Manzoor Pashteen, head of the Pashtun Protection Movement, was arrested in a pre-dawn raid in the northwestern city of Peshawar on charges of making anti-government speeches at rallies and inciting violence, a local police official says.

Manzoor Pashteen, 27, heads the Pashtun Protection Movement.
Manzoor Pashteen, 27, heads the Pashtun Protection Movement. (AFP Archive)

Pakistani security forces on Monday arrested the leader of a human rights group that has accused the military of committing widespread abuses in its war on terror.

Manzoor Pashteen was detained along with six others in a pre-dawn raid in the northwestern city of Peshawar, said Javed Khan, a local police official. 

He said Pashteen was arrested on charges of making anti-government speeches at rallies and inciting violence. He provided no further details.

Pashteen, 27, heads the Pashtun Protection Movement, which has emerged as a force among the country’s Pashtun minority, drawing tens of thousands to rallies. 

The group contends that the military is waging a campaign of intimidation as it battles militants in the country's rugged border region near Afghanistan. The group says the army's heavy-handed tactics include extrajudicial killings and thousands of disappearances and detentions. The case of illegal disappearances and detentions has been taken up before various judges in the past without directly naming the army. The ministries of defence, interior and top prosecutors have been summoned for testimony in previous years.

The group's unusually direct criticism of the powerful military over alleged human rights violations has brought it into conflict with the authorities, who allege it is being bankrolled by hostile neighbouring countries.

Mohsin Dawar, a lawmaker who is also a member of the group, confirmed Pashteen's arrest. He told The Associated Press that police were taking Pashteen to Dera Ismail Khan, a town in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province bordering Afghanistan. 

He said Pashteen was apparently arrested on charges of attending anti-government rallies.

Pashteen’s supporters condemned his arrest on social media, while others praised the police action, saying a “traitor” had been arrested.

The Pakistani military accuses the group of having received funding from Afghan and Indian intelligence agencies. PTM has denied taking foreign funding.

A prominent Pakistani rights leader Afrasiab Khattak criticised the arrest, saying it “exposes the colonial type repressive state policy against Pashtun in general,” as well as the people of the former tribal region of North Waziristan in particular.

Gulalai Ismail, a Pakistani human rights activist who recently fled the country blaming harassment by security agencies, also denounced the arrest in a tweet. 

“We, Pashtuns, will remain non-violent in the face of the arrest of our movement's leader,” she said, adding that peaceful resistance is ”the major pillar"of the movement. 

In December 2018, Dawar and fellow PTM leader Ali Wazir, who were both elected to parliament from Pakistan’s Waziristan region that borders Afghanistan, were placed on the no-fly list after cases against them were filed for their criticism of the military at PTM rallies. Their names have since been removed from the list.

On May 26 2019, a group of protesters led by the PTM's serving parliamentarians Dawar and Wazir was fired upon by soldiers at a security check post, according to PTM representatives and social media.

Kifayat Azad, a close aide of Dawar and Wazir, told Reuters that 13 civilians were killed in the incident. At least 25 PTM members were arrested in the following days, he said, of whom 10 have since been released on bail.

In its account of the incident, the army said the protest was aimed at exerting pressure for the release of a “suspected terrorists’ facilitator arrested the other day”. 

Troops exchanged fire with the protesters when they attacked the check post, it said, adding that three of the attackers were killed.

Dawar and Wazir were detained a few days after the incident and they were released on bail later in September 2019.

Both men have spoken out against military operations in the former tribal areas bordering Afghanistan since being elected, and have led large demonstrations across the country.

The catalyst for the PTM group’s creation was the police killing in 2018 of Naqueebullah Mehsud, a 27-year-old ethnic Pashtun and aspiring model who was shot dead in the southern port city of Karachi. Many displaced Pashtuns have relocated there after being displaced by the military operations in the tribal regions.

Police initially said Mehsud was killed during a shoot-out with Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan militants.

Since Mehsud’s killing, the issue of “police encounters”, a euphemism for extra-judicial killings, has gained media coverage amid growing anger from the Pashtun community, which says its young men are unfairly and disproportionately targeted.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan later intervened after protests were held across the country.

An anti-terror court later declared the aspiring model and three others who were killed in a staged encounter carried out by the team of SSP Rao Anwar, a dreaded "encounter specialist",  innocent.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies