Manzoor Pashteen’s fresh detention allegedly by spy agencies will not quell the Pashtun movement
The arrest of the charismatic Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) chief Manzoor Pashteen early this week on the hazy and contentious charge of attacking Pakistani security forces comes across at first glance as a typically brazen and unsavoury move by a military establishment that is seeking to seal and restate its hold and power across the country. The action against one of the establishment’s most vocal and fearless critics – one whose arguments and allegations the establishment has consistently struggled to respond adequately or eloquently enough to – may be aimed at cowering the young Pashtun leader into submission, but the actual impact it could have may be diametrically opposite. The Pakistani establishment, which over the last few months appears to have solidified and strengthened its hold over the Pakistani State and its institutions, does not seem to have learnt from past experience in dealing with the several opposition and armed opposition groups that have become a prominent part of the Pakistani political and security landscape. Had the right lessons been drawn, the realization would have dawned that arresting Manzoor Pashteen would provide not even a temporary solution, and that the only way to address Pashtun grievances would be to initiate a dialogue with popular and respected Pashtun leaders such as Pashteen.
Conflicting claims have been proffered by government authorities and the PTM regarding the circumstances surrounding the 29-year-old Manzoor Pashteen’s arrest on 4 December. The PTM chief was reportedly in Chaman to attend a large demonstration demanding the reversal of a government policy which had made it mandatory for Afghan nationals to carry a Pakistani visa to enter the country. Olus Yar Wazir, the PTM spokesperson in Islamabad, elaborated that “Manzoor also gave speeches in Chaman. Right after the speeches as he decided to leave for Turbat (via Quetta), security forces opened fire at him and arrested him… He spoke of the humanitarian crisis that was brewing in the region and how the people here are being bereft of their livelihood”.
The Pakistani Geo News reported that Pashteen was arrested after his security guards allegedly clashed with the police and opened fire, injuring four people. It quoted officials as saying that security personnel from the police, levies and the Frontier Corps (FC) were carrying out routine checks when the armed guards accompanying Pashteen refused to stop the vehicle on which he was travelling, and opened fire at the security forces. The official said that the forces retaliated and fired at the tyres of the PTM chief's vehicle, but Pashteen, along with the armed guards, managed to flee the scene. A PTM spokesperson, however, informed that Pashteen, along with his entourage, had later returned to Chaman and surrendered before the authorities.
The PTM stated shortly after the arrest that Pashteen was heading from Chaman to Turbat, where protests have been taking place against an alleged extra-judicial killing, when “police and army carried out straight firing on his vehicle”. According to a party spokesperson, eight bullets were fired at Pashteen's vehicle, injuring one woman, who is being treated in a hospital. A statement posted at that time by the PTM’s social media team on Pashteen’s account on X said that efforts were underway to arrest Pashteen, and that “police, Frontier Corps and the army had besieged” the area.
A few hours later, Raja Athar Abbas, the Deputy Commissioner of Chaman, alleged that the PTM chief had been arrested after police forces were fired at from his vehicle. Speaking to the Pakistani daily Dawn, Abbas alleged that “Today, police were fired at from Pashteen’s car on Mall Road”, and added that a case had been registered against the PTM leader. Abbas informed that levies and police personnel had arrested the PTM leader from the Gudhamo area in connection with the firing incident, as well as a ban on Pashteen’s entry into Balochistan, and that Pashteen would later be presented before a district magistrate. The PTM’s Olus Yar Wazir, however, countered this version and argued that “They are only trying to criminalize and label him. Why would he or his people need to open fire at the state’s security forces? Didn’t he know that he would be chased after that?”
The Caretaker Information Minister of Balochistan province, Jan Achakzai described the PTM as an “anti-Pakistan organisation”. Achakzai claimed that youth and civil society members in Balochistan had demanded that the PTM be banned. “Through social media and other sources, people are declaring the PTM a terrorist organisation”, he claimed. Achakzai also said that “The provincial government is closely viewing this situation and will take a strict decision if the need arises”. The minister revealed that “The Balochistan government is mulling a ban on PTM in the province”. He further claimed that Pashteen had already been banned from entering Balochistan, and that this ban had been notified three times by the Interior Ministry. Achakzai concluded the press conference in Quetta by saying that “He still came to Chaman and staged a rally without the government’s permission. They should have left but he sought refuge in a village… He was hiding there with his guards. We have no information about any firing. He has his own guards, firing can also happen because of them”.
The claim of the Caretaker Information Minister and Pakistani officials about the ban on Pashteen from entering Balochistan province was torn apart by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). Senior member of HRCP Turbat, Ghani Parwaz, asserted that the repeated denial of entry to Pashteen in Balochistan on the grounds that his speeches were critical of the State and its security institutions, all the while using the pretext of maintaining peace and stability in the province, was wrong. Stressing that it was Pashteen’s constitutional right to enter the province and take part in peaceful protests, Parwaz added, “This is very wrong. Actually the State wants to pit marginalized communities against each other, by criminalizing them and posing them as terrorists. They don’t want them to unite. When they saw a Pushtun was coming to speak for Baloch rights they acted upon it”. Olus Yar Wazir concurred, and added that “It is obvious they don’t want any sort of political mobility here. Our protest has been ongoing for 45 days. They don’t want to make a whole movement out of it”.
Pashteen is not new to being targeted by the military establishment. Last year, he was booked on charges of treason and terrorism by the police in Punjab province following comments critical of the military that he had made during his speech at the Asma Jahangir Conference. The charge sheet against him had stated that Pashteen had hurled “baseless allegations” at the security agencies while his supporters chanted slogans against State institutions during the event held in a private hotel in Lahore. Geo News reminded that Pashteen’s arrest had come just a few months after another senior PTM leader Ali Wazir was arrested on 20 August after two charge sheets were registered against him and human rights lawyer Imaan Zainab Mazari-Hazir, accusing them of “treason” and alleging that they were involved in a controversial speech against State institutions. The duo had been granted bail on 28 August by an Islamabad anti-terrorism court (ATC).
Founded in 2014 by Pashteen and his group of young activists, the PTM advocates for the rights of ethnic Pashtuns who have been affected by the numerous conflicts and wars launched by the Pakistani military on their traditional lands. It has since emerged as a powerful socio-political force in the Pashtun belt of western Pakistan, as it successfully tapped into the public’s existing sense of alienation and lack of trust in Pakistan’s government and military. The PTM is known for its strong criticism of the all-powerful military for its role in enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings of rights activists and ethnic leaders. Fearing the worst given this background, the PTM pointed out on 6 December that even two days after his detention, Pashteen had not been produced in any court. As per Pakistani law, an accused who is arrested in any case needs to be produced before a competent court within 24 hours. Senior PTM member Zubair Shah said that Pashteen had been brought to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province from Balochistan on 5 December, and had been “forcibly” abducted by officials of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies from there. Al Jazeera quoted Shah as saying “We don’t know where he is any more. Nobody is giving us any police report to show why was he arrested and now he has been picked up by men in civilian clothing, who we believe are part of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies”.
A post shared on X from Manzoor Pashteen’s handle on 6 December read, “If PTM chief can be abducted and dislocated than how the ordinary people will be treated? Enforced disappearance of Manzoor Pashteen is a question mark for all political people”. Mohsin Dawar, a co-founder of the PTM and a former Member of Pakistan’s National Assembly, also conveyed his serious apprehensions about the state of affairs when he wrote yesterday that “It is very concerning that Manzoor Pashteen has not been produced in any court after being arrested on the 4 of December. He remains forcibly disappeared. The state is violating the law openly and brazenly. We demand the immediate production of Manzoor in court”. Protests, meanwhile, broke out at several places demanding Pashteen’s release. PTM member Badshah Pashteen was quoted in the local media as saying that “We have held several protests today for his release, but nothing has come of it. Protests have taken place in Quetta, Dera Ismail Khan, Tank, Bannu, Waziristan and Peshawar”.
Pashteen was eventually produced before an anti-terrorism court (ATC) in Islamabad on 7 December. The police sought a seven-day physical remand of the PTM chief, while Pashteen’s lawyer argued that there were no grounds for handing him over to the police as “Holding rallies is our right. Pashteen’s vehicle was fired at in Balochistan”. The lawyer also stressed the irregularities in Pashteen’s apprehension, describing it as a “kidnapping”, and highlighted the fact that the PTM chief had only been presented in court after three long days. The ATC, nonetheless, ignored these arguments and handed over the PTM chief’s custody to the police for seven days.
Condemnation of Pashteen’s arrest was immediate and widespread. The HRCP issued a statement in which it stressed that it was “alarmed to learn about PTM chief @ManzoorPashteen’s arrest yesterday in Chaman. Amid conflicting reports about the circumstances of the arrest, in which Mr Pashteen’s convoy allegedly clashed with law enforcement officials, it is clear that the PTM's leaders and supporters have been harassed continuously for what the state erroneously deems ‘anti-state’ activities. Indeed, the PTM has never resorted to violence and has merely exercised its right to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression. HRCP demands an impartial inquiry into Mr Pashteen’s arrest. The state must also cease its unwarranted antagonism against the movement’s leaders. Their legitimate grievances must be heard fairly”.
Another Human Rights organization, Paank, was equally concerned. It asserted that “The arrest and shooting of bullets at @ManzoorPashteen by Pakistani forces are highly condemnable. He was prevented from attending the sit-in protest against enforced disappearances in Turbat, Balochistan. This action by Pakistan reflects its oppressive behavior towards nations like the Baloch, Pashtuns, and others. Manzoor Pashteen had also intended to meet the families affected by fake encounters in Turbat. Pakistan has demonstrated that it not only takes lives but also denies the right to peaceful protest. The freedom of expression and the freedom to assemble are systematically curtailed by the Pakistani army in Balochistan. The international community has maintained silence on the atrocities committed by Pakistani forces in Balochistan”.
The Balochistan-based Baloch Voice for Justice, another human rights organization, also issued a statement in which it said that “Baloch Voice For Justice expresses strong condemnation of the State terrorism being perpetrated against the PTM chief @ManzoorPashteen. These actions not only violate the fundamental principles of justice, freedom, and democracy but also undermine the very fabric of our society”. Balochistan National Party (BNP) leader Akhtar Mengal posted on X: “He came all the way from Waziristan to get justice for Baloch this is the justice he got. ReleaseManzoorAhmadPashteen”.
Perhaps the most pertinent and far-reaching criticism of Pashteen’s arrest came from the seasoned Pashtun leader and former member of the Pakistani Senate, Afrasiab Khattak, when he underlined that Pashteen’s apprehension represented yet another effort by the establishment at pushing non-violent Pashtun youth to violence. Khattak wrote, “Baloch youth has already been pushed to the wall. Pol (political) parties aren’t uttering a word. Lawlessness will lead to the cycle of anarchy/fascism”.
What the establishment hoped to achieve by apprehending Pashteen, who has grown to embody courage and resistance in the eyes of the common Pashtun, is anybody’s guess, but that move, rather than a civil dialogue aimed sincerely at addressing the many legitimate grievances that the Pashtuns in Pakistan have, comes across as incredibly short-sighted and one that could take Pakistan in the scary direction that Khattak has predicted.