By South Asia Press Team
The Pakistani Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa is on a 5-day official visit to the United States at the invitation of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, where he is scheduled to hold a series of meetings with senior US officials and, as well as visit the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) headquarters in Pentagon and Langley. Although the military’s media wing has kept the General’s itinerary and agenda guarded, his warm reception by the Biden administration had renewed speculations on the restoration of US-Pakistan security relations. On this occasion, we at South Asia Press will like to send a memorandum of questions that the US government, military and other officials should pose in front of General Bajwa, one of Pakistan’s most controversial army chief, known for his non-democratic interventions:
Question # 1: Why are Pakistani jihadis resurfacing once again in flood-hit regions of Pakistan?
In a recent investigation by South Asia Press (SAP), we revealed how the ongoing flood situation has facilitated the return of Islamist terrorist organizations, such as the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba, in nearly all regions of the country. On the surface, these terrorists want to serve the flood-affected people, but in reality, as SAP found out, they are using this opportunity to proselytize jihadi ideology and reestablish bases of support in the country. Not only that, these terror groups are also collecting funds, despite assurances from Pakistan to the international watchdog Financial Action Task Force (FATF) that terror-financing is no more allowed in the country. It is pertinent to mention here the long history of Pakistan’s armed forces and intelligence services of being involved in the formation of jihadi groups, as well as their attempts to utilize militant groups for their so-called strategic agendas – in Afghanistan, India, Kashmir and even against the separatist movement in Balochistan.
Question #2: Will the Pakistani Military stop interfering in the country’s democratic progress?
The Pakistan Army is being accused of orchestrating a move against the last government of Imran Khan this year and before that meddling in the 2018 elections in favor of Khan, and getting Nawaz Sharif, another former prime minister disqualified for life from contesting elections with fabricated charges, in collusion with the Pakistani judiciary.
General Bajwa is especially notorious in this regard as it is widely known in Pakistan that he sought an extension to his three year stipulated tenure as army chief and arm-twisted the civilian leadership to pass a law so that he could continue as the chief for another term. Bajwa who cherry-picked Khan to become the Prime Minister in 2018 did so by not only rigging the elections on the day of the vote but also using the military power to attack political opponents of Khan.
The Pakistan Armed Forces have a long history of direct and indirect control in the country since its creation in 1947, and the military leadership must be questioned over these practices that lead to a regression in the democratic process.
Question # 3: Can the Pakistani military be held accountable for the rampant human rights abuses in Balochistan?
The Baloch separatist movement in south-western Pakistan, is a well known insurgency, as old as Pakistan itself, with several secret and unannounced military operations by Pakistan’s Armed Forces in the region. The international advocacy group Human Rights Watch has documented the conduct of military atrocities, including extrajudicial killings, torture, and enforced disappearances targeting not only insurgents but innocent Baloch too. The battered bodies of Baloch missing persons are found on a daily basis in Balochistan. The military is also known to outsource military operations to private militias or “death squads”, revealed by an in-depth investigation by South Asia Press. Furthermore, representatives of the Baloch Human Rights Council have reported the exploitation of natural resources in the region, while the local population remains extremely poor. Now with the advent of Chinese interests in the area, it is being reported that the Baloch are being displaced from their own lands to make space for Chinese projects, that will only benefit the elites of the two countries.
Question #4: When will the Pakistani military close its secret military prisons that are spread throughout Pakistan?
The Pakistani Army operates secret military tribunals and internment centers all throughout Pakistan, including 43 secretive detention centres just in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which have become the sites of starvation, torture, and extrajudicial executions of insurgents, alleged terrorists, their sympathizers, human rights defenders, and anyone who criticizes the military’s oversized presence and role in the country.
There have been several cases of mysterious deaths being reported at these internment centers but no one has been held accountable.
Most recently, an Amnesty International report has documented the extrajudicial trial by the Pakistani military of a well-known activist Idris Khattak on charges of espionage, who had previously been a victim of enforced disappearance.
Question # 5 Why is Pakistani military best friends with the Afghan Taliban?
The Pakistani military is known for its close ties with the Afghan Taliban and one of the first official visitors after the fall of Kabul was General Faiz Hameed, the chief of Pakistan’s intel agency the ISI. He visited the Afghan capital right after the Taliban’s occupation of Afghanistan in August 2021. This visit led to the development of bilateral relations between the two countries, most prominently through coal exports and the implementation of infrastructure projects. Furthermore, Pakistan has also become one of the key promoters of the Afghan Taliban on the global front, appealing for the reestablishment of their relations with the international community, including the United States.
Question # 6: Can the Pakistani military stop censoring the local and international media operating in the country?
During Imran Khan’s four-year reign as prime minister, the Pakistani military was involved in several press freedom violations and attempts to interfere in the media, including harassment of journalists, physical attacks, shooting attacks, kidnappings, threats against journalists living abroad, blocking of broadcast signals and direct censorship of traditional media, video platforms and social media, according to a recent update by the Paris-based international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF). “There has been no let-up in the harassment of journalists since Khan’s replacement by Sharif as prime minister – quite the contrary,” reports RSF. “Arsalan Khan, an independent commentator who worked for Geo News TV for many years, was kidnapped from his home in the southern city of Karachi on 24 June,” the report adds.
Pakistan currently ranks an alarming 157 out of 180 in the media freedom index by RSF and this media clampdown is facilitated by draconian laws such as the Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Act 2021 and the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act 2016, including its proposed 2022 amendments.
According to RSF, Pakistani military regularly abducts journalists to intimidate them. RSF has documented several such cases in the past, for example, against the Express Tribune editor Bilal Farooqui in September 2020, court reporter Matiullah Jan in July 2020, and Taha Siddiqui, editor in chief of South Asia Press, who narrowly escaped a kidnapping and assassination attempt in 2018 and now lives in self-imposed exile in France.
“The many cases of harassment that RSF has registered in the past two months [since April 2022] have one thing in common – all the journalists concerned had, in one way or another, criticised the army’s role in Pakistani politics,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“It is clear from the data that the armed forces have launched a major campaign to intimidate critical journalists. This kind of interference, which is absolutely intolerable, must stop at once or else the Chief of the Army Staff, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, will be held directly responsible for the decline in press freedom in Pakistan,” the RSF representative adds.
Question #7: Why has there been an increase in cases of Transnational Repression under General Bajwa’s tenure as Pakistan army chief?
In the last five years under General Bajwa as army chief, there have been several cases of transnational repression in the West. The case of Waqas Goraya, a Pakistani social media activist living in self-imposed exile in Netherlands is the most recent of these incidents. Goraya had to go underground after the Dutch authorities tipped him off about an assassination plot against him. In a joint operation between the Dutch and British authorities, the would-be assassin of Goraya, Gohir Khan, a Pakistani origin British national was arrested and convicted to life by the UK courts. Police investigations reveal Khan had a handler in Pakistan who has disappeared since the plot got exposed. Preceding to this assassination attempt, several Pakistani dissidents have been contacted in recent years by foreign intelligence agencies to tell them of an assassination plot against them. Cases include prominent scholars like Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa, as reported by the Guardian this year, and of Mr. Siddiqui, editor-in-chief South Asia Press.
There are also questions over the two mysterious deaths of Pakistani exiled activists from Balochistan. The first happened in April 2020, in Sweden where Sajid Hussain went missing for some weeks and then was found dead in a river, and the second in December 2020 when Karima Baloch, another Baloch origin individual in exile in Canada was found dead in a lake after briefly going missing.
It is pertinent to note here that Pakistan’s last military Dictator General Pervez Musharraf had called for carrying out assassinations of Pakistani dissidents globally in an interview to a local journalist a few years ago.
We at South Asia Press hope that the US government officials meeting with Pakistan army chief General Bajwa this week question him and hold him accountable for the abusive practices of Pakistan army under his command. The US must ensure that any talk of future partnership between Pakistan and the US is conditional to the Pakistani military stopping its oppression against its own people at home and abroad.