The Islamabad High Court (IHC) on Friday stopped police from arresting more than 200 people, including lawyer Imaan Zainab Hazir-Mazari, in connection with a case regarding an ongoing protest against a Baloch student's disappearance outside the National Press Club in the capital.
The court also directed the interior secretary, Ministry of Human Rights secretary, chief commissioner Islamabad and the inspector general of police to appear in the next hearing on March 7, directing police officials not to arrest anyone until that date.
The officials were also directed to abstain from "harassing" citizens, and to justify at the next hearing "the excessive force used against peaceful young citizens followed by registration of a criminal case."
The court issued the directions while hearing a petition filed by Hazir-Mazari for de-sealing of a first information report (FIR) registered by the Islamabad police against more than 200 people, including her.
In her petition, Mazari, who is the daughter of Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari, also requested the court to declare the police's actions "denying right of speech and assembly" to protesters as illegal and unconstitutional.
Last month, a number of university students had come to the press club to protest the disappearance of one of their fellow, Hafeez Baloch, who had disappeared from Khuzdar. Hazir-Mazari, MNA Mohsin Dawar and other rights activists had also joined the sit-in later.
According to a previous Dawn story, the FIR said protesters allegedly pelted police with stones on March 1 in front of the National Press Club and outside the camp that had been set up by Baloch Student Council led by Dad Shah, Qamar Baloch and Hazir-Mazari along with some 200 students.
The case, which was registered at Kohsar police station on the complaint of its own station house officer (SHO) on various charges, included "criminal conspiracy, rioting, unlawful assembly, disobedience, defamation, intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of peace and assault".
Police, however, sealed the FIR.
The FIR said the protesters installed a tent despite warning by the police, forcing it to confiscate the tent, resulting in a physical clash. Later, the students reached China Chowk by pushing the police and staged a sit-in there and their strength increased gradually.
The police resorted to baton-charge to disperse the students which led to a physical confrontation between them and the police, it said, adding that later the SSP operations and the Islamabad deputy commissioner also reached there and held negotiations with the students to maintain law and order.
Six students and two officials of the Anti-Riot Unit of the police were injured in the confrontation.
After the negotiations, the protesters' belongings, including the tent, were returned after which they moved to the press club.
Subsequently, Hazir-Mazari had filed a petition for the de-sealing of the FIR.
The written order issued on the petition issued today stated that the FIR was submitted to the court and a plain reading of it showed that "prima facie, the public functionaries have abused powers vested in them merely to disperse a peaceful assembly of young citizens, mostly students belonging to the province of Balochistan".
The court observed that raising slogans, "no matter how harsh", could not be treated as an act of criminal conspiracy or offence.
It added that the offences mentioned in the FIR also showed that "prima facie, an attempt has been made to create a chilling effect to discourage dissent and expressing grievances stemming from the acts or inaction of the state".
"Such abuse of power is intolerable in a society governed under the Constitution," the court order read.
The court said in the order that it was "seditious to suppress voices of dissent" or to discourage raising grievances against the state, its institutions or public functionaries.
Moreover, the order said, students, particularly those from Balochistan, should be encouraged by the state and public functionaries to "express themselves". The court also highlighted the need for creating and "enabling environment" so that students may participate in political debates "uninhibited and without any fear".
"Suppression of or interference with peaceful assembly through the use of force and abuse of power is the gravest transgression and breach of the fiduciary duty, which the public functionaries owe to each citizen," the court order read.
In line with these observations, IHC Chief Justice Athar Minallah also questioned the SSP operations at today's hearing about what was happening within the jurisdiction of the high court, remarking that the grievances of the Baloch students should be heard.
"The court will not tolerate the silencing of anyone's voice, especially that of Baloch students," he warned, and the court order stated that "acts of violence and amounting to sedition on part of state functionaries are unpardonable and intolerable."
In her petition, a copy of which is available with Dawn.com, Hazir-Mazari stated that she had exercised her right to participate in the sit-in while fully observing reasonability and her conduct could not be termed as transgression of lawful limitations.
However, the police "without any lawful reason or justification started baton-charge on the peaceful assembly of students", she stated, arguing that this amounted to a violation of the fundamental rights of demonstration and assembly which were protected by the Constitution.
The police had later registered an FIR against them, she added. The lawyer said that when she asked the SHO Kohsar to provide a copy of the FIR, he informed her that he had been instructed by the government and inspector general of police to not provide a copy and that the FIR had been sealed.
By not providing the copy, the police "attempted to snatch away the fundamental right to adopt appropriate and legal remedy for defence", Hazir-Mazari said.
"Under the garb of so-called sealed FIR, [SHO Kohsar] has been given unbridled powers to arrest any one of those who have been implicated as accused in violation of the due process of law. Moreover, the order of sealing the FIR is an alien concept in the law, and hence, has no legal justification," the petition stated.
According to the petition, Hazir-Mazari "apprehends her arrest and humiliation in the hands of the respondents under the garb of sealed FIR".
She requested the court to declare that the police's actions "denying right of speech and assembly" to the participants of the sit-in were illegal and unconstitutional and the sealing and non-provision of the FIR's copy was a gross violation of the Constitution and the law.
She also asked the court to order the police to provide a copy of the FIR and suspend its operation on the basis of the FIR until the case had been decided as well as to not harass, humiliate or act in any way that was detrimental to her life and property.
Last month, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) had expressed alarm over the alleged enforced disappearance of Hafeez Baloch, a postgraduate student at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.
In a statement, the commission said Baloch allegedly disappeared while in Khuzdar, where he volunteers at a local school. Reports suggest that he was abducted in front of his students. "The sheer brazenness of this act underscores the increasing impunity accorded to perpetrators. Baloch must be recovered immediately and the perpetrators identified and held accountable," it had said.
At the beginning of February, a number of university students had come to the press club to protest Baloch's disappearance and have been holding a sit-in since then.