LAHORE: The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has demanded a safe and immediate release of Baloch Student Organisation-Azad (BSO-Azad) Chairman Zahid Baloch, who was picked up in Quetta last month.

In a statement on Tuesday, the commission said: “…Zahid Baloch… was picked up…on March 18 by plainclothesmen believed to be from security agencies. Even more disturbing is his unacknowledged detention for over a month now.

“BSO-Azad has been holding a hunger-strike camp outside the Karachi Press Club for the last 10 days to press for Zahid’s release. HRCP is extremely worried about risks to Zahid’s life and wellbeing in custody and urges the authorities that his detention must be immediately acknowledged and his release ordered. HRCP also demands that he must not be mistreated or tortured in custody.”

HRCP said it is of vital importance that those who indulge in disappearing people should be tried without delay, again with due process and rights and that “it might be useful to record the testimony of several witnesses who were present when Zahid was picked up”.

The strong criticism of Zahid Baloch’s handling came a day after HRCP had expressed an alarm at “the aggravation in key human rights areas and absence of priority and resolve in dealing with the issues”. In a statement at the end of its annual meeting, the commission had noted the human rights situation had not shown any improvements.

It proposed the government extends the role of the Planning Commission to serve as a think tank for political-social issues so that clear policies and strategies are in place.

Some of the other issues it highlighted were:

  • Counter-terrorism policies must protect citizens rather than targeting them. Laws for tackling the challenges must not be arbitrary or in contravention of human rights.

  • HRCP had earlier proposed a provincial human rights commission for Balochistan, a model which other provinces could also follow. The call has not been heeded. HRCP’s request to visit Totak, where a mass grave had been discovered, has not been granted.

  • Those elected in the local body elections in Balochistan last December had not yet taken oath and the benefits of the system had not reached the people. Other provinces had not yet held these crucial elections.

  • HRCP expressed an alarm at efforts to curb freedom of the media through intimidation and threats of legal action. At the same time, it was deeply concerned at the ongoing war of words between large media groups, “a setback to freedom of the media and its ability to criticise the military establishment”.

  • The media was seen to be failing in its duty to encourage rational debate and to promote tolerance. The commission called for making Pakistan Television (PTV) an autonomous institution.

  • HRCP condemned arbitrary detentions in Malakand under the Actions in Aid of Civil Power Ordinance. It said reports of enforced disappearance and custodial deaths had also been received from Malakand, “pointing to the abuse of state power”.

  • The commission condemned attacks on places of worship. Amid reports of forced conversions and thousands leaving the country religious minorities also continued to be persecuted through the blasphemy laws. “It is time for the government and the parliament to show courage and begin a debate on reforming those laws,” HRCP said.

  • “The Tharparker drought and its high death toll is one indication of poor governance in Sindh,” the commission said. Among other matters of concern about Sindh it listed rise in kidnappings for ransom and the extrajudicial killings of Sindhi nationalists. The practice of enforced disappearance and dumping of dead bodies had spread to Sindh as well as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. “The impunity for the perpetrators that HRCP believes is behind this expansion must be ended and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance ratified.”

  • The terms of talks with the militants had not been shared with the people, increasing fears that concession for them could come at the cost of the citizens’ rights, particularly women and religious and sectarian minorities.

  • The commission said the impact of the high cost of living on people’s ability to access basic rights, including health, education and food, was not getting due attention. “The economy should be revived to generate income for the poor to enable them to meet basic needs with dignity.”

  • HRCP “strongly reiterated” that the need to mainstream Fata remained as urgent as ever and neglect in this regard could have serious consequences for the entire country.

  • The risks for human rights defenders continued in an ever growing list of areas. “Their protection and facilitation of their work must be prioritised.”

  • Attacks on polio vaccinators and a rise in incidence of cases are matters of concern and demand multi-pronged action which must include awareness drives and reclaiming writ of the state in regions where lawlessness prevents vaccination.”

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