CIVICUS speaks with Mohammed Ismail, a longstanding member of CIVICUS’ Affinity Group of National Associations (AGNA), a network of 90 national and regional civil society platforms from around the world. Professor Ismail is the focal person for the Pakistan NGO Forum (PNF), an umbrella body of civil society organisations (CSOs) in Pakistan.
Mohammed Ismail and his family have been facing various forms of harassment, intimidation and threats due to the activism of his daughter, Gulalai Ismail. Due to persecution, Gulalai fled Pakistan and applied for asylum in the USA. In July 2019, Mohammed was accused under the Anti-Terrorism Act and on 24 October 2019 he was detained, and further charges were brought against him under the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act. He was granted conditional bail on 5 December 2019 and released. The charges against him are still pending.
Can you tell us about the charges and harassment leading to your arrest? Why do you think you have been targeted?
I have been targeted because of my daughter’s activism. In May 2018, my daughter Gulalai Ismail, a women’s rights activist, visited South Waziristan, an area on the border with Afghanistan, which was once a hub for international terrorism. Residents of the area have been complaining that the Pakistani army was protecting the militants, killing peaceful citizens and destroying their property.
Gulalai visited an area named Khaisoor along with a group of women human rights activists. Women and girls shared their stories about sexual harassment by army personnel. Gulalai assured them that she would highlight their situation and work on the issue of sexual harassment of women and girls in conflict areas. In May 2019, a nine-year-old girl whose parents had been internally displaced from tribal areas experiencing conflict was raped and killed in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. The police refused to file a first information report (FIR) of the incident, and instead abused and harassed the father and brother of the child in the police station. Gulalai led a protest in Islamabad against police brutality and misconduct and spoke up about sexual harassment of women and girls in tribal areas and of the internally displaced population from tribal areas.
Gulalai is also an active member of the newly emerged young Pashtun movement known as the Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM), which has been voicing demands for a truth-finding process around war crimes committed by security forces in conflict areas. They have also made demands for the recovery of missing people, for perpetrators to be brought before the law, the clearing of landmines, compensation for houses and markets destroyed and the protection of people’s fundamental rights.
Due to her activism, the government brought two criminal cases against Gulalai for attending gatherings of the PTM, but these were quashed by the courts. A few months later Gulalai was arrested at Islamabad Airport by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) on her arrival from London and her name was put on the Exit Control List (ECL), which bans her from travelling outside the country.
In February 2019, Gulalai was picked by security agencies at the Islamabad Press Club while she was attending a protest for the release of PTM activists, but her name was not on the list of people arrested and she went missing for 36 hours. She was produced and released by the Pakistani army after the Prime Minister of Pakistan interceded.
On 22 May 2019 the Islamabad police registered six counts of sedition charges against her in different police stations. Gulalai heard the news from various TV channels and stayed with friends to evade arrest. The army and the police raided our home in Islamabad and two army vehicles conducted surveillance on us for 24 hours. The army and the police also raided the homes of relatives while searching for Gulalai.
When the police could not arrest Gulalai, they retaliated by registering a case against me, my wife and Gulalai. They accused Gulalai of raising funds for her organisation and distributing them to terrorists through me and my wife. We were charged with financing terrorism.
I filed a writ petition in the Peshawar High Court for them to quash the charges on the basis that they were based on mala fide (bad faith). The Peshawar High Court then issued a stay order till the writ petition could be heard by them.
Can you tell us about your arrest? How did it happen? Where were you taken to?
Around midnight on 17 October 2019, the doorbell rang at our home. I checked the CCTV cameras and saw two vehicles outside. Two persons were going around on bikes and four were standing in front of our door. Two of them had masks on their heads and pistols in their hands and were standing at both sides of the door. One had a Kalashnikov and the other rang the bell.
I came to the door and asked who they were. They told me that they were police officers and I should come out. I refused and said that at that time of night, they could very well be criminals. They stood around for at least 40 minutes and finally left.
My children advised me to leave Islamabad for a few days, so I shifted to another area. The hearing of my writ petition in Peshawar High Court was scheduled for 24 October 2019. I waited in the courtroom but due to delays my case was adjourned to another date. As I came out of the court, uniformed people were waiting for me at the gate. They started beating me and dragged me into a car. The car had a siren and rushed out of the city towards the tribal areas. Then they received a call and took me to a FIA office.
What happened after you were detained?
I asked the staff present at the FIA office why I had been treated this way, why I was being humiliated and what my crime was. They told me that they had nothing to do with my arrest. The people who detained me were from the Army Intelligence Agency (ISI) and they were waiting for further orders on what to do with me. They took away my mobile phone, laptop and purse. Eight hours after my abduction they registered a FIR against me and charged me for cybercrimes. The FIR stated that I had used social media to spread hate. I was kept in lockup. I was not provided with bedding or food. There were other people charged with smuggling in the lockup who provided me with a blanket and water to drink.
The next day I was presented to a magistrate and sent to Peshawar Prison, where I was kept with drug addicts and again I was not provided with any bedding or blanket. My relatives and friends were not allowed to visit me or bring me the items I needed. I made a complaint to the magistrate when I was presented to him 14 days later, but he told me that it was not in his domain to provide me with the necessary items.
The food provided was below standard and of low quality while medicine was not available. The latrines were dirty and I had to sleep on the ground. I stayed in prison for 34 days without any of the facilities required by a normal person. I wrote to the Chief Justice of Peshawar High Court and Supreme Court of Pakistan about the violations of the human rights of prisoners in Peshawar Prison.
Why do you think you were released?
My bail application was rejected by the Session Court judges but the Peshawar High Court granted me conditional bail. The judge asked me to support the government of Pakistan and show the positive face of Pakistan to the world so that Pakistan could be removed from the grey list of the Financial Action Task Force, an organisation combatting money laundering and terrorism financing. I was further told not to use social media.
What is the current status with your case and charges?
In the first case, related to terrorism financing I am on pre-arrest bail. I am waiting for the decision of the Peshawar High Court. If the case registered against my wife, my daughter and I is quashed by the High Court, then this case will end. Otherwise my wife and I will be handed over to ISI and the Anti-Terrorism Police. In the second case related to cybercrimes, I am on bail and waiting for the start of the case in court. Further, my wife and I have been put on the ECL, so we cannot travel outside Pakistan. If we are acquitted, we will file a writ petition that will allow us to travel.
Are other activists facing similar restrictions in Pakistan?
Yes, they are. For example, PTM activists in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province are arrested on a regular basis on cybercrime charges. The government and the army have lost their patience with dissident voices. There is censorship, which is why Pakistan ranks poorly for media independence. Political opponents are also arrested on trumped-up corruption charges.
People supported me and condemned my arrest by making my case trend on Twitter. But only one CSO – the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan – raised its voice for me. All other CSOs have surrendered to the army and the government and have lost the courage to raise their voices against the abduction of human rights defenders.
What can the international community do to support your case?
I still need support from the international community to urge the government of Pakistan to withdraw the cases registered against my wife and I and get us off the ECL so that we can recover our right to free movement. It will also be important to target the Chief Justice of Pakistan so he can use his power to protect the rights of human rights defenders in Pakistan.
It would be good if my case can be raised with the international media, international human rights organisations, the United Nations system, the US State Department and the European Union. I am thankful to CIVICUS for raising your voices for me on various forums.