PAKISTAN: Freedom of expression under attack in frontier

Islamabad, 27 January 2003 (IRIN) - Human rights groups have expressed concern over diminishing freedom of expression following the beating of a singer by police over the weekend in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan.

The assault follows the murder of a local political writer last week in the same region, which is ruled by the fundamentalist Islamist coalition of Muttahida Majlis-e Amal or United Council of Action (UCA).

"This is the failure of the government to fulfil its responsibility, which is to protect and promote the freedom of its citizens," Afrasiab Khattak, chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), told IRIN from the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta on Monday.

Following an overwhelming provincial victory in last year's elections, the UCA formed its government in NWFP, and one of its first steps was to remove the massive advertising billboards from local cinemas. Some showed images of women the UCA deemed obscene and un-Islamic.

Now the provincial government has taken another step in the same direction. Recently the police launched an operation on what is known as the musicians' street in the provincial capital, Peshawar. On the night of 24 January, they raided a wedding party in a local hotel, beating up singer Gulzar Alam and smashing his harmonium.

"We were not doing anything illegal, I was singing," Alam told IRIN from Peshawar. He added that he was beaten, then taken to the police station, and even tested for drinking alcohol, which is strictly prohibited in the conservative Islamic country. "Singing is my only source of living. What will I do if they ban music?" Alam asked.

In another incident, political writer Fazale Wahab Wahab was shot dead by unidentified individuals inside a shop in Mingora town, some 150 km north of Peshawar, on 21 January. The shopkeeper and his assistant were killed in the crossfire. Local observers believe that Wahab was killed because he had written several controversial books criticising the politics of the local religious leadership.

According to Khattak, his writings were not blasphemous, but an analysis of the clergy's role in politics. Over the past decade Mingora and the surrounding Malakand region have experienced sporadic violence due to the rise of the Tehrike-e Nifaz-e Shariat-e Muhammadi (TNSM), which called for the imposition of Islamic Shari'ah law there.

In the mid-1990s many people died in a violent protests orchestrated by the TNSM. In 2001 The group organised thousands of volunteers to fight alongside the Taliban after US-led military action began in neighbouring Afghanistan, with many of them still languishing in Afghan prisons. Pakistani President Gen Pervez Musharraf banned the group in January last year.

Khattak called on the provincial and federal governments to immediately halt campaigns that affected people's freedoms and rights. "It is the duty of the state to protect people and their rights," he said. Critics of the NWFP government say officials are trying, in the absence of any meaningful policies, to garner popularity by appealing to deeply held religious convictions.

Commenting on the incidents, the NWFP police chief, Inspector-General Muhammad Saeed Khan, told IRIN that there was no campaign against music or other forms of expression. "No beating has taken place. We received reports that the singer was drunk. So we arrested him and took him to hospital and later on released him," he said. "The press is making a mountain out of a molehill."

Khan maintained that the police were investigating Wahab's murder by focusing on the three unidentified assailants. "We are trying to locate them and arrest them," he said. Asked to comment on the failure of police protection for Wahab, Khan said: "We cannot provide protection in such cases."

Meanwhile, in a public statement, the global human rights watchdog, Amnesty International (AI) said it was deeply concerned about Wahab's assassination. "The murder of Wahab follows a series of measures by the local authorities in the NWFP to curtail the right of freedom of expression," an AI statement said, adding that the government should bring the suspected perpetrators to justice.

Theme (s): Human Rights,


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