illegal will be done. Everything will be done according to the law. Whatever liberties you could take, you have taken.”
PTM leaders denied the charges, saying they were ready to present the group’s accounts before parliament or other accountability bodies to be examined.
“These accusations are being levelled against us only because we are demanding accountability,” said Mohsin Dawar, a PTM leader and member of parliament, on the floor of Pakistan’s National Assembly hours after Ghafoor’s press conference.
“We want accountability for targeted killings, for extrajudicial killings, for missing persons, people who have been held without charge or crime by the government. Whenever anyone speaks of these issues, they are accused of being foreign funded.”
Alleged rights abuses
The PTM shot to prominence in January last year, when a long march launched to protest the extrajudicial killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud, a young Pashtun cloth seller in Karachi, attracted thousands of supporters.
The group, whose leadership is composed of rights activists from the war-torn tribal districts where Pakistan waged the bulk of its war against the Pakistan Taliban (TTP) armed group and its allies, has long agitated for accountability for alleged rights abuses committed during that fight.
Since 2007, Pakistan has launched a series of military operations, mainly in the tribal districts, targeting the TTP and its allies, who sought to impose a strict interpretation of Islamic law on the country.
An operation launched in 2014 has been successful in displacing the TTP from its previous strongholds into neighbouring Afghanistan. But while violence has fallen, sporadic attacks continue to target security forces and civilians. Pakistan says it has lost at least 6,000 soldiers in those military operations.
The PTM has three main demands: the clearance of land mines and other unexploded ordnance from the tribal districts; an end to extrajudicial killings in Pakistan’s war against armed groups; and accountability for thousands of people who have been subjected to enforced disappearances by the state.
On Monday, military spokesperson Ghafoor said the state had been working to resolve each of these issues.
He said that 48 teams of military engineers had cleared at least 45 percent of the tribal districts of landmines and other ordnance. At least 101 casualties had occurred during the effort, he said.
On enforced disappearances, he said that a government commission of inquiry was working on resolving the cases, according to the law.
At least 2,181 cases remain pending before the government’s commission of inquiry, according to the commission’s data.
Many of the 3,659 cases the commission has disposed of have been traced to missing people being held in government custody in a network of internment centres where they may be held without charges indefinitely under a draconian security law.
Ghafoor levelled allegations of both RAW and NDS funding of specific PTM events and protests held since January last year.
“The only thing is that we are aware of the issues of the people from your areas, otherwise dealing with you wouldn’t be difficult,” he warned.
Earlier this month, PTM held a rally that attracted thousands of supporters to protest against renewed violence in the North Waziristan tribal district, once the headquarters of the TTP.
“No amount of provocation will deter us from our peaceful protest,” tweeted PTM leader Dawar on Monday. “Our recent Miranshah [rally] was an example of its success. Not only did it strengthen our resolve it has also delivered a message.
“Would just like to remind that our time is not up, it has just started.”
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim