The price of courage

It should not take courage to stand with the downtrodden. Nor should it take courage to call for the implementation of the law, the Constitution, and the protection of the rights it guarantees.
Published August 27, 2023

Twenty people in various uniforms and plain clothes broke into human rights lawyer Imaan Mazari-Hazir’s house at 3:30am on Sunday, August 20, 2023, and took her away without showing a warrant, without letting her change, and without informing her mother where she was being taken.

They also took the CCTV camera and hard drive containing the CCTV footage, beat up her guard and took his phone, and besides her own phone and computer, also took her mother’s phone.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) called the manner of Islamabad Police breaking into her house without a warrant “unacceptable”, adding that it “points to a larger, more worrying pattern of state-sanctioned violence against people exercising their right to freedom of expression and assembly”. The HRCP has said Imaan “must be released immediately and unconditionally”.

Amnesty International stated that “the circumstances of her arrest violate due process and Imaan’s right to liberty and security of person”.

The next morning, Imaan was presented in court at 10am — prior to which there was little information on her whereabouts — and it is only then that her lawyers found out the charges against her. She had been charged sections 124-A, 148, 149, 153, 153-A, and 506 of Pakistan Penal Code, which deal with sedition, rioting armed with a deadly weapon, every member of unlawful assembly guilty of offence committed in prosecution of common object, inciting to riot, promotion of enmity between groups, and punishment for criminal intimidation.

As if these weren’t enough, sections 7 and 11 of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) were also added to the FIR, which deal with punishment for acts of terrorism and power to order forfeiture.

According to the Human Rights Watch, “in arresting Imaan Mazari and others, Pakistani authorities are using vague, over broad anti-terrorism laws to stifle dissent”. The HRW also called on the government to “uphold the right to due process”.

What was Imaan’s crime?

When she was arrested, she had just returned on Saturday night from Jaranwala in Punjab where she, along with a group of activists, lawyers, and journalists, had visited the burnt churches and homes belonging to Christian families to express solidarity with the community and carry out a needs-assessment.

The day before, she had addressed a rally organised by the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) to protest the rising incidents of terrorism carried out by militant outfits in the former tribal areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, enforced disappearances, and landmines that have cost the lives of children and adults alike. She called for the accountability of those responsible for the provision of security to civilians, who are suffering at the hands of terrorists. She called for peace and an end to terrorism. She called for the law and Constitution to be upheld, and for basic rights be protected. She called for constitutional processes to take course.

After meeting with children and women from families who have suffered due to terrorism and enforced disappearances, she took to the stage to voice their suffering.

Her crime is also being one of the few lawyers who represent families of missing persons in the courts of Islamabad. Her crime is her sympathy for those suffering the worst persecution. Her criminal quality is empathy.

She should have known better than to speak out. She should follow all those who have been silenced. How dare she speak after so many chilling consequences and lessons the state has taught its strongest critics? How dare she exercise her right to freedom of speech? She should know that demanding peace and rights is a call to riot — seditious, treacherous, and intimidation of the criminal kind.

In the days since she has been detained, Amnesty International has called for her immediate and unconditional release, terming her detention “a violation of her rights to freedom of assembly, association and expression”.

The National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) said “late night arrests without warrants as reported by her mother are in violation of due process of law and serve to harass & spread fear amongst citizens”.

The legal quagmire

What has transpired since Imaan’s arrest are two sets of hearings — one in the magistrate’s court where the general PPC offences of dacoity etc. are being heard, where Imaan’s legal team managed to get bail on Tuesday, August 22. At this point, however, she was already in three-day physical remand of the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD), which was granted by the Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) on Monday, August 21.

On Thursday, the ATC judge did not entertain the state’s request to extend her physical remand, instead sending her on judicial remand to Adiala Jail. When her lawyers requested bail hearing for the next day as she is entitled to under the law, the judge did not entertain the request; instead, setting the hearing for Saturday, August 26.

On the day of the hearing, the ATC judge before whom the case was listed was on leave, and the usual duty judge was also on leave. Meanwhile, the administrative judge filling in for the duty judge too did not hear bail arguments, setting the hearing for Monday.

Imaan remains in Adiala jail over the weekend, whereas per law, and if our justice system was functioning smoothly, she could have got bail on Friday.

This is not rare. Women affiliated with the PTI — Dr Yasmin Rashid, Aliya Hamza, Khadija Shah, Sanam Javed, Tayyaba Raja, Farhat Farooq — have been in detention for more than 100 days since May, with their bail hearings repeatedly being delayed and court benches being changed.

The HRCP has said it is “deeply concerned by the lack of transparency surrounding the continued detention of women associated with the PTI”. The rights body reminded the state that “under section 167 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), women cannot be remanded into state custody except in cases of serious crimes”. It also observed with alarm that “such treatment has, historically, been meted out to political workers of parties that fell out of favour with state institutions. This cycle must end now.”

Slapping terrorism charges against Imaan, Ali Wazir, and hundreds of others who attended the PTM Jalsa is a special kind of irony because the entire objective of the protest demonstration was to oppose terrorism, enforced disappearances, and land mines, and to call for the accountability of policies that lead to loss of life of Pakistani citizens who are bound to be protected by the state.

It should not take courage to speak out against terrorism. It should not take courage to call for accountability. It should not take courage to stand with the most downtrodden. And it should not take courage to call for the implementation of the law, the Constitution, and the protection of the rights it guarantees.

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) issued a statement, terming the ATC’s granting her three-day physical remand “deeply concerning”, adding that the court’s order “not only violates our jurisprudence but also raises questions about the legitimacy of so called charges under which she has been arrested”.

The SCBA also lamented that “it is truly unfortunate that the state which is supposed to guard fundamental rights of the citizens of Pakistan is now actively violating said rights”.

The Pakistani state needs to be governed like the constitutional democracy that it is, rather than with the same kind of abuse of power that the colonial British Raj operated with. We are not subjects, but taxpaying vote-casting citizens of Pakistan who are entitled to all basic rights, including the patriotic duty of highlighting the flaws of state policy.

Let us not be the laughing stock that our state is becoming, but the strong republic with the rule of law that our founders envisaged it to be, and that courageous people have fought for over the past eight decades.