Pakistani police are investigating six young leaders for sedition and terrorism after they organized protests against maltreatment at military checkpoints in northwestern Swat Valley.
Rahmat Ali, a police officer in Swat’s Khwazakhela region, says they have registered a First Investigation Report (FIR) against six individuals under seven provisions of Pakistani law related to terrorism, sedition, and other offenses.
“We have registered an FIR because they were trying to foment rebellion against the state among the people,” Ali told VOA on February 19. “They were forcing people to come out [and protest] against the state.”
Under Pakistani law, an FIR is the first step in establishing whether a “cognizable offense” has been committed.
The protest in Swat, a district in mainly Pashtun-populated Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, comes on the heels of a 10-day sit-in protest in Islamabad. Beginning on February 1, thousands of Pashtun activists demanded that the military and the civilian government address their grievances including an end to unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, and landmines.
The sit-in protest was prompted by the alleged murder of an aspiring young model. Naqibullah Mehsud was killed in an allegedly staged shootout with the police in the southern seaport of Karachi in January.
In Swat, Ghairat Khan Yousafzai is one of the six men under scrutiny for organizing a large protest in Khwazakhela and a smaller one in the regional capital, Mingora, on February 18.
Yousafzai rejects the police accusations and says they are seeking legal advice. “Our legal team is looking into the issue, but it is possible we will now hold another demonstration to protest the FIR,” he said.
“We held a peaceful protest, which was definitely not against the state,” Yousafzai said. “We wanted to protest the abuse people suffer at these checkpoints. We were also protesting the mistreatment civilians endure in the name of search operations.”
Once a tourist paradise, the alpine valley of Swat became a haven for the Pakistani Taliban in 2007 after the hard-line movement swept the nearby Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The Pakistani Taliban were an offshoot and allies of the Afghan Taliban who, along with Al-Qaeda and affiliated Central Asian militants, moved into FATA after the collapse of the Afghan Taliban’s regime in 2001.
By 2008, Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan or a movement of the Pakistani Taliban had almost complete control of the region. Their harsh rule was marked by periodic beheadings, harsh punishment, and rampant targeted assassinations of real or perceived opponents.
More than 2 million Swat residents first suffered under such Taliban oppression and violence. They were then forced to leave their homes after the Pakistani military launched a major offensive to dislodge the Taliban in 2009. In the subsequent years, they returned to their homes while a tense peace returned to the valley. But many were critical of the extensive searches, lengthy waits, and humiliation they faced at the military checkpoints dotting the region.
The alleged death of a sick infant at a checkpoint in Khwazakhela last week appears to have prompted the February 18 protests. Photos showing a man holding the dead child wrapped in a blanket were circulated widely on social media.
“Pashtuns are raising their voice for their rights,” said Humayun Gul Khan, one of the protest participants in Khwazakhela. “We only want to live peacefully with dignity in our homeland. If this is our army and it is responsible for protecting our country, then I want to feel safe among them.”
Authorities in Swat, however, are not impressed. Wahid Mehmood, head of the police in Swat, says the government has already reduced the number of checkpoints from 97 to 17.
Mehmood told Radio Mashaal that the protests were organized by a handful of individuals driven by a specific agenda. “The population of Swat is now more than 2.5 million. If these claims [of abuses] were true then all of these people would have come out to protest,” he said.
The protest in Islamabad, however, prompted the government to accept the protesters’ demands in writing. More than 70 victims of enforced disappearances have so far been reunited with their families, according to protest organizer Pashtun Tahafuz Movement or the movement for the protection of Pashtuns.
The military has sent scores of demining teams to clear landmines in FATA’s South Waziristan district. Pakistani generals leading troops in South Waziristan and neighboring North Waziristan have announced a host of measures to address complaints of ill-treatment at military checkpoints.
On February 16, the military announced that residents of Waziristan and other tribal regions will no longer be required to carry Watan or homeland cards. Obtaining these cards — dubbed Waziristan visas — required paperwork and biometric details such as fingerprints. An individual needed background checks and clearance by various intelligence agencies, which often entailed lengthy waits.
Pakistani authorities, however, have yet to arrest fugitive police officer Rao Anwar, who is the main suspect in Mehsud’s murder.
Radio Mashaal correspondents Abdul Hai Kakar and Pamir Sahil contributed reporting to this story.