Pakistan is a federal parliamentary republic. In 2018 the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party won the most National Assembly seats in the general elections, and the party’s leader, Imran Khan, became prime minister. While independent observers noted technical improvements in the Election Commission of Pakistan’s management of the polling process itself, observers, civil society organizations, and political parties raised concerns regarding pre-election interference by military and intelligence agencies that created an uneven electoral playing field. Some political parties also alleged significant polling day irregularities.
Police have primary domestic security responsibility for most of the country. Local police are under the jurisdiction of provincial governments. Paramilitary organizations–including the Frontier Corps, which operates in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, including the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and the Rangers, which operate in Sindh and Punjab–provide security services under the authority of the Ministry of Interior. The Frontier Corps’ primary mission is security of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, and the Corps reports to the Ministry of Interior in peacetime and the army in times of conflict. The military is responsible for external security but plays a role in domestic security, including as the lead security agency in many areas of the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas. While military and intelligence services officially report to civilian authorities, the military and intelligence services operate independently and without effective civilian oversight. Members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings by the government or its agents, including extrajudicial killings; forced disappearance by the government or its agents; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by the government or its agents; arbitrary detention; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; politically motivated reprisal against individuals located outside the country; arbitrary or unlawful government interference with privacy; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence against journalists, unjustified arrests and disappearances of journalists, censorship, and site blocking; government interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, such as overly restrictive nongovernmental organization laws; severe restrictions of religious freedom; restrictions on freedom of movement; corruption within the bureaucracy; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers by nonstate militant groups; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting members of racial and ethnic minorities; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons by nonstate actors; the existence or use of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults; restrictions on workers’ freedom of association; and the use of the worst forms of child labor.
There was a lack of government accountability, and abuses often went unpunished, fostering a culture of impunity among perpetrators, whether official or unofficial. Authorities seldom punished government officials for human rights abuses.
Terrorist violence and human rights abuses by nonstate actors contributed to human rights problems, although to a lesser extent than in previous years, consistent with an overall decline in terrorist activity. Military, police, and law enforcement agencies continued to carry out significant campaigns against militant and terrorist groups. Nevertheless, violence, abuse, and social and religious intolerance by militant organizations and other nonstate actors, both local and foreign, contributed to a culture of lawlessness. As of December, terrorism fatalities stood at 499, compared with 365 total fatalities in 2019, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, a database compiled by the public interest advocacy organization Institute for Conflict Management, which collects statistics on terrorism and low intensity warfare in South Asia.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but there were constitutional restrictions. In addition, threats, harassment, abductions, violence, and killings led journalists and editors to practice self-censorship. Government failure to investigate and prosecute attacks on human rights defenders and peaceful protesters led to de facto restrictions on freedom of assembly and association.
Freedom of Speech: The constitution provides for the right to free speech and the press, subject to “any reasonable restriction imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam” or the “integrity, security, or defense of Pakistan, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality.” The law permits citizens to criticize the government publicly or privately, but court decisions interpreted the constitution as prohibiting criticism of the military and judiciary. Such criticism may result in legal, political, or commercial reprisal. Blasphemy laws restrict individual rights to free speech concerning matters of religion and religious doctrine. According to the penal code, the punishments for conviction of blasphemy include the death sentence for “defiling the Prophet Muhammad,” life imprisonment for “defiling, damaging, or desecrating the Quran,” and 10 years’ imprisonment for “insulting another’s religious feelings.” The courts enforced the blasphemy laws, and although authorities had not executed any person for committing blasphemy, allegations of blasphemy often prompted vigilantism and mob lynching. The government restricted some language and symbolic speech based on hate speech and terrorism provisions.
On July 29, Tahir Naseem was shot and killed inside a Peshawar courtroom while on trial for blasphemy. An estimated 5,000 to 7,000 persons spread across multiple rallies in Peshawar demonstrated on July 31 in support of the accused murderer of Tahir Naseem, juvenile Faisal Khan. Protesters called for his immediate release and condemned the government for prosecution. Weekend sermons warned worshippers “not to trust the judiciary after the Asia Bibi [blasphemy] case,” and “We need to take these [blasphemy] matters in our own hands.” Police officers, in a photograph widely circulated on social media, posed for a “selfie” with the accused killer. Naseem’s family alleged that he had a mental disability.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Threats, harassment, and violence against journalists who reported on sensitive issues such as civil-military tensions or abuses by security forces occurred with increasing frequency during the year. Both the military, through the director general of the Inter-Services Public Relations, and government oversight bodies, such as the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), enforced censorship. By law the government may restrict information that might be prejudicial to the national interest. During the year the government gained additional legislative authority to restrict information it deems “prejudicial” to the national interest. Authorities used these laws to prevent or punish media criticism of the government and armed forces. To publish within Pakistan-administered Kashmir, media owners had to obtain permission from the Kashmir Council and the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs, and journalists had to depend largely on information provided by the government and military. There were limitations on transmission of Indian media content. Journalists also protested their inability to report freely on rights violations and forced disappearances in Balochistan, the Pashtun movement’s activities and protests, and the military’s involvement in business enterprises. In January the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication approved the Citizen’s Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules to regulate content on social media platforms. In October the government used those rules to briefly ban the TikTok application, lifting the ban once the application’s company agreed to block users who upload unlawful content. Rights activists reported the government contacted Twitter and asked them to take down accounts of activists deemed problematic.
Journalists alleged PEMRA issued editorial directives to television stations, and media outlets claimed the government pressured stations to halt broadcasting of interviews with opposition political party leaders. In March the Committee to Protect Journalists reported PEMRA contacted cable distributers throughout the country and ordered them to stop transmitting Geo TV or switch its broadcasts to higher channels that are harder for viewers to find. This action followed the arrest of parent company Jang Media Group’s CEO and editor in chief.
The Islamabad office of Radio Mashaal, the Pashto language service of Radio Free Europe, which the Interior Ministry closed in 2018, remained closed at the end of the year.
Violence and Harassment: Security forces, political parties, militants, and other groups subjected media outlets, journalists, and their families to threats and harassment. Female journalists in particular faced threats of sexual violence and harassment, including via social media, where they had a particularly strong presence. Security forces allegedly abducted journalists. Media outlets that reported on topics authorities viewed as sensitive were often the targets of retribution. Additionally, journalists working in remote and conflict-ridden areas lacked basic digital and traditional security skills, which increased pressure to self-censor or not cover a story.
According to observers, journalists were subjected to a variety of pressure tactics, including harassment and intimidation. Assailants killed journalists during the year, but it was unclear whether their journalism was the motive for the killings. On July 23, two gunmen in Balochistan’s Barkhan city shot and killed senior reporter Anwar Jan Khetran of the daily newspaper Naveed-e-Pakistan as he was on his way home. On February 17, Aziz Memon, a reporter for the Sindhi television channel KTN News and Sindhi-language Daily Kawash newspaper was found dead. Prior to his death, Memon reported threats against him by the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party and local police. Police reported three of five suspects were in police custody as of February 26. In May a joint investigation team concluded that his death was premeditated murder. On June 16, unknown individuals stabbed and killed Muhammad Bilal Khan, an independent journalist who ran a YouTube channel.
Journalists were also subject to enforced disappearances and arrests. On July 21, a journalist and outspoken critic of the military establishment, Matiullah Jan, was kidnapped by heavily armed men in Islamabad and released 12 hours later. The abduction was caught on closed-circuit television cameras, images from which were shared widely on social media. The Committee to Protect Journalists said Jan was among the journalists the army accused of sharing antistate remarks on social media in 2018. On September 4, Sajid Gondal, a former journalist and a joint director of Pakistan’s Securities and Exchange Commission, disappeared after being “kidnapped by unidentified persons;” on September 8, Gondal tweeted that he had returned home safely. On September 12, police charged another journalist, Asad Ali Toor, with allegedly spreading “negative propaganda against the state, Pakistani institutions and the Pakistan Army,” citing the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act.
Journalists Saeed Ali Achakzai and Abdul Mateen Achakzai alleged, according to Committee to Protect Journalists reporting, that agents of the Balochistan Levies, a paramilitary gendarmerie that operates as a primary security agency in the province, detained them on June 19 without charges, held them for two days, and beat them. On June 8, the journalists had reported on poor conditions at a COVID-19 quarantine center.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Media organizations generally engaged in self-censorship, especially in reporting news regarding the military, religious extremism, and abuse of blasphemy laws; journalists stated they were under increased pressure to report the predetermined narrative during the year, and PEMRA issued editorial directives to media outlets. For example, some stated they were pressured to publish or broadcast military statements or rebuttals of stories that reflected badly on government officials prominently in their newspapers and news bulletins.
Journalists reported regular denial of permission to visit conflict areas or being required to travel with a military escort while reporting on conditions in conflict areas. They reported pressure to produce articles with a military viewpoint. Other reporting tended to be relatively objective with a focus on facts rather than analysis, which journalists generally regarded as risky. Both local and foreign journalists complained of harassment and intimidation by government officials. Blasphemy and anti-Ahmadi laws restricted publication on certain topics. Government censors reviewed foreign books before they allowed reprinting. Imported movies, books, magazines, and newspapers were subject to censorship for objectionable sexual or religious content. Obscene literature, a category the government defined broadly, was subject to seizure. In September, 50,000 copies of well-known journalist Sohail Warraich’s collection of columns published in Jang were removed from book stalls.
The government fined private television channels for alleged violations of the “code of ethics” and for showing banned content. Authorities reportedly used PEMRA rules to silence broadcast media by either suspending licenses or threatening to do so, or by reassigning the cable channel number of a targeted outlet without notice so that its programming would be hard or impossible to find on most televisions. Many outlets resorted to self-censorship, particularly when reporting on religious or security issues. The Central Board of Film Censors previewed and censored sexual content and any content that glorified Indian heroes, leaders, or military figures in foreign and domestic films.
The government continued to use network access as a tool to exert control over media outlets. Media outlets seen as supportive of the PML-N faced distribution disruptions.
The Jang/Geo media group, the country’s largest media house, also reportedly faced harassment and newspaper distribution blockages. Unidentified individuals reportedly pressured newspaper vendors not to distribute the Urdu-language Jang newspaper and its sister English language paper The News and discouraged advertisers from advertising with the Jang/Geo group’s outlets. Cable operators dropped the Geo news channel from their cable systems or repeatedly changed its assigned channel. PEMRA shut down Geo TV and 24 News, citing problems with their licenses. Both channels, which were critical of the government, were immediately reinstated by the courts. Journalists suspected a political motive behind the government’s actions. Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman, owner and editor in chief of Jang/Geo News, spent eight months in legal custody over a 34-year-old property case before being granted bail on November 9. Many journalists considered Rehman’s charges as a deliberate government intimidation tactic.
Media outlets reported the government increasingly used the infrastructure of the media system, as well as government advertising, which makes up a large portion of media revenue, to suppress information deemed threatening. The economic constriction caused by COVID-19 decreased private revenue further, rendering outlets more dependent on government advertisement. A new policy that would allow media outlets to tap into subscription revenues was stalled in a Supreme Court battle. The government pressured distributors into restricting distribution or changing channels of outlets deemed problematic, incentivizing media companies to censor their content. Media houses also reportedly fired outspoken journalists deemed to be a threat to their revenues or continued ability to operate. In July the only Balochi television channel, Vash, was closed due to nonpayment of dues after its finances suffered because of federal and provincial authorities’ refusal to grant advertisements and associated revenue to the channel.
Libel/Slander Laws: Defamation and blasphemy are treated as criminal offenses. Blasphemy is punishable ranging from a two-year imprisonment to death. In Peshawar, the Awami National Party chairman filed a civil case accusing a political rival and three newspapers of defamation in 2019. The case remained pending.
National Security: Some journalists asserted authorities cited laws protecting national security to censor and restrict media distribution of material that criticized government policies or military or public officials, or that described the country’s security situation in a negative light. The Electronic Media (Programs and Advertisements) Code of Conduct included a clause that restricted reporting in any area where a military operation was in progress.
Nongovernmental Impact: Nonstate actor violence against media workers decreased, but an environment where militant and criminal elements were known to kill, abduct, assault, and intimidate journalists and their families led journalists, particularly in the tribal areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, to self-censor.
The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) is responsible for the establishment, operation, and maintenance of telecommunications and has complete control of all content broadcast over telecommunication channels.
The government uses a systematic, nationwide content-monitoring and filtering system to restrict or block “unlawful” content, including material it deems un-Islamic, pornographic, or critical of the state or military forces. The restrictive 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act gives the government sweeping powers to censor content on the internet, which authorities used as a tool for the continued clampdown on civil society.
The government blocked websites because of allegedly anti-Islamic, pornographic, blasphemous, or extremist content. The PTA’s Web Analysis Division is ultimately responsible for reviewing and reporting blasphemous or offensive content for removal, while the Federal Investigation Agency is responsible for possible criminal prosecution. The PTA closely coordinated with other ministries in its enforcement efforts. There were also reports the government attempted to control or block websites that advocated Baloch independence and that the government used surveillance software. There was poor transparency and accountability surrounding content monitoring, and observers believed the government often used vague criteria without due process.
Authorities, particularly in the military, increasingly sought to restrict online space to silence dissidents and curtail content deemed critical of the military. According to Freedom House’s 2020 Freedom of the Net report, authorities disrupted telecommunication services during protests, elections, and religious and national holidays, often citing security concerns.
In November the government published the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Content Rules 2020–formerly referred to as the Citizen’s Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules–that codifies standards and powers given to authorities to remove and block content that the government determines negatively impacts “the glory of Islam; the integrity, security and defense of Pakistan; public order; and decency and morality.” Industry observers contended these standards were poorly defined, opaque, and often arbitrarily used by the PTA or security services, particularly for content they believed critical of the government. Observers noted that proving defamation, for example, was based on clearly defined legal parameters, while the government often demanded removal of content critical of the government or key officials based on its own extrajudicial determination. Under the new regulations, social media and other internet companies must monitor, remove, and block unlawful content as determined by authorities.
The regulations require companies to comply with these demands within 24 hours, or within six hours in emergency cases determined by the PTA according to broad criteria. Furthermore, the regulations require social media companies to implement mechanisms to prevent uploading or live streaming of certain content and to publicize their community guidelines, which include provisions that prohibit users from uploading religiously, culturally, or politically sensitive content. Due to the lack of clarity, social media companies may feel obligated to remove content from their platforms fearing punishment, which includes sanctions and possible bans. The new regulations also require companies to provide law enforcement any data it deems relevant in unencrypted form. Technology firms resisted the requirement to establish a physical presence in Pakistan due to fear their employees could be used as leverage in potential content monitoring disputes.
By law, if an account is under suspicion, the social media company is bound to provide authorities account data. Many social media users were critical of the new law, describing it as “dictatorial” in nature.
The PTA also continued to try to control social media and video-streaming services such as YouTube, Twitter, and TikTok. The PTA asked YouTube “to immediately block vulgar, indecent, immoral, nude, and hate speech content for viewing in Pakistan.” Although the PTA claimed its intentions were to stop the spread of pornography and vulgar content, users alleged it was actively targeting critics of government policies, especially those critical of the army. Internet service providers also claimed the PTA wanted to regulate political voices that spread what it deems indecent content. Online users continued to report they feared increasing censorship trends.
In October the PTA banned the Chinese video-sharing application TikTok for failing to monitor and regulate what certain citizens contended was immoral and indecent content. The PTA reinstated TikTok after the company agreed to add control measures to respond more quickly to public and government requests to remove content.
In September the PTA blocked access to five popular dating/live-streaming applications, including Tinder, Tagged, Skout, Grindr, and SayHi, on the pretext they were streaming immoral and indecent content. The law prohibits homosexuality and extramarital relationships. The PTA noted the five companies failed to respond to its directive within the stipulated time frame, the duration of which was unclear. Despite continuing engagement with some of these dating websites, the bans remained in place under the pretense that the applications were only used to facilitate what authorities viewed as immoral activities.
In August and again in September, more than 150 female journalists and several of their male counterparts signed two petitions to raise awareness about the “vile and vicious attacks” by individuals affiliated with the government, political parties, and their social media followers. The statement lamented unfounded accusations by government officials and politicians from all parties that the journalists were peddling fake news. The journalists also noted they were routinely accused of serving political agendas and of being on the payroll of opposition parties. In particular they reported being harassed if they were critical of the government.
In their petitions the journalists alleged that online harassment and vilification campaigns had made it difficult for them to carry out their professional duties. Female journalists complained that frequent harassment was instigated by government officials and then amplified by Twitter accounts believed to be affiliated with the ruling party. The journalists also alleged they encountered coordinated social media campaigns to harass, discredit, and intimidate them. Male journalists whose reports raised questions about the government’s performance and the increasing role of security institutions in matters of state, corruption, and accountability were also subjected to online campaigns by trolls allegedly operated by political parties and powerful state institutions, including the army. Journalists continued to face online threats, organized vilification campaigns, and character assassination, and were commonly portrayed as “anti-Pakistan” or paid agents. In September, three journalists, including former PEMRA chairman Absar Alam, were charged with sedition for allegedly using derogatory language online against the prime minister and the armed forces.
Long-term communications shutdowns were imposed in rural areas of the former FATA as well as Balochistan, where several districts had reportedly had no mobile internet service since 2017. Others insisted connectivity was hampered by lack of infrastructure, poor internet, and slow service, often provided by the military-operated Special Communication Organization (SCO) in certain regions.
According to media reports, some residents of the former FATA did not understand the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic because internet shutdowns had limited relevant news distribution. Journalists claimed that some residents, as of mid-March, had never heard of the coronavirus.
On April 14, the Islamabad High Court ordered the PTA to immediately restore 3G/4G internet service in the former FATA. The decision followed days of protests where students, fearing they would miss online education, demanded providers restore 3G/4G access. Users alleged that despite court orders, SCO enjoyed a monopoly and failed to provide better internet in the area, violating their rights.
On April 24, Prime Minister Khan announced a “track and trace system” for coronavirus cases using a terrorist surveillance system managed through Inter-Services Intelligence, which rights activists worried could lead to increased use and operability of the surveillance system, which was often used to track dissidents. Some medical professionals, however, supported the system’s capacity to track the pandemic’s spread.
On June 8, the PTA issued a public notice requiring individuals to register their virtual private networks with the telecommunications authority. Civil society expressed fears that such registrations would increase authorities’ monitoring capabilities and limit personal privacy.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The government interfered with academic freedom by restricting, screening, and censoring certain cultural events with perceived antistate content. The government interfered with art exhibitions as well as musical and cultural activities. Holding such an event requires a government-issued permit, which the government frequently withheld.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution and laws provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but these freedoms were subject to restrictions.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
Although the former FATA is now under the same legal framework as the rest of the country, civil and military authorities continued to impose collective punishment through the West Pakistan Maintenance of Peace Order and Section 144 of the criminal code. These statutes effectively allow authorities to continue the long-standing practice of suspending the right to assemble or speak in the newly merged areas. By law district authorities may prevent gatherings of more than four persons without police authorization. The law permits the government to ban all rallies and processions, except funeral processions, for security reasons.
Authorities generally prohibited Ahmadi Muslims from holding conferences or gatherings. Ahmadis cited the refusal of local authorities to reopen Ahmadi mosques damaged by anti-Ahmadi rioters in past years as evidence of the continuing severe conditions for the community.
During the year the PTM mobilized its predominantly ethnic Pashtun supporters to participate in sit-ins and demonstrations to demand justice and to protest abuses by government security forces. Following the government’s pledge to take a harder line against the PTM in 2019, the number of protests and rallies fell across the country. PTM activists continued to operate, although under much greater scrutiny after the arrest of most of the movement’s key leaders.
On February 10, police in Loralai, Balochistan, registered a case against 13 PTM activists for alleged hate speech. Police stated PTM activists chanted slogans against the security forces during a procession marking the first anniversary of the death of PTM activist Arman Loni in Loralai.
On January 26, police arrested Manzoor Pashteen, a PTM leader, on allegations of sedition. Pashteen was released on February 26.
On February 25, the Sukkur chapter of the religious party Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) announced its intentions to disrupt Sukkur’s women’s freedom march on March 8. According to JUI-F, the march promoted vulgarity and was “against” Islamic values, the constitution, and local culture. Sindh police arrested assailants, including JUI-F’s leader, Maulana Abdul Majeed Hizravi, intending to disrupt the marches. According to authorities, the individual incited violence, leading some to pelt the marchers with stones. Many politicians, including those from mainstream parties, condemned women’s marches for being counter to Islam and traditions. The Karachi marchers called for equal opportunities and an end to violence against women, as well as transgender and nonbinary persons. In Sukkur marchers demanded an end to honor killings and the jirga tribal justice system.
On July 30-31, four individuals were killed and 28 wounded in clashes between security forces and protesters. The protesters had been calling on the government to reopen the Afghanistan border crossing, closed as a COVID-19 restriction, in Chaman. The crossing is central for trade, commerce, and the passage of daily wage-laborers in Balochistan.
On November 5, a Punjabi farmer died at a Lahore hospital due to injuries he received when police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters partially blocking traffic in southern Lahore two days earlier, media reported. Media sources indicated approximately 100 protesters participated in the November 3 protest, which was the latest in a series of smaller rallies triggered by the government’s inability to control wheat prices ahead of the planting season.
Freedom of Association
The constitution provides for freedom of association subject to certain restrictions imposed by law. The government maintains a series of policies that steadily eroded the freedom of international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) and domestic NGOs to carry out their work and access the communities they serve. INGOs, UN organizations, and international missions generally must request government permission in the form of no-objection certificates (NOCs) before they may conduct most in-country travel, carry out certain project activities, or initiate projects. For some UN organizations implementing projects through the government, project NOCs are not required, although if they partner with local organizations, these entities must obtain project NOCs. Some UN organizations worked around NOCs by signing memoranda of understanding with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial government departments for certain projects.
Slow government approvals of NOC requests, insecure financial sustainability, and operational uncertainty significantly constrained INGO activity. The onerous NOC requirements, frequent and arbitrary requests for information from the security apparatus, as well as periodic harassment, impeded project operations, particularly in areas that could greatly benefit from support, such as the newly merged districts.
INGOs faced additional barriers to fundraising, opening bank accounts, obtaining tax-exempt status from the Federal Board of Revenue as well as visa denials for international staff and consultants. The online registration protocol, adopted in 2015, made the process for obtaining registration more laborious, less transparent, and ultimately elusive for many INGOs. Registration requires extensive documentation, including financial statements, a detailed annual budget, and a letter outlining donor support, among many other requirements. Organizations were subject to constant investigation and harassment by the security apparatus and other government offices during and after the registration process. Organizations targeted often included those that focus on topics the government deems sensitive, such as democracy promotion, press freedom, religious freedom, and human rights.
In 2019 a total of 20 INGOs whose applications for registration were denied by the Ministry of Interior in 2018 appeared before an interagency committee to appeal those initial rejections. At the hearings the reasons for the original rejections were not disclosed, nor did the INGOs receive a clear explanation of actions they could take to restore their legal standing. In February the Interior Ministry invited nine INGOs, eight of which had previously been denied registration, to reapply. As of September the ministry had not announced final decisions on the appeals. As NOCs were difficult to obtain in certain provinces without an approved registration, this protracted process hindered implementation and monitoring of activities, even for INGOs that had initiated the new registration process.
INGOs without valid registration status, however, found it increasingly difficult to develop long-term strategies and plans and attract funding from international organizations, governments, and other funding partners. The lack of transparency and unpredictability of the registration process and operational constraints caused some INGOs to withdraw their registration applications and terminate operations. In cases where INGOs secured registration, they still faced staffing limitations and government interference in their programmatic activities and memoranda of understanding with local partners.
The government at both the federal and provincial levels similarly impeded foreign-funded local NGOs through a separate registration regime, NOCs, and other requirements. Authorities require domestic NGOs to obtain NOCs before accepting foreign funding, booking facilities or using university spaces for events, or working on “sensitive” human rights issues. Even when local NGOs receiving foreign funding were appropriately registered, the government often denied their requests for NOCs, and they faced regular government monitoring and harassment. In March the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Finance’s Economic Affairs Division, which oversees registration for domestic NGOs, eased requirements for registered domestic and international NGOs engaged in COVID-19 relief activities.
Under directives from federal institutions on security and financial oversight, the Sindh government introduced measures governing registration renewals of NGOs. In August a group of NGOs challenged the Sindh Charities Registration and Regulation Act of 2019 through a petition at the Sindh High Court. The petition argued the government was curbing freedom of association beyond what was permissible under the constitution. It further argued the purpose of the law was not to regulate NGOs but to incapacitate and debilitate them. NGO representatives reported increased government restrictions and harassment by security agencies resulted in major NGOs reducing staff and activities.
c. Freedom of Religion
In 2018, 2019, and 2020, the Department of State designated Pakistan as a Country of Particular Concern under the 1998 International Freedom Act, as amended, for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at .
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement and for uninhibited foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government limited these rights. On January 20, a Hazara Baloch lawyer and human rights activist, Jalila Haider, was detained by the Federal Investigation Agency at Lahore Airport and prevented from flying to the United Kingdom to attend a conference on feminism. According to Haider, her name was on the no-fly list because of her “antistate activities.”
In-country Movement: Government restrictions on access to certain areas of the former FATA and Balochistan, often due to security concerns, hindered freedom of movement. The government required an approved NOC for travel to areas of the country it designated “sensitive.”
Foreign Travel: The law prohibits travel to Israel, and the country’s passports include a statement that they are “valid for all countries except Israel.”
Passport applicants must list their religious affiliation, and those wishing to be listed as Muslims must swear they believe Muhammad is the final prophet and denounce the founder of the Ahmadi movement as a false prophet. Ahmadi representatives reported authorities wrote the word “Ahmadi” in their passports if they refused to sign the declaration.
According to policy, government employees and students must obtain no-objection certificates from the government before traveling abroad. Authorities rarely enforced this requirement for students, however.
The government prohibited persons on an exit control list from departing the country. The stated purpose of the list was to prevent departure from the country of “persons involved in antistate activities, terrorism, or related to proscribed organizations and those placed on the orders of superior courts,” but according to civil society, authorities also included human rights defenders and critics of the government and military on the list. Those on the list have the right to appeal to the courts to have their names removed.
Exile: The government refused to accept the return of some Pakistanis deported to Pakistan from other countries. The government refused these deportees entry to the country as “unverified” Pakistani citizens, alleging some passports issued by Pakistani embassies and consulates abroad were fraudulent.
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
Large population displacements have occurred since 2008 because of militant activity and military operations in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the former FATA. Returns continued amid improved security conditions. The government and UN agencies such as the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UNICEF, and UN World Food Program collaborated to assist and protect those affected by conflict, who generally resided with host families, in rented accommodations, or to a lesser extent, in camps. Several internally displaced persons (IDP) populations settled in informal settlements outside of major cities, such as Lahore and Karachi.
The government required humanitarian organizations assisting civilians displaced by military operations to request no-objection certificates to access all districts in the former FATA. According to humanitarian organizations and NGOs, the certificate application process was cumbersome, and projects faced significant delays. The government maintained IDP camps inside and near former FATA districts where military operations took place, despite access and security concerns raised by humanitarian organizations. Humanitarian organization workers providing assistance in the camps faced danger when travelling to and within the former FATA. UN agencies maintained access to the camps and the affected areas mainly through local NGOs.
There were no reports of involuntary returns. Many IDPs reportedly wanted to return home, despite the lack of local infrastructure, housing, and available service delivery and the strict control that security forces maintained over returnees’ movements through extensive checkpoints. Other IDP families delayed their return or chose some family members to remain in the settled areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where regular access to health care, education, and other social services was available. For IDPs who were unwilling or unable to return, the government coordinated support with the United Nations and other international organizations.
Despite large-scale recurring displacements of individuals due to natural disasters and disruptions caused by terrorist activities and counterterrorist operations, the government had not adopted specific legislation to tackle internal displacement problems. In addition, the National Disaster Management Act of 2010 does not provide any definition of IDPs or their rights.
f. Protection of Refugees
The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to at least 1.4 million IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government provided temporary legal status to approximately 1.4 million Afghans formally registered and holding proof of registration (POR) cards through June. On June 30, the POR cards expired, and as of December, the PTI-led government declined to decide on the extension, despite its previous trend of granting longer-term extensions. The government issued a notice in June directing agencies and departments to ensure that no harassment or adverse action be taken against POR cardholders until the federal cabinet made a formal decision. The country also hosted approximately 878,000 Afghans with Afghan Citizen Cards but did not grant them refugee status. The government typically extended the validity of the Afghan Citizen Cards in short increments but allowed these cards to expire on June 30.
Due to COVID-19, there were significantly fewer arrests than in previous years, but there continued to be reports provincial authorities, police, and host communities harassed Afghan refugees. UNHCR reported that from January to August there were 370 arrests and detentions of refugees.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status. The country lacks a legal and regulatory framework for the management of refugees and migration. The law does not exclude asylum seekers and refugees from provisions regarding illegal entry and stay. In the absence of a national refugee legal framework, UNHCR conducted refugee status determination under its mandate, and the country generally accepted UNHCR decisions to grant refugee status and allowed asylum seekers who were undergoing the procedure, as well as recognized refugees, to remain in the country pending identification of a durable solution.
Employment: There is no formal document allowing refugees to work legally, but there is no law prohibiting refugees from working in the country. Many refugees worked as day laborers or in informal markets, and local employers often exploited refugees in the informal labor market with low or unpaid wages. Women and children were particularly vulnerable, accepting underpaid and undesirable work.
Access to Basic Services: One-third of registered Afghan refugees lived in one of 54 refugee villages, while the remaining two-thirds lived in host communities in rural and urban areas and sought to access basic services in those communities. Afghan refugees could avail themselves of the services of police and the courts, but some, particularly the poor, were afraid to do so. There were no reports of refugees denied access to health facilities because of their nationality. In 2019 the government permitted Afghan refugees to open bank accounts using their POR cards.
The constitution stipulates free and compulsory education for all children between the ages of five and 16, regardless of their nationality. Any refugee registered with both UNHCR and the government-run Commissionerate of Afghan Refugees was, in theory, admitted to public education facilities after filing the proper paperwork. Access to schools, however, was on a space-available basis as determined by the principal, and most registered Afghan refugees attended private Afghan schools or schools sponsored by the international community. For older students, particularly girls in refugee villages, access to education remained difficult. Afghan refugees were able to use POR cards to enroll in universities, although there were reports that some universities refused to enroll holders of the cards following their expiration in June 2020. Afghan students were eligible to seek admission to Pakistani public and private colleges and universities.
Durable Solutions: The government did not accept refugees for resettlement from other countries and did not facilitate local integration. The government does not accord Pakistani citizenship to the children of Afghan refugees, but it established a parliamentary committee to evaluate the possibility of extending citizenship to Pakistani-born children of refugees and stateless persons.
g. Stateless Persons
Statelessness continued to be a problem. There is no national legislation on statelessness, and the government does not recognize the existence of stateless persons. International and national agencies estimated there were possibly thousands of stateless persons because of the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan and the 1971 partition of Pakistan and Bangladesh. UNHCR estimated there were sizable populations of Rohingya, Bihari, and Bengalis living in the country, a large percentage of whom were likely stateless, although comprehensive data was lacking.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is a criminal offense, with punishment for conviction that ranges from a minimum of 10 to 25 years in prison and a fine, to the death penalty. The penalty for conviction of gang rape is death or life imprisonment. The law does not explicitly criminalize spousal rape and defines rape as a crime committed by a man against a woman. Although rape was frequent, prosecutions were rare. The law provides for collection of DNA evidence and includes nondisclosure of a rape victim’s name, the right to legal representation of rape victims, relaxed reporting requirements for female victims, and enhanced penalties for rape of victims with mental or physical disabilities.
The government did not effectively enforce the 2006 Women’s Protection Act, which brought the crime of rape under the jurisdiction of criminal rather than Islamic courts. The law prohibits police from arresting or holding a female victim overnight at a police station without a civil court judge’s consent. The law requires a victim to complain directly to a sessions court, which tries heinous offenses. After recording the victim’s statement, the sessions court judge files a complaint, after which police may make arrests. NGOs reported the procedure created barriers for rape victims who could not travel to or access the courts. NGOs continued to report that rape was a severely underreported crime.
The Punjab Protection of Women against Violence Act provides legal protections for domestic abuse victims, including judicial protective orders and access to a new network of district-level women’s shelters. Centers provide women a range of services including assistance with the completion of first information reports regarding the crimes committed against them, first aid, medical examinations, posttrauma rehabilitation, free legal services, and a shelter home. The Punjab government funds four women’s career centers in Punjab universities, 12 crisis centers that provide legal and psychological services to women, and emergency shelters for women and children. The Punjab government established 16 women’s hostel authority in 12 districts to assist women in finding safe, affordable, temporary lodging while looking for work. They also established 68 additional day-care centers, bringing the total to 137 by year’s end. The provincial government also launched other economic empowerment programs, including the Punjab Small Industry cooperation Development Bank and the Kisan Ki Beti project, which aim to improve living standards of rural women through skill development.
Lahore uses a special court designed to focus exclusively on gender-based violence (GBV) crimes. The Lahore Gender-Based Violence Court receives the most serious cases in the district, such as aggravated rape, and offers enhanced protections to women and girls.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa lacks a comprehensive law addressing domestic violence.
There were no reliable national, provincial, or local statistics on rape due to underreporting and no centralized law-enforcement data collection system.
Prosecutions of reported rapes were rare, although there were reports that prosecution rates increased in response to police capacity building programs and public campaigns to combat the lack of awareness regarding rape and GBV. Police and NGOs reported individuals involved in other types of disputes sometimes filed false rape charges, reducing the ability of police to identify legitimate cases and proceed with prosecution. NGOs reported police sometimes accepted bribes from perpetrators, abused or threatened victims, and demanded victims drop charges, especially when suspected perpetrators were influential community leaders. Some police demanded bribes from victims before registering rape charges, and investigations were often superficial. Furthermore, accusations of rape were often resolved using extrajudicial measures, with the victim frequently forced to marry her attacker. Women who reported or spoke up against violence against women often faced pushback and harassment, including by police officials, which, according to civil society, discouraged victims from coming forward.
In the early morning of September 9, two men broke into the vehicle of a woman who, with her two children, had stalled on the road outside of Lahore. The men robbed the family and then raped the woman in front of her children. The woman was initially blamed by a top police official, who, based on his comments, implied the victim had been out too late at night. Police later apprehended one of the suspects.
The use of rape medical testing increased, but medical personnel in many areas did not have sufficient training or equipment, which further complicated prosecutions. Most victims of rape, particularly in rural areas, did not have access to the full range of treatment services. There were a limited number of women’s treatment centers, funded by the federal government and international donors. These centers had partnerships with local service providers to create networks that delivered a full spectrum of essential services to rape victims.
No specific federal law prohibits domestic violence, which was widespread. Police may charge acts of domestic violence as crimes pursuant to the penal code’s general provisions against assault and bodily injury. Provincial laws also prohibit acts of domestic violence. Forms of domestic violence reportedly included beating, physical disfigurement, shaving of women’s eyebrows and hair, and–in extreme cases–homicide. Dowry and other family-related disputes sometimes resulted in death or disfigurement by burning or acid.
Women who tried to report abuse often faced serious challenges. Police and judges were sometimes reluctant to act in domestic violence cases, viewing them as family problems. Instead of filing charges, police often responded by encouraging the parties to reconcile. Authorities routinely returned abused women to their abusive family members. Government officials reported a 25 percent increase in domestic violence incidents during COVID-19 lockdowns in eastern Punjab.
To address societal norms that disapprove of victims who report GBV, the government established women’s police stations, staffed by female officers, to offer women a safe place to report complaints and file charges. There was an inadequate number of women’s police stations, and they faced financial shortfalls and appropriate staffing shortages.
The government continued to operate the Crisis Center for Women in Distress, which referred abused women to NGOs for assistance. Numerous government-funded Shaheed Benazir Bhutto Centers for Women across the country provided legal aid, medical treatment, and psychosocial counseling. These centers served women who were victims of exploitation and violence. Officials later referred victims to dar–ul–amans, shelter houses for abused women and children, of which there were several hundred around the country. The dar-ul-amans also provided access to medical treatment. According to NGOs, the shelters did not offer other assistance to women, such as legal aid or counseling, and often served as halfway homes for women awaiting trial for adultery, but who in fact were victims of rape or other abuse.
Government centers lacked sufficient space, staff, and resources. Many overcrowded dar-ul-amans did not meet international standards. Some shelters did not offer access to basic needs such as showers, laundry supplies, or feminine hygiene products. In some cases individuals reportedly abused women at the government-run shelters, and staff severely restricted women’s movements or pressured them to return to their abusers. There were reports of women exploited in prostitution and sex trafficking in shelters. Some shelter staff reportedly discriminated against the shelter residents, assuming that if a woman fled her home, it was because she was a woman of ill repute.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): No national law addresses the practice of FGM/C. According to human rights groups and media reports, many Dawoodi Bohra Muslims practiced various forms of FGM/C. Some Dawoodi Bohras spoke publicly and signed online petitions against the practice. Some other isolated tribes and communities in rural Sindh and Balochistan also reportedly practiced FGM/C.
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Women were victims of various types of societal violence and abuse, including so-called honor killings, forced marriages and conversions, imposed isolation, and used as chattel to settle tribal disputes.
A 2004 law on honor killings, the 2011 Prevention of Antiwomen Practices Act, and the 2016 Criminal Law Amendment (Offenses in the Name or Pretext of Honor) Act criminalize acts committed against women in the name of traditional practices. Despite these laws, hundreds of women reportedly were victims of so-called honor killings, and many cases went unreported and unpunished. In many cases officials allowed the male involved in the alleged “crime of honor” to flee. Because these crimes generally occurred within families, many went unreported. Police and NGOs reported increased media coverage enabled law enforcement officers to take some action against these crimes.
In May, three men killed two teenage sisters in North Waziristan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, after a video showing them kissing a man circulated online. According to media reports, police arrested the victims’ father and brother for the crime and later apprehended a third suspect. They also arrested the 28-year-old man in the video, whose life was also in danger under tribal custom, on the grounds of “vulgarity.” Police conducted a swift investigation, over objections of tribal leadership and local elected officials. As of September the cases were pending with the trial court.
A Sindh police study publicized in February stated 769 persons, including 510 women, were victims of so-called honor killings in Sindh between 2014 and 2019. According to the report, police brought charges in 649 cases the courts awarded sentences in 19 cases, while the accused in 136 cases were acquitted; as of September, 494 cases were still pending trial. The conviction rate stood at 2 percent against the acquittal rate of 21 percent. On June 27, police found the mutilated body of a 24-year old woman named Wazeera Chacchar, who was stoned to death in a so-called honor killing case in Jamshoro, Sindh. Her post mortem report revealed she was gang raped before being killed and was pregnant at the time of the incident. Her father alleged her husband was behind the killing.
The law makes maiming or killing using a corrosive substance a crime and imposes stiff penalties against perpetrators. There were reports that the practice of disfigurement–including cutting off a woman’s nose or ears or throwing acid in their face, in connection with domestic disputes or so-called honor crimes–continued and that legal repercussions were rare.
The 2016 Sindh Hindu Marriage Act and the 2017 Hindu Marriage Act (applying to all other provinces) codify the legal mechanisms to formally register and prove the legitimacy of Hindu marriages. The 2017 Hindu Marriage Act allows for the termination of the marriage upon the conversion of one party to a religion other than Hinduism. Some activists claimed the latter provision weakens the government’s ability to protect against forced marriage and conversion. The 2016 Sindh Hindu Marriage Act also applies to Sikh marriages. The Punjab Sikh Anand Karaj Marriage Act 2018 allows local government officials to register marriages between a Sikh man and Sikh woman solemnized by a Sikh Anand Karaj marriage registrar.
The 2011 Prevention of Antiwomen Practices Amendment Act criminalizes and punishes the giving of a woman in marriage to settle a civil or criminal dispute; depriving a woman of her rights to inherit movable or immovable property by deceitful or illegal means; coercing or in any manner compelling a woman to enter into marriage; and compelling, arranging, or facilitating the marriage of a woman with the Quran, including forcing her to take an oath on the Quran to remain unmarried or not to claim her share of an inheritance. Although prohibited by law, these practices continued in some areas.
The 2012 National Commission on the Status of Women Bill provides for the commission’s financial and administrative autonomy to investigate violations of women’s rights.
On October 8, the minister of religious affairs banned the use of dowry, with the exception of bridal clothing and bedsheets.
Sexual Harassment: Although several laws criminalize sexual harassment in the workplace and public sphere, the problem was reportedly widespread. The law requires all provinces to have provincial-level ombudsmen. All provinces and Gilgit-Baltistan had established ombudsmen. During the year the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly passed its provincial law for the prevention of the harassment of women.
Meesha Shafi and eight others accused pop singer Ali Zafar of sexual harassment in 2018. He denied the accusations and filed suit against the women. In September the accusers were charged with defamation; if convicted, they faced up to three years in prison.
Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of children, but often lacked access to information and the means to make informed decisions. Couples and individuals did not have the ability to attain the highest standard of reproductive health, free from discrimination, coercion, and violence. The government provided regular access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence. All sexual violence cases reported in a public facility are also reported to the police. Survivors of sexual violence are provided with a clinical exam and treatment; female survivors are offered emergency contraceptives. Other services provided to survivors of sexual violence vary by province. During the year the Lahore High Court declared virginity tests illegal and of no forensic value in cases of sexual violence.
Young girls and women were especially vulnerable to problems related to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights, and often lacked information and means to access care. Spousal opposition also contributed to the challenges women faced in obtaining contraception or delaying pregnancy. Women, particularly in rural areas, faced difficulty in accessing education on health and reproductive rights due to social constraints, which also complicated data collection.
The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Provincial Assembly passed the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Reproductive Healthcare Rights Bill in July 2020, requiring the provincial government to provide reproductive healthcare information, to provide quality family planning services including short-term, long-term, and permanent methods of contraception, and to enable local access to contraceptives. The Sindh Assembly passed the Sindh Reproductive Healthcare Rights Bill in November 2019 to strengthen access to rural health centers and family planning resources, and to reduce the complications related to pregnancy and childbirth.
According to the most recent UN research, the maternal mortality ratio was 140 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2017, a rate attributed to a lack of health information and services. Few women in rural areas had access to skilled attendants during childbirth, including essential obstetric and postpartum care. UNICEF estimated that direct and indirect effects of COVID-19 led to a 14.5 percent increase in child mortality and a 21.3 percent increase in maternal mortality in 2020.
According to the National Institute of Population Studies’ 2017-18 Demographic and Health Survey, 86 percent of women received prenatal care. UNICEF data stated that skilled healthcare providers delivered 71 percent of births in 2019. The World Health Organization, citing 2010-2018 data, reported an adolescent birth rate of 46 per 1,000 women aged 15-19 years.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
Discrimination: Women faced legal and economic discrimination. The law prohibits discrimination based on sex, but authorities did not enforce it. Women also faced discrimination in employment, family law, property law, and the judicial system. Family law provides protection for women in cases of divorce, including requirements for maintenance, and sets clear guidelines for custody of minor children and their maintenance. Many women were unaware of these legal protections or were unable to obtain legal counsel to enforce them. Divorced women often were left with no means of support, as their families ostracized them. Women are legally free to marry without family consent, but society frequently ostracized women who did so, or they risked becoming victims of honor crimes.
The law entitles female children to one-half the inheritance of male children. Wives inherit one-eighth of their husbands’ estates. Women often received far less than their legal entitlement. In addition, complicated family disputes and the costs and time of lengthy court procedures reportedly discouraged women from pursuing legal challenges to inheritance discrimination. During the year Khyber Pakhtunkhwa passed a law for the protection of women’s inheritance rights and appointed a female independent ombudsperson charged with hearing complaints, starting investigations, and making referrals for enforcement of inheritance rights.
Media reported that imams and other marriage registrars illegally meddled with nikah namas, Islamic marriage contracts that often detail divorce rights, to limit rights of women in marriage. In other instances, women signing the contracts were not fully informed of their contents.
During the year civil society actors reported that only 7 percent of women had access to financial inclusion services in Pakistan and that women had limited access to credit.