Islamabad, Pakistan – Having risen to prominence as one of the most strident critics of Pakistan’s powerful military, the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) has subsequently faced a sustained campaign of intimidation, censorship and arrests.
The movement, which advocated for the rights of ethnic Pashtuns affected by Pakistan’s war against the Taliban in its northwest, was formed in 2016 by a group of eight university students in the northwestern city of Dera Ismail Khan. All eight hailed from the neighbouring district of South Waziristan.
Led by veterinary sciences student Manzoor Pashteen, they formed the Mehsud Tahaffuz Movement (MTM), a pressure group seeking to highlight the struggles of the more half a million people who fled their native South Waziristan due to the fighting.
The district, one of the poorest and least developed in Pakistan, was at the time part of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), a region governed under colonial-era regulations that gave citizens no fundamental rights while giving the military and civil administration wide-ranging powers with little oversight.
In this legal grey area, where militias thrived and many members of the Afghan Taliban fighting against US and NATO forces in neighbouring Afghanistan took shelter, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), was born under the leadership of Baitullah Mehsud in 2007.
Mehsud brought a range of armed militias fighting to displace the government and impose a strict interpretation of Islamic law on Pakistan under a single umbrella organisation, the TTP.
From 2007, Pakistan’s military undertook a series of military operations to defeat or displace the TTP, most notably Operation Zarb-e-Azb in 2014, which finally displaced most of the group’s remaining fighters into neighbouring districts in eastern Afghanistan.
The war, however, was not without a cost, as young activists like Pashteen and his comrades in the MTM were quick to point out.
They campaigned against widespread enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings conducted as part of the military’s fight in South Waziristan, as well as for the removal of landmines and other unexploded ordnance once the fighting ended.
In 2018, they shot to national prominence when they spearheaded protests against the killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud, a young garment trader and aspiring model shot dead by police in Karachi. At the time, the police had claimed Mehsud was a fighter with armed groups.
From the widespread rallies across the country calling for justice for Naqeebullah, the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) was born.
Ethnic Pashtuns from other areas affected by conflict flocked to Pashteen and his partners, sharing similar experiences to those they had been documenting for years in South Waziristan.
The PTM now represented a generation of Pashtuns who were born in a northwest Pakistan that knew only conflict.
In mid-2018, two PTM leaders – Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir – were elected to parliament from North and South Waziristan respectively.
With increased prominence came increased pressure from the authorities. In Pakistan, which has been ruled for roughly half of its 73-year history by its army, it is rare to hear direct or public criticism of the military.
Pashteen, however, was regularly leading rallies of thousands, directly holding the military responsible for alleged rights abuses, backed up by data and testimony from citizens. A common rallying cry at PTM rallies became “Yeh jo dehshat gardi he, isske peeche wardi he!”. “This terrorism, the military is responsible for it!”
Coverage of PTM events and rallies was censored across almost all domestic news outlets, and cases alleging leaders were involved in “sedition” would regularly be filed following PTM events.
In April 2019, the military took on the PTM directly, warning the group that its “time is up” as it alleged the rights organisation was being funded by foreign intelligence agencies. PTM leaders asked the military to file cases or share evidence of such collusion, which the military did not do.
A month later, a PTM rally in North Waziristan was stopped at a military checkpoint. The ensuing clash saw at least three protesters killed as soldiers opened fire on the demonstration.
Members of Parliament Dawar and Wazir were arrested and kept in custody for more than three months on terrorism charges in connection with the case.
Later, in September, prominent PTM leader Gulalai Ismail emerged in the United States after months in hiding and several unsuccessful security forces raids on her residence in the capital Islamabad.
Ismail said she was seeking asylum due to the threats against her life by the military. The military denies involvement.
On Monday, police launched a midnight raid in the northwestern city of Peshawar to arrest Pashteen himself – the first time he has been taken into custody since the PTM rose to prominence. Polic documents showed that he was accused of sedition and criminal conspiracy.
“Pakistani authorities should stop arresting activists like Manzoor Pashteen who are critical of government actions or policies,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of US-based rights group Human Rights Watch.
“Using criminal laws to chill free expression and political opposition has no place in a democracy,” he said in a statement.