High Court censures police violence against Baloch students
The strongly-worded court order reads: “The use of excessive and unwarranted force, followed by registration of a criminal case, was definitely abuse of state power contrary to public interest and the fundamental rights guaranteed under the constitution.
“Raising slogans, no matter how harsh, by no stretch of the imagination, can be treated as a criminal conspiracy or an offence. The offences mentioned in the FIR [First Information Report or initial charges registered by police against the students] also show that, prima facie, an attempt has been made to create a chilling effect to discourage dissent and expressing grievances stemming from the acts or inaction of the state.”
Islamabad High Court Chief Justice Athar Minallah said the students were being “racially profiled” which, he said, was “serious and unconstitutional”.
In an earlier hearing of the case on 5 March, Minallah turned the tables on police and officials saying “acts of violence amounting to sedition on the part of state functionaries are unpardonable and intolerable”.
The call for protest by the Baloch Students Council came after Hafeez Baloch, an MPhil physics student at Islamabad’s Quaid-e-Azam University, went missing in February when he was in Khuzdar city, Balochistan on a visit home. The protesting students blamed government security agencies for what they termed the “forced disappearance” of Baloch.
One of the protesting students, Akram Baloch, told University World News: “We are continuing our protest against forced disappearances, harassment and racial profiling of Baloch students and demand the safe recovery of Hafeez Baloch who, we believe, has been lifted by the security agencies for being vocal against the infringement of our rights.”
Baloch students come under suspicion by security agencies due to an ongoing separatist movement by dissident Baloch leaders. The Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), a banned organisation which operates from Afghanistan territory close to the Pakistan border, has been accused of misleading Baloch students while BLA has claimed responsibility for armed attacks on convoys of security forces since the year 2000.
Balochistan province is the least developed of Pakistan’s federal units.
On 1 March police attacked the camp of protesting students, wielding batons to disperse them, resulting in six students being hospitalised for their injuries. The police could not make any arrests at the time as the students resisted and refused to disperse, but the police registered cases against them, invoking sedition and criminal charges.
The student sit-in continues to date in front of Islamabad’s National Press Club.
High court petition
Protest participant Imaan Zainab Mazari, a lawyer by profession, petitioned the Islamabad High Court in respect of the high-handed treatment of protesters by police, questioning the legitimacy of criminal and treason charges against the peaceful protesters. The petition contended that the police case against the student protesters was baseless and illegal, and should be dismissed.
Imaan Zainab Mazari, who was also charged with sedition, is the daughter of Federal Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari. Imaan has been critical of the performance of her mother’s ministry.
Mohsin Dawar, a member of Pakistan’s National Assembly, was also charged with sedition as he visited the protesting students to assure them of his support for raising their voices against forced disappearances of students from the restive southwestern province of Balochistan.
During a hearing on Monday 7 March, Minallah condemned the government for bringing sedition charges against university students for a protest assembly.
“Sedition charges should be framed against those who have registered these cases against peaceful students. The government, instead of listening to their demand, has baton-charged them,” the chief justice said, showing his displeasure at the treatment meted out to students.
He said it was sad that no one from the government paid a visit to the camp of the protesting Baloch students. The court will not allow silencing the voice of Baloch students, he said, observing that a forum should be provided to students to raise their concerns.
During the hearing, the government was represented by Khalid Jawed Khan, attorney general of Pakistan; Ahsan Younas, inspector general of Police; Inamullah Khan, secretary of the Human Rights Ministry; and a representative of the home secretary.
After the court’s rebuke, Khan apologised to the students in front of the chief justice, while Younas said the dispersal attempt was for security reasons as the Australian cricket team was in the city at the time. However, Younas was unable to satisfy the court concerning the reasons for invoking criminal and sedition charges against the students.
Chief Commissioner Amir Ali Ahmed, who is the administrative head of the federal capital territory of Islamabad, admitted that the use of force against the university students was “excessive”.
Minallah was about to quash the cases against the students when the attorney general requested some time to finish the cases through proper procedures. This was granted by the court and the hearing was adjourned to 21 March. A court order bars law enforcement agencies from taking any action against the protest participants.
After the court order, Federal Minister Shireen Mazari visited the student protest camp on 8 March and assured protesters the government would listen to their demands. However, Akram Baloch told University World News that “nothing concrete has happened so far as the human rights minister assured us [she would] set up a committee to resolve our grievances but after that no one has contacted us, nor has the formation of the committee been announced”.