ISLAMABAD: The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s (HRCP) annual report 2018 documented that the overall situation of human rights deteriorated across the country during the election year, with a startling curtailment of individual and collective freedom of expression.
The commission’s council members — during the launch ceremony of the report at a local hotel on Monday — said that marginalised segments were suffering, the media was facing immense pressure, forced conversions in both Hindus and Christians were rampant, the price of medicines had been increased, and international conventions ratified by Pakistan were not being implemented.
HRCP member Nasreen Azhar said that Pakistan was the second worst country in terms of gender equality but despite that there were some positive developments.
“Not only transgender candidates contested general elections but a Dalit Hindu woman became a Senator for the first time. However, incidents of child abuse continued,” she added.
Another member, Ghazi Salahuddin, said that the report was comprehensive but it was a fact that in 2018 which was the election year, human rights were put on the back burner. He said that the elections themselves were plagued by allegations of pre-poll manipulation and vote rigging.
HRCP regrets that marginalised segments of society are suffering, media is facing pressure and drug prices have been increased
“Some channels were closed before elections and circulation of certain newspapers was stopped in some areas. However, after the new government was elected, the [censorship] situation became worse,” he said.
“I believe that entire society suffers when freedom of expression is curbed. Now the issue of survival of media has been created due to which not only salaries of journalists are reduced but downsizing has also started. Today, the situation is worse than Gen Ziaul Haq’s time,” he regretted.
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A member of the commission, Joseph Francis, said that forced conversions were frequent in both Hindu and Christian communities.
“Fact is that it [conversions] was started in 1947 when Muslim women were forced to become Hindu in India. However, now it has started in Pakistan as Hindus are being forced to become Muslim in Sindh and Christians are being forced to change religion in Punjab. During the last month, I received six such complaints,” he said. He suggested that if a person was less than 18 years of age and changes religion, it should be considered an enforced conversion.
Member Raja Ashraf said that though as per the recommendations of the World Health Organisation at least six per cent of the budget should be spent on health, in Pakistan less than one per cent was spent on health.
HRCP director Mona Baig said that violence against women was a matter of concern. She said that a large number of cases were pending in courts and the number was continuously increasing.
During a question-answer session, former Senator Farhatullah Babar said that the armed forces were responsible for curbing the freedom of expression and the role of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) could not be ignored.
“We are facing a situation in which there is an elephant in the room. Civil society and political parties should make joint efforts to push the elephant out of the room,” he said.
Journalist and activist Marvi Sirmed said that media was facing curbs by both the establishment and religious extremists.
While replying to a question, HRCP Secretary General Harris Khalique said that the HRCP was not aware of Aasia Bibi’s whereabouts but said that the commission wanted her to be free.
The report states that 2018 began with a horrifying crime against a six-year-old child, Zainab, and the relative speed with which the culprit was apprehended was significant due to public outcry.
Public conscience was assailed by reports of enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, the abuse and murder of children, violence towards women, child labour, religious intolerance, the persecution of minorities, and crimes committed in the name of honour, it said.
The HRCP monitoring data showed at least 845 incidents of sexual violence against women, and 316 crimes in the name of honour perpetrated against both men and women. In Thar, Sindh, 638 children died of malnutrition in 2018.
The report noted that the excessive and arbitrary use of the Exit Control List (ECL) continued to feature prominently in the news. Pre-emptive detention of activists was frequently employed to restrict or disrupt rallies and protests, particularly in the months preceding the elections.
While the interventions of the Supreme Court attracted much attention, the long-awaited reform of the criminal justice system remained on the back burner and the steady accumulation and growth of the backlog of cases went unchecked in all the courts. By the end of the year, there were close to 1.9 million cases pending in over 250 lower, special and superior courts while 4,688 prisoners were on the death row. At least 500 had been executed since 2014, 14 of them in 2018, it said.
“Never was there a time more in need of the fearless, forthright Asma Jahangir, who passed away in February 2018. This tragic loss left the country bereft of a bold voice prepared to speak out for the underprivileged, the unrepresented, and the vulnerable,” the HRCP observed.
Published in Dawn, April 16th, 2019