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Award-winning Rights Activist Detained Upon Return to Pakistan

by AFP
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Gulalai Ismail was released after public outcry but her travel documents remain in officials’ custody

A leading Pakistani women’s rights campaigner was detained for nearly nine hours after landing in Islamabad on Friday, activists said, sparking an outcry amid fears the space for dissent is shrinking.

The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) detained Gulalai Ismail on her return from the United Kingdom, according to Ismat Shahjahan, another activist who went to pick her up at Islamabad’s airport.

The brief detention caused a swift furor from other rights activists, including Amnesty International, which put out a statement demanding the release of Ismail, whose work on women’s rights has been recognized internationally. She was released later on Friday, Shahjahan said—but officials kept her travel documents.

“I kept on waiting just to make sure that she is not disappeared,” Shahjahan added.

Earlier, Ismail had released an audio message on her detention, which was verified by AFP. She said she had been detained for speaking at a rally in August for the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), a group calling for rights for the Pashtun tribal population of Pakistan’s restive northwest.

Nine other people detained under the same orders were still being held at a police station in Swabi, a district of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province where the rally took place, Shahjahan told AFP.

The PTM emerged at the start of this year with marches demanding the end of extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances committed by security forces against Pashtuns living in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan.

The movement has become less audible since June as campaigning geared up for a general election in July, which brought former cricketer Imran Khan to power in the country.

“Support for @Gulalai_Ismail by activists and general public proved fruitful,” the group tweeted after Ismail’s release. A photo of the activist smiling and raising her first while surrounded by six other women, including Shahjahan, swiftly did the rounds on social media. The image was sent to AFP by a PTM activist.

Ismail’s detention comes as Pakistan’s media and civil society have complained of ever-increasing pressure from the Army. “This is not an attack on Gulalai Ismail or PTM,” the activist said in her audio message. “This is an attack on our freedom of speech.”

Ismail was still a teenager in 2002 when she co-founded Aware Girls, an NGO that promotes gender equality in deeply conservative Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Among other accolades, she was awarded the Chirac Foundation Conflict Prevention Prize in 2016 and the Anna Politkovskaya Award in 2017.

“Instead of trying to silence human rights defenders, the new government must create a secure framework for those who raise their voices in the name of justice,” said Rabia Mehmood, a researcher for Amnesty, during Ismail’s detention.

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