LAHORE: Three foreigner tourists cycling in the Sadiqabad area on their way to Lahore have raised serious allegations of assault and sexual harassment against the Punjab police whose jurisdictions they entered on Jan 25.

A video of an attack on them by a policeman surfaced on Saturday while it transpired on Sunday that it was one of many alleged assaults that the cycling tourists, namely Alex Sidney of Italy, Charlie West of the UK and Motahhareh Abbasi of Iran, had been facing since they entered Punjab. They have always been having a Punjab police escort supposed to ensure their security but its police who allegedly attacked them.

Alex is one of three tourists cycling in Pakistan. He started his travel on bicycle from Italy in 2022 and cycled through Europe during the last two years. He was joined by Mohtahhare in Tehran when he was travelling towards Pakistan. They entered Pakistan from the Balochistan-Iran border and cycled through Balochistan and Sindh.

In Karachi, they were joined by Charlie West who landed in Karachi from the UK.

“On Saturday, when we left our hotel in Sadiqbad in the morning, we were escorted by police. We were having breakfast at a roadside hotel, when another police van, different from our escort, reached there. We had never seen these three policemen before,” says Alex while talking to Dawn from Sadiqabad by phone.

Female tourist says she was injured in assault, faces harassment from policemen

He said a policeman, earlier identified as ASI Liaqat, started shouting at his Iranian friend, Motahhareh, to get up. “When we asked him why, he did not give a reply and instead tried to snatch the camera. He grabbed me from my hair and threw me down on the floor. He tried to hit me with a large stick but went back towards his vehicle having my camera,” alleged the Italian tourist. He went on to say that when the policeman asked his driver to drive away, they all tried to stop him as he was taking Alex’s camera along that had all the evidence.

“When Motahhareh stood in front of the vehicle to block its way, the policeman instructed his driver to run her over under the vehicle,” alleged Alex who added that he jumped onto the police vehicle as he did not want to let his camera go. But the vehicle sped away with Alex in it. He kept shouting, asking the policemen to stop their vehicle. After a kilometre, they stopped the vehicle and Alex jumped off it. Meanwhile, the tourists’ own escort kept their distance and did not intervene, according to the Italian tourist.

Thirty minutes later, more policemen arrived there and the same vehicle came back when the alleged policeman handed over Alex’s camera to an officer. Alex said when Motahhareh went to the policeman recording him, he pointed his gun towards her.

Regarding the version of police that the tourists were stopped from going to Kashmore, Sindh, an unsafe area, when the confrontation happened, Alex said they were not going towards Kashmore but Lahore. He said they had cycled in Sindh, mostly escorted by police, but did not face any such incident there. In Punjab, he claimed, they had taken the same route as was told by police.

According to him, it was not the first assault by police. “We entered Punjab on Jan 25 and started having assaults and harassment from Jan 26. In earlier assaults, we were hit by the police vehicles and motorcycles as they continued telling us that we were going the wrong way. We told them that we were going to a hotel on the national highway. They would try to knock us down.”

Motahhareh said the policemen in Punjab would drive their vehicle or ride motorcycles very close to her, sometimes making her get off the road. “On Jan 26, I fell down and got injured when a policeman stopped his motorcycle suddenly in front of her. And it was quite deliberate. I fell down and injured my leg while my heavy bags fell on me.” Motahhareh got treatment for her leg.

About this alleged assault, Alex said they went to Ahmedpur Lamma Police Station and asked the policeman on the desk to register a complaint, but he refused to do so, asking them to take help from social media.

Motahhareh also raised serious allegations of sexual harassment against police in Pakistan. “Many times, they asked me for my WhatsApp number and kept on insisting. When I asked them the reason, they would start insulting me. At the start I gave my phone number to some of them and they started asking for pictures and sending creepy messages. For the last one month, I have been receiving creepy messages from Pakistani policemen.” She alleged regardless of the province, policemen from all three provinces they travelled in harassed her and the situation was worse in Punjab.

A policeman in Punjab held her hand forcibly for many minutes, said Alex. When asked whether there was a language barrier between the policemen and the tourists, Alex said some of the policemen spoke good English. “Whenever we stopped at some point for having a break, they would continue telling us it’s not safe here and it would be safe after a few kilometers. In fact, they wanted us to go out of their jurisdictions quickly but the next escort would do the same, telling us lies about the route as well.”

Alex said they felt safer without police as the common Pakistanis were very good and hospitable towards them and added that many times in Sindh, they did not have police escort and it was very safe.

Alex said they were staying in Sadiqabad near the site where they were assaulted by police as Motahhareh’s leg was recovering, rejecting the earlier police report that they had left the area for Lahore. He said he wanted to cycle through Punjab and meet the people who are very good. He said they felt safe when they were on their own without police and were in fact more in danger in presence of their escort, which ironically was there to protect them.

Their third fellow Charlie West wanted to do cycling separately towards Lahore as he rides it fast but the situation is unsure now.

Police in Rahim Yar Khan and Sadiqabad were contacted for their version but their spokesmen refused to attend the multiple calls made by Dawn.

However, sources in Rahim Yar Khan police said the tourists had left the Sadiqabad hotel they were staying in on Saturday and now they were staying at a restaurant along a filling station in the middle of Sadiqabad and Rahim Yar Khan. The sources denied the allegations of assault but insisted that police escort was there for the tourists security.

Published in Dawn, January 29th, 2024

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