Prominent Pashtun activist critical of Pakistan army allegedly ‘abducted’

Manzoor Pashteen is missing a day after he was arrested for addressing a protest demanding free cross-border movement with Afghanistan.

Supporters of Pashtun Tahafuz Movement protest over the arrest of their leader Manzoor Pashteen, in Quetta,
Manzoor Pashteen is the founder of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) [File: Naseer Ahmed/Reuters]

Islamabad, Pakistan – A prominent rights activist has been allegedly abducted by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies a day after he was arrested for addressing a protest to demand free cross-border movement with neighbouring Afghanistan.

Manzoor Pashteen, founder of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (Pashtun Protection Movement or PTM) rights group, was on his way to Turbat town from the border town of Chaman in Balochistan province when he was arrested by police on Monday afternoon.

The 29-year-old activist was arrested for allegedly firing on police vehicles, a charge the PTM denies.

Zubair Shah, a senior PTM member, said Pashteen was brought to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on Tuesday morning, from where he was allegedly abducted by officials belonging to Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, controlled by the military.

“After his arrest yesterday, he was taken northwards to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. This morning he was brought to a police station in Dera Ismail Khan city in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, from where he was taken away by unknown men,” Shah told Al Jazeera from Dera Ismail Khan.

“We don’t know where he is any more. Nobody is giving us any police report to show why was he arrested and now he has been picked up by men in civilian clothing, who we believe are part of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies.”

Khubab Khan, a police officer in Dera Ismail Khan, denied the PTM leader was brought to his station.

“There were some PTM members who came earlier on Tuesday morning who demanded that we produce their leader, alleging we have kept him but that is not the case. We never received anybody, nor anybody was taken away from here,” he told Al Jazeera.

PTM, founded in 2014, advocates for the rights of ethnic Pashtuns affected by Pakistan’s war against the Taliban and its local affiliate, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

The group is known for its strident criticism of Pakistan’s powerful military for its role in alleged enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings of rights activists and ethnic leaders.

Many Pashtun leaders, including Pashteen, have been arrested in the past on accusations of inciting anti-state sentiments, treason and terrorism.

Pashteen was in Chaman to attend a large demonstration demanding the reversal of a government policy which makes it mandatory for Afghan nationals to carry a Pakistani visa to enter the country. The policy came on the back of Pakistan declaring nearly 1.7 million refugees and migrants in the country “illegal” and ordering their immediate expulsion.

Noor Bacha, another PTM official, said he was with Pashteen on Monday when he was arrested by the law enforcement officials.

Recalling the events, Bacha said Pashteen was leaving the protest after his speech when the vehicles he and his associates were travelling in were surrounded by police and paramilitary officials.

“They fired straight at our vehicles. There was complete chaos. Our car was damaged and we had to get off. We got into another car in our convoy, but we were surrounded by officials, who arrested Manzoor without showing any arrest warrant,” Bacha told Al Jazeera.

The government disputes the version provided by the PTM and instead claims Pashteen and his men opened fire on the police.

“Manzoor Pashteen and his men broke the police cordon and fired at law enforcement officials when they were stopped for checking, which is why they were arrested,” Raja Athar Abbas, a top government official in Chaman, told Al Jazeera on Monday.

After Pashteen’s arrest, Balochistan’s information minister Jan Achakzai addressed a news conference on Monday in which he declared the PTM an “anti-Pakistan organisation”.

Achakzai said Pashteen had been issued multiple orders by the interior ministry, barring him from entering the province, but he violated the order.

“Despite the orders, he came to Chaman and staged a rally without permission. We have no information about any firing. He has his own guards, and it is possible they started it,” the minister told reporters.

Former Pakistani parliamentarian Mohsin Dawar condemned Pashteen’s arrest and suspected abduction, calling them a “continuation” of state policies.

“The fact of the matter is our de juris state has collapsed. Court orders are violated. Parliament does not exist. The executive has been made dysfunctional. The entire system is paralysed,” Dawar told Al Jazeera.

Afrasiab Khattak, another former member of parliament, agreed with Dawar and called Pashteen’s arrest an attack on civil liberties. Khattak said the human rights situation in Pakistan has worsened under the current interim government.

“The existing interim setup is a very thin veneer for the rule of the generals. Media is under severe constraints and political activities are only selectively allowed. Political activists who criticise the government’s policies are being arrested,” he told Al Jazeera.

Dawar said social media and non-traditional means of information will help fight this “atmosphere of suppression”.

“People will raise their voices. But political parties also need to reorganise themselves and ignore short-term interests for long-term objectives, for the sake of freedom of speech, freedom of movement, and civil liberties of people,” he said.

Additional reporting by Saadullah Akhter from Quetta, Balochistan

Source: Al Jazeera