Pakistan NGOs go to court to fight government crackdown

A legal showdown is looming in Pakistan as NGOs petition the courts to squelch interior ministry orders to cease operations for allegedly “pursing an anti-state agenda”.
 
About a dozen NGOs in Punjab Province received letters last week from local and provincial authorities ordering them to stop work. It was the latest move in a crackdown on domestic and international NGOs over the past couple years, which has included shutting down their offices and imposing tight restrictions on their activities.
 
Three NGOs have already filed petitions with the Lahore High Court, and another is preparing to challenge the ban. The court has ordered officials from the Ministry of Interior and the Punjab Home Department to attend a hearing this Friday.  
 
The NGO South Asia Partnership-Pakistan shared with IRIN letters from three different government bodies in Punjab. A letter from the Layyah District coordination office said local officials had “been informed by the Ministry of Interior” that SAP-PK was “pursing an anti-state agenda”, which included accusing the armed forces of “harassment”. Directors of two other NGOs, the Cholistan Development Council Bahawalpur and Women in Struggle for Empowerment, told IRIN they received letters that used similar language.
 
“Towards this purpose the NGO prepared a shadow report [for] sharing with [the] UN Rights Commission presenting a very bleak picture of [the] human rights situation in Pakistan,” said the letter.
 
Mohammad Tehseen, SAP-PK’s director, said the ministry’s information was wrong and that he told the court his group had not prepared a report for any UN human rights body.
 
The Lahore High Court has agreed to hear cases presented by SAP-PK and the two other groups, requesting that it overrule the ban. On Monday, the court gave temporary permission to SAP-PK and the Cholistan Development Council Bahawalpur to continue working, and it told Women in Struggle for Empowerment on Tuesday that it could continue working for the time-being.
 
"The interior ministry is looking into the whole issue regarding closure orders to several NGOs in Punjab and will release a detailed response on it in [the] next couple of days," ministry spokesman Sarfraz Hussain told IRIN.
 
Another NGO, Anjuman Falah-e-Niswan, which provides skills training to marginalised women, is also preparing to legally challenge the closure order, said its director, Nasreen Awan. She said the government forced her group to stop operating in 2015 but then allowed it to continue after officials scrutinised funding records.
 
“The government shouldn’t ban any organisation; rather monitor the working and source of funding,” she said. “If the government finds any anomaly in utilisation of the funds, it should initiate legal action against the organisation instead of ordering it to close operations.”
 
Another 121 local NGOs had their registration cancelled last week by the Islamabad Capital Territory Administration, bringing the total number to 350 over the past couple of years, according to Mohammad Ali, the administration’s director of labour. 
 
He told IRIN that the registrations were cancelled because NGOs were “getting funds from foreign donors but not letting the administration know about [the] exact source and use of these funds”.
 
International NGOs have not been immune to the government’s crackdown. In 2015, the Norwegian Refugee Council was expelled from Pakistan, and police came to the offices of Save the Children and forced the group to temporarily shut down.
 
At the time, government sources told IRIN that Save the Children had attempted to conceal its links with Shakil Afridi, the doctor who allegedly ran a fake vaccination campaign to gather information that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden by US Navy Seals during a covert operation in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad in 2011. 
 
Save the Children told IRIN that the allegations were ridiculous, and said the only link between it and Afridi was that he was one of about 5,000 health workers who had taken part in training sessions in government facilities.
 
 
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(TOP PHOTO: Civil society activists demonstrate in Islamabad last week for equal education for boys and girls. CREDIT: Aamir Saeed/IRIN)