Pakistan uses its anti-terrorism laws to silence activists


On 4 May 2016, a grainy photo surfaced on the Internet showing a Pakistani man, Mehr Abdul Sattar, blindfolded and clad in a blood-stained shirt. It came as a relief to those who were expecting worse, but it remains the stuff of horrors: Mehr standing in front of an icy white background, his expression almost disembodied, bearing no connection to his unenviable circumstances.

The photo does not bear a caption or an explanation for why it has been released. It might have been made public to confirm that Mehr has not yet suffered the same fate as another man whose heavily bruised corpse has been doing the rounds on Pakistani television, provoking uproar from human rights supporters. This unlucky soul and Mehr shared the same captive.

Mehr was picked up by Pakistan’s security forces on 16 April as part of a wider military-led crackdown on terrorism, a concept that enjoys a rather broad definition under Pakistan’s legal framework. Detained for over a month and reportedly tortured, Mehr is not facing any charges pertaining to carrying out a terrorist attack, distributing terrorist literature or abetting a terrorist organisation.

Mehr is the General Secretary of Anjuman Muzareen Punjab (AMP, or the Punjab Tenants Association in English), a land rights organisation formed in 2000, in Okara in the eastern Pakistani province of Punjab, after tenants of commercial military farms collectively refused a new contract system imposed by the military.

Mehr is facing up to 25 charges, including land grabbing and public disorder – crimes that astonishingly fit the scope of the country’s anti-terrorism act. His supporters believe that these charges have been trumped up and the state is using anti-terrorism laws to silence activists, and quell a 17-year-long peasant movement that has been fighting the military for egalitarian land rights.

Mehr’s supporters have good reason to dismiss the state’s case since nearly 4000 of them have also been arrested and booked under the same anti-terrorism laws that resulted in Mehr’s disappearance. Their crime: participating in a protest that called for Mehr’s release.

The consequences of these minor offenses can be dire and Kafkaesque: the vast judicial exemptions enjoyed by the military allows it to apprehend suspected ‘terrorists’ for up to 90 days without charge (after which they can be tried in a secret military court and executed if found guilty of more serious charges), in an undisclosed location and without a warrant.


“Ownership or Death”

The history of the Okara farms provides a startling context: in the early 20th century, the British settled cultivators in West Punjab (Okara and neighbouring areas) as part of a larger colonial irrigation project, promising to grant land rights in due course – something that quite clearly never happened.

As the Awami (Peoples’) Workers Party (AWP) member, academic and activist Mahvish Ahmad points out: “The rallying cry of the Okara Peasant Movement is ‘Maliqi ya Maut’ (‘Ownership or Death’).”

For over half a century after the country’s independence, peasants were tricked into continue an expired contract. The crop-sharing tenancy model allowed peasants to work the farms permanently but at the cost of surrendering half of their harvest to village administrators (rent in kind). This was an unpopular model.

“The existing batai (sharecropping) tenure system was widely disliked. The farm managers routinely stole from the farmers’ harvests and intimidated the peasants with fines,” writes Mubbashir Abbas Rizvi, in his 2013 research paper on the Okara uprisings.

The trouble began when the Pakistan Army tried to stir the status quo at the farms. “In 2000, with General [Pervez] Musharraf in power, the military decided to expand its tentacles into the economic life of the country…the shift would give the military legal power to evict the peasants from the land after the end of the contract period. This is when the contest began,” says Asad Farooq, Professor of Law, in an interview with Naked Punch.

The new proposal was initially welcomed. A village elder and farmer Farid Daula was at first supportive of the plan, happy to hear about the end of sharecropping because “there has been so much oppression here and we were finally going to be free of this servitude.”

However, it soon became obvious that the new system would allow the military to evict peasants, and this point of contention started a 17-year-long, one million-strong uprising that has provoked the ire of Pakistan’s most powerful institution.

This rebellion is particularly unique because it has challenged the untouchable military and has survived for almost 17 years, uniting people across religious and gender divisions.

After failing to subdue AMP ambitions with tanks, bullets, abductions and torture, the military is now trying to discredit them by portraying them as terrorists.


Activists, Not Terrorists

According to Ammar Rashid, press secretary of the AWP, the timing and method of the recent crackdown is not coincidental.

“The spectre of terrorism provides authorities with a convenient excuse to violently quell any challenges to abuses of authority. What is disturbing is that such abuses of terrorism laws are becoming normalised. As such, thousands of people can be charged, and dozens jailed under terror charges for the crime of protesting, and it scarcely even makes the headlines, especially if the military is involved.”

For almost over a year, Pakistan has engaged in a bitter war against the Taliban. To the naked eye, it seems to be working: there has been a precipitous drop in terrorist attacks and most citizens see this as a much needed relief from the relentless onslaught of religious militancy that brought the country to its knees.

Needless to say, this has made the military and the Chief of Army Staff, Raheel Sharif, a very popular man in the country. Human rights activists fear that the military is acting upon its popularity as if it was an informal political mandate, deploying anti-terrorism laws as a disciplinary economic strategy against rights activists.

The military has long considered economic prosperity to be the sole indicator of ‘modernity’. Through decades of interventions, it has come to enjoy an untouchable status as the sole guardian of the country’s territorial integrity. And it uses this privilege to seek an ever-greater role in politics, implementing its strategic visions over how land is organised, distributed and utilised.

Recently, the military has been involved in a grand infrastructure project that will link western China to the deep sea Gwadar Port in Balochistan, Pakistan, where it stands accused of forced disappearances and extra-judicial killings of rights activists (who often take a separatist position).

The China-Pak Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a US$46 billion deal that would give control of Gwadar to Chinese investors and developers.

The Pakistani military has managed to procure “substantial” resources along the length and width of the country, including a massive piece of land in the Diamer district (Gilgit Baltistan, Pakistani-held Kashmir, where another AWP activist is serving a life sentence for organising a protest on behalf of 25 families displaced by floods) to set up headquarters for the security of CPEC.


Economic Walls

Activists and political workers like Mahvish and Ammar are concerned that the military presence near key landmarks in people’s struggle for economic justice will further atomise social spaces, and result in the impaling of any political pluralism that gets in the way of this deal.

Raheel Sharif has made it very clear that he is willing to “pay any price” to secure Chinese investment, and that when it comes to the economy, he is in the driving seat of the country.

By blurring the distinctions between terrorist and activist, the military is yet again evading an ideological confrontation with the extremist mindset. The need to understand the relationship between poverty and extremism in the Pakistani context could not be more pressing. Contrary to popular wisdom, poverty does not always produce terrorism.

According to a cross-national study on radicalisation, “forms of repression that close off nonviolent avenues of dissent and boost group grievances increase the amount of domestic terrorism a country faces.”

This paints a complex but foreboding picture for Pakistan. Ammar is not surprised: “The rise of fundamentalist violence and terrorism in Pakistan is directly linked with a decline in the strength of the organised working class, a reality that continues to escape policymakers in the country.”

Rather than de-fanging the country’s authoritarian tendencies, the Pakistani military is redesigning it for its own purposes, and this might lead to divisive and regressive repercussions in the long run.

Corridors are narrow, enclosed, linear spaces and many Pakistanis find an apt metaphor in that thought. To construct an economic corridor, one has to build economic walls.

As Mahvish observes: “We are seeing the expansion of military lands – through cantonments and military-residential schemes – that means that in one city you’ll literally see two worlds clashing with each other. One, within the walls of military cantonments, enjoying the freedoms and luxuries that being on the inside affords. The other outside, where [‘terrorists’ like the Okara peasants] will be excluded from the benefits of economic growth.”