Crackdown on Farmers’ Protest in Pakistan
May 5, NY: In April, Pakistani authorities used draconian laws and excessive force to prevent tenant farmers in Punjab province from protesting for land rights. Farmers in Okara district had planned to convene on April 17, 2016, the International Day of Peasants’ and Farmers’ Struggles.
The authorities should drop all charges brought against those exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and appropriately punish security force members responsible for abuses against protesters.
“Blocking a peaceful meeting, arresting organizers, and then using excessive force against demonstrators shows a complete disregard for basic rights in a democratic society,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The government’s use of vague and overbroad counter-terrorism laws against protesting farmers brings new tensions to this volatile situation.”
On the morning of April 16, police arrested Mehr Abdul Sattar at his home. Sattar is the secretary general of Anjuman-i-Mazareen Punjab, the farmers’ group which was organizing the meeting the next day. The district administration imposed section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, a colonial era law to restrict gatherings.
Hundreds of villagers gathered soon after to protest against the arrest of Sattar and four other tenant farmer leaders. The police and army personnel deployed in armored personnel carriers. After several protesters threw stones, the security forces carried out baton charges and fired tear gas canisters to disperse the protesters. Dozens were arrested under various anti-terrorism and public order provisions and many remain detained at undisclosed locations. Numerous witnesses told Human Rights Watch that security forces beat and arrested protesters, arresting some at their homes in the middle of the night.
The district coordinating officer of Okara told media that the local administration decided to forbid the Peasant’s day meet because of security concerns after a recent terrorist attack in Lahore, saying there were “strict directions from the top authorities to keep an eye on the law and order situation and such assemblies that can cause security concern.” He said that the farmer organizers refused to comply.
The Okara district police have registered more than 4000 cases under the penal code and the anti-terrorism law, which provides the authorities broad powers to arrest and to prosecute vaguely defined offenses such as section 7 of the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997. The government’s National Action Plan against terrorism, created in 2015, expands the role of the military in counter-terrorism operations and permits the use of military courts for terrorism-related prosecutions.
In some cases, including that of Mehr Abdul Sattar, the police are refusing to provide information on the whereabouts of those arrested, which amounts to an enforced disappearance in violation of international law. Individuals forcibly disappeared are at a grave risk of being tortured or otherwise ill-treated.
Aisha Bibi, 55, villager, said that her son has disappeared since the crackdown by government forces. “When I asked the police about my son, the officers abused me and said that my son is being taught a lesson for being part of the farmers’ struggle.”
Since April 16, at least 24 farmers have been brought before the anti-terrorism courts and returned to judicial custody. Excessive use of tear gas might have resulted in the death of a 26-year-old farmer, according to his family members. Villagers told Human Rights Watch that security forces have since cordoned off villages in the area of dispute, preventing people, food and public services from entering or leaving.
Pakistan should ensure that security forces follow the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. They provide that all security forces use nonviolent means as far as possible before resorting to the use of force. Whenever the lawful use of force is unavoidable, officials should use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. Lethal force may only be used when strictly unavoidable to protect life.
“The government should promptly release those wrongfully held, provide information on those ‘disappeared,’ and hold accountable soldiers and police who use excessive force,” Adams said. “Efforts to reach an agreement over the longstanding land dispute in Okara will be improved by showing greater respect for human rights.”
Background and eyewitness accounts (names changed):
The dispute between tenant farmers in Okara and the military started 16 years ago. Traditionally, farmers were sharecroppers, handing over part of their produce as rent to the military, which acts as landlord through military-run farms. In 2000, the military unilaterally tried to change the rules, demanding that the farmers sign new rental contracts requiring them to pay rent in cash. The farmers refused, fearing that cash rents would, when times were lean, place them at risk of being evicted from land that their families have lived on for generations.
Human Rights Watch has previously documented a campaign of arbitrary detentions, torture, killings, and summary dismissals from employment by Pakistani security forces against the farmers.
The dispute peaked between May 5, 2003 and June 12, 2003, when the 150,000 people who live in the 18 villages that comprise Okara Military Farms were placed under curfew, with severe restrictions on movement within and into the district. Water, electricity and telephones were disconnected until the farmers agreed to sign the new contracts guaranteeing fixed income to the military owners of agricultural land.
During the election campaign of 2013, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif held a rally in Okara district and promised farmers their right to the lands farmed over generations. However, Sharif’s promise remains unfulfilled and local authorities’ oppression of the Okara farmers continues unabated, which has led to further protests. In July 2014, security forces killed two tenant farmers during a siege and assault in village 15/4 L.
The Oslo Times/HRW