The Pakistani constitution provides safeguards for freedom of association and workers’ rights, but the situation on the ground reflects the government’s as well as extremists’ determination to undermine many of these protections. In 2007, there were attacks on the autonomy of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), threats against union leaders and laborers, and violence against political protesters and activists. Most notably, President Pervez Musharraf ushered in several weeks of mass arrests and intense violence by declaring a state of emergency on November 3, effectively dismantling the constitution and the judiciary for political gain. Thousands of people protesting the October presidential election and emergency rule were arrested or killed in crackdowns throughout November and December.
Freedom of Association
NGOs have existed in Pakistan since its separation from India in 1947. They are not required to register with the government, but choosing not to register limits the benefits they are eligible to receive and the type of work in which they can engage. Despite this, less than half of the 100,000 or more NGOs in Pakistan are registered. Unregistered NGOs have reduced funding capabilities, and they are often disqualified from receiving government grants. Private and international funding is generally unrestricted for NGOs, regardless of their registration status.
At the beginning of 2007, the Ministry of Social Welfare and Special Education launched a code of conduct that was widely protested by the NGO community. The code gives the government powers to regulate NGO activity, alter the groups’ staff or management, and freeze the assets of noncompliant organizations.
Several NGOs came under attack in 2007. According to the United Nations’ IRIN news service, at least seven NGOs were bombed in North-West Frontier Province alone. Drivers and staff members were also beaten up or threatened in the province. In Pakistani-administered Kashmir, up to 49 NGOs and international offices, including a UN office, suspended their activities in earthquake-affected Bagh district in May due to threats and physical violence, temporarily halting projects worth over $82 million. Several NGOs were targeted by Islamist groups for employing female staff members. NGOs and religious and community leaders in Bagh reached a resolution in June, when they agreed to accept the international code of conduct followed by NGOs worldwide. With respect to NGO operations in areas of Baluchistan that were struck by Cyclone Yemyin in June, Pakistani bureaucratic obstacles significantly delayed the import of goods for the relief effort. The rules particularly affected materials needed for NGO infrastructure in the area and supplies that came from India. In addition, the government hampered relief efforts by requiring that relief materials be sent through government agencies.
Workers’ rights are protected in several articles of the constitution, including Article 17, which covers the right to form trade unions. The constitution grants unions the right to collective bargaining and the right to strike, but in 2000 the government imposed a ban on outdoor political meetings, processions, and strikes. In 2006, the National Coalition against Bonded Labour was formed to combat the ongoing problem of forced labor, particularly in Sindh province. According to news reports, bonded laborers often sell their organs, particularly their kidneys, in order to escape servitude. This led the Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation to issue the Transplantation of Human Organs and Tissues Ordinance of 2007. The ordinance, which took nearly 15 years to pass, aims to promote a culture of organ donation in order to put an end to the exploitation of the poor for their organs.
Freedom of Assembly
In an effort to preserve his political power, Musharraf called a state of emergency on November 3, 2007, suspended the constitution, imposed a media blackout, and fired the entire Supreme Court. Hundreds of lawyers across the country took to the streets in protest, defying a ban on public gatherings. The police responded with violence and arrests. Two labor leaders, along with several hundred lawyers and journalists, were arrested at a November 5 rally. The labor leaders face the death penalty for their actions, and their arrests caused several other leaders to go into hiding. On November 8, a trade union leader was charged with treason for making antigovernment speeches in Karachi. The crackdown has limited the ability of unions and workers to act freely and without intimidation.
Musharraf had launched a heavy attack against freedom of association and assembly even prior to emergency rule. He suspended Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry for “misuse of office” on March 9. The move sparked weeks of protests by the country’s lawyers and the political opposition, and police beat and detained hundreds of the demonstrators. In May, with the backing of thousands of lawyers and civil servants, Chaudhry attempted to address the Sindh High Court Bar Association but was met by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a major coalition partner of the government. The group tried to prevent Chaudhry from entering Karachi, and 42 people died in the ensuing clash. Musharraf reinstated Chaudhry in July, only to oust him again in November when he dismantled the judiciary.
In September, dozens of activists were arrested during a protest against the Supreme Court’s dismissal of legal challenges to Musharraf’s bid for reelection. Separately, hundreds of activists from the opposition Pakistan Muslim League (N) party were arrested in anticipation of the arrival of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who returned to the country after seven years of exile. In October, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto of the Pakistan Peoples Party also returned to the country, after eight years of self-imposed exile. Her welcome rally was marred by two explosions that killed over 100 people and wounded several hundred more. In December, Bhutto was assassinated as she addressed thousands of supporters at an election rally in Rawalpindi. She was reportedly struck by gunfire, and a suicide bomb aimed at her vehicle killed at least 20 of her supporters. A wave of violence hit the nation after her death.
Thousands of lawyers, journalists, human rights activists, and political opposition party members were arrested, teargassed, and beaten throughout November in protests led by the lawyers. Most were detained under the Maintenance of Public Order Ordinance of 1960 or the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997. Although roughly 1,800 people were arrested according to official figures, opposition groups said the number was closer to 3,500; hundreds of those detained were lawyers. Although the mass arrests acted as a deterrent in some regions, lawyers continued to organize and defy emergency rule. Musharraf soon announced Ordinance 69, which, according to Human Rights Watch, was created to end the independence of the Pakistani judiciary and bar associations at both the local and national levels. The ordinance essentially allowed the government to disbar any lawyers who were involved in antigovernment activity or whom officials deemed undesirable. Though emergency rule ended on December 15, many of those arrested remained in custody at year’s end.