Pakistani Kashmir * | Freedom House

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Pakistani Kashmir *

Pakistani Kashmir *

Freedom in the World 2007

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Although relations between India and Pakistan remained more cordial in 2006 than in previous years, little substantive progress was made on resolving the status of Kashmir. Meanwhile, the Pakistani government faced continuing demands for increased political rights from nationalist and pro-independence Kashmiri groups within Pakistani-administered Kashmir, which consisted of two administrative units—Azad Kashmir and the Northern Areas. Elections to the Azad Kashmir legislative assembly were held in July, but pro-independence candidates were again barred from standing for election. The entire process was widely regarded as rigged, ensuring a victory for pro-Islamabad parties. There was some sectarian violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslim groups in the Northern Areas in 2006, but large-scale incidents were less common due to a 2005 peace agreement between religious leaders as well as a crackdown on extremist groups by the authorities. Recovery and reconstruction efforts pertaining to the region’s devastating October 2005 earthquake, which killed more than 88,000 people and rendered several million others homeless, continued during 2006.

For centuries, Kashmir was ruled by Afghan, Sikh, and local strongmen. In 1846, the British seized control of the territory and sold it to the Hindu maharajah of the neighboring principality of Jammu. The maharajah later incorporated Ladakh and other surrounding areas into the new princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. When British India was partitioned into India and Pakistan in 1947, Maharajah Hari Singh tried to maintain Jammu and Kashmir’s independence. However, after Pakistani tribesmen invaded, he agreed to cede Jammu and Kashmir to India. In return, India promised autonomy and eventual self-determination for the territory.

India and Pakistan went to war over Kashmir within months of gaining their independence. As part of a UN-brokered cease-fire in January 1949 that established the present-day boundaries, Pakistan gained control of roughly one-third of Jammu and Kashmir, including the far northern and western areas, as well as a narrow sliver of land adjoining Indian-held Kashmir. India retained most of the Kashmir Valley along with Jammu and Ladakh.

Unlike India, Pakistan never formally annexed the portion of Kashmir under its control. The Karachi Agreement of April 1949 divided Pakistani-administered Kashmir into two distinct entities—Azad (Free) Kashmir and the Northern Areas. The Northern Areas consist of the five districts of Gilgit, Ghizer, Ghanche, Diamer, and Baltistan. Pakistan retained direct administrative control over the Northern Areas, while Azad Kashmir was given a larger degree of nominal self-government.

For several decades, an informal council administered Azad Kashmir. A legislative assembly was set up in 1970, and the 1974 interim constitution established a parliamentary system headed by a president and a prime minister. However, the political process in Azad Kashmir has been suspended on several occasions by the military rulers of Pakistan. In 1977, General Zia ul-Haq dissolved the legislative assembly and banned all political activity for eight years, and in 1991, the prime minister of Azad Kashmir was dismissed, arrested, and imprisoned in Pakistan.

Chronic infighting among Azad Kashmir’s various political factions has also allowed Islamabad to interfere with ease in the electoral process. In the 1996 state elections, Sultan Mahmud Chaudhary’s Azad Kashmir People’s Party (AKPP) emerged with a majority of seats. The outgoing Muslim Conference (MC) had boycotted the elections, accusing the AKPP of vote rigging and fraud. In elections held in July 2001, with a 48 percent turnout, the MC swept back into power, winning 30 out of 48 seats. However, Pakistani leader General Pervez Musharraf installed Sardar Muhammad Anwar Khan, a very recently serving general, as the president of Azad Kashmir later that month, amid speculation that Islamabad intended to reassert its control over the territory. Anwar’s term ended in 2006, and MC candidate Raja Zulqarnain Khan was elected to replace him following the July 2006 legislative assembly elections, in which 369 candidates from 15 parties contested the 41 directly elected seats. Musharraf nominee and MC leader Sardar Attique Ahmad Khan became prime minister, while the MC won a majority of seats in the assembly.

The lack of political representation in the Northern Areas has fueled demands for both formal inclusion within Pakistan and self-determination. In 1988, Gilgit was racked by unrest after the majority Shiite Muslims demanded an independent state. The Pakistani army suppressed the revolt with the help of armed Sunni Muslim tribesmen from a neighboring province. In 1999, the Pakistani Supreme Court directed the government to act within six months to give the Northern Areas an elected government with an independent judiciary. After the verdict, the Pakistani government announced a package that provided for an appellate court and an expanded and renamed Northern Areas Legislative Council (NALC). In August 2003, the NALC submitted a proposal to the Pakistani government that envisioned a more autonomous form of provincial government along the lines of what currently existed in Azad Kashmir. Elections to the NALC were held in October 2004, but the body continues to have few real fiscal and legislative powers, despite ongoing calls for federal authorities to devolve more power to local elected politicians. The Musharraf-backed Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-i-Azam) party currently dominates the NALC—it won only four seats, but was able to co-opt independent members—while exiled former national prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party serves as the main “opposition.”

Militant groups that had long been active in Azad Kashmir markedly expanded their presence in the Northern Areas during the Kargil conflict between Indian and Pakistani-backed forces in 1999, with many of them establishing offices in the region. Since early 2002, Musharraf has been under sustained international pressure to curb the activities of Pakistani-based militant groups. However, when he banned the movement of militants from the Pakistani portion of Kashmir into the Indian-held section in June 2003, hard-line Islamist groups in Azad Kashmir organized protest rallies denouncing his decision and vowed to continue their armed insurgency. Extremist groups that receive patronage from the Pakistani military continue to operate in both Azad Kashmir and the Northern Areas.

While the Pakistani authorities have readily provided support to armed militants fighting in India, they have been less tolerant of groups that espouse Kashmiri self-determination. In 2001, 12 small Kashmiri separatist groups in Azad Kashmir and the Northern Areas announced the formation of the All Parties National Alliance, which committed itself to fighting for an independent Kashmir. Nationalist and pro-independence groups in Pakistani-administered Kashmir, including the Balawaristan National Front, the Karakoram National Movement, and others, have continued to agitate for increased political representation.

Talks between India and Pakistan over the ultimate status of Kashmir, as well as other confidence-building measures, have continued regularly since a cease-fire was instituted in November 2003; periodic meetings between national leaders have made clear that they want to continue the dialogue. India and Pakistan agreed in February 2005 to start a bus service across the Line of Control (LOC) that separated the territory, linking the capitals of Indian and Pakistani Kashmir. After bureaucratic delays and despite threats from insurgent groups (militants attacked targets along the intended route twice before the bus line’s launch), the service started in April 2005. This historic opening allowed Kashmiri civilians to reunite with family members, many of whom had been separated and unable to see each other for decades. However, a meaningful and comprehensive resolution to the Kashmir dispute remains elusive.

In October 2005, Pakistani-administered Kashmir and parts of Indian-administered Kashmir, Afghanistan, and Pakistan were hit by a major earthquake, the epicenter of which was located near the Azad Kashmir capital of Muzaffarabad. At least 88,000 people were killed, 100,000 were injured, and several million were rendered homeless. After several weeks of wrangling, India and Pakistan agreed to open their border at several crossing points in order to facilitate family contacts and improve relief efforts, and India also allowed Pakistan to fly helicopters over previously restricted airspace. However, both governments were accused of allowing territorial sensitivities to overshadow the need to cooperate on a massive relief effort being conducted in very difficult mountainous terrain. The Pakistani military, which had thousands of troops based in the region, reportedly prioritized the safety and evacuation of its own personnel over the larger civilian rescue effort, leading to growing resentment within the Kashmiri population against the Pakistani government. In contrast, militant groups won praise for their speedy response and relief efforts, which they conducted with logistical help from the military. Although international aid agencies have poured billions of dollars into the region, these programs have been marred by allegations that corruption has led to a delay in assisting those in need.

Sectarian tension between the majority Shias and the Sunnis in the Northern Areas, which first erupted into violence with 1988 riots that killed at least 150 people, continued to be a concern. Violent protests broke out in 2003 among Shias in Gilgit over the government’s decision to introduce a new educational curriculum. Attempts by Shias to campaign for changes to the curriculum led to the imposition of a curfew in Gilgit and several other parts of the Northern Areas in June 2004, after thousands of Shiite protesters clashed with security forces and attacked government buildings, offices, and a state-run hotel. Sectarian violence flared once again following the murder of a Shiite cleric in January 2005. It remained a problem over the course of the year, leading to prolonged curfews and nearly 100 deaths. The situation improved somewhat in 2006 after a group of religious leaders drew up a peace agreement and the authorities cracked down on extremist groups. However, sporadic attacks continued to occur.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

The political rights of the residents of Pakistani-administered Kashmir remain severely limited. Neither the Northern Areas nor Azad Kashmir have representation in Pakistan’s national parliament. The Northern Areas are directly administered by the Pakistani government under the Legal Framework Order of 1994; the region is not included in the Pakistani constitution and has no constitution of its own, meaning there is no fundamental guarantee of civic rights, democratic representation, or the separation of powers. Executive authority is vested in the minister for Kashmir affairs, a civil servant appointed by Islamabad. A 36-seat Northern Areas Legislative Council (NALC)—of which 24 seats are filled through direct elections and six each are reserved for women and technocrats from each district—serves in an advisory capacity and has no authority to change laws or control revenue. A number of bills and resolutions passed by the NALC in recent years have not been approved by the minister. Elections to the NALC were held in October 2004; candidates who won seats included independents as well as representatives of several national political parties.

Azad Kashmir has an interim constitution, an elected unicameral assembly, a prime minister, and a president who is elected by the legislative assembly. Both the president and the assembly serve five-year terms. Of the 49 seats in the assembly, 41 are filled through direct elections while eight are reserved seats (five for women, and one each for representatives of overseas Kashmiris, technocrats, and religious leaders). However, Pakistan exercises considerable control over both the structures of governance and electoral politics. Islamabad’s approval is required to pass legislation, and the minister for Kashmir affairs handles the daily administration of the state and controls the budget. The Pakistani military retains a guiding role on issues of politics and governance.

As explained in great detail by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a groundbreaking September 2006 report on the region, individuals and political parties who do not support Kashmir’s accession to Pakistan are barred from participating in the political process, standing for election, or taking a job with any government institution. At least 60 pro-independence candidates who belonged to the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), the All Parties Nationalist Alliance, and smaller political parties were barred from participating in the July 2006 Azad Kashmir legislative assembly elections. Overall, HRW noted that the election process was flawed and “greeted with widespread charges of poll rigging by opposition political parties and independent analysts.” However, unlike the 2001 elections, the poll featured few instances of physical violence or harassment—aside from threats—against candidates or their supporters, possibly as a result of the greater international presence in the wake of the earthquake. In general, anti-accession parties and individuals are subject to surveillance, harassment, and abuse by Pakistani intelligence and security services.

Azad Kashmir receives a large amount of financial aid from the Pakistani government, but successive administrations have been tainted by corruption and incompetence. A lack of official accountability has been identified as a key factor in the poor socioeconomic development of both Azad Kashmir and the Northern Areas. The International Crisis Group (ICG) recently reported that governance by non-local bureaucrats in the Northern Areas has led to a lack of accountability and transparency, and that local government capacity is weak. Pakistani-controlled Kashmir was not rated separately in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The Pakistani government uses the constitution and other laws to curb freedom of speech on a variety of subjects, including the status of Kashmir. In recent years, authorities have banned several local newspapers from publishing and have detained or otherwise harassed Kashmiri journalists. In 2004, the magazine Kargil International was banned after it published a pro-independence article, and its editor and publisher were arrested and charged with sedition in 2005. In early 2005, the federal government “advised” newspapers to restrict coverage of sectarian violence in the Northern Areas, allegedly out of a concern that sensationalized reporting would further inflame sectarian tensions. When a number of newspapers refused to refrain from covering such news, the government suspended official advertisements in eight newspapers that it alleged were covering the news in a sensational way. In addition to pressure and threats from the authorities, journalists face some harassment from nonstate actors. Khursheed Ahmed, the Gilgit bureau chief of the national Urdu daily Khabrain and the president of the Gilgit Press Club, was targeted in bomb attacks at his home in March and July of 2005. Ahmed speculated that the attacks may have been a retaliatory measure taken against local journalists who refused to publish the statements of extremist organizations. No such attacks were reported during 2006, however.

Internet access is not usually restricted but remains confined to urban centers. Deliberately limited telephone and mobile phone access has been expanded in the wake of the 2005 earthquake, and the presence of many foreign media outlets has also helped to partially open up a tightly controlled news and information environment in Azad Kashmir. Books that do not adequately adhere to a pro-accession stance are regularly banned, according to HRW.

Pakistan is an Islamic republic, and there are numerous restrictions on religious freedom. In addition, religious minorities face unofficial economic and societal discrimination and are occasionally subject to violent attack. Shias, who form the majority of the population in the Northern Areas, include a large number of Ismailis, a group that follows the Aga Khan. Sectarian strife between the majority Shiite population and the increasing number of Sunni Muslims (many of whom are migrants from elsewhere in Pakistan) first became a concern in 1988 and continues to be a problem. In June 2004, violence erupted in Gilgit between security forces and Shiite protesters who were campaigning for changes to be made in religious textbooks, which they said presented only a Sunni version of Islamic history. Until new textbooks can be designed, the old ones are still being used, but the contentious material is being omitted.

Sectarian tensions increased again after the January 2005 murder of Agha Ziauddin Rizvi, a prominent Shiite cleric who had led the campaign for the separate curriculum, by Sunni extremists, which sparked a wave of violence in which 15 people were killed. Although Gilgit and Skardu were placed under curfew for over a month and the Rangers, a paramilitary security force, were deployed to maintain peace, further waves of violence killed almost 100 civilians and caused an estimated 35,000 others to be evacuated. Extremists from both sides targeted the Ismaili community, with each group accusing them of supporting its rival, and carried out tit-for-tat reprisal killings, such as the March 2005 murder of former police inspector general Sakhiullah Tareen by Shiite assailants. Further friction developed between Shias in Gilgit and the Rangers in October 2005, following an armed attack on a bus. There were fewer violent incidents in 2006 thanks to a crackdown on extremist groups by authorities and a government-organized jirga (traditional tribal assembly) of sectarian religious leaders that drew up a peace agreement. However, sporadic attacks continued to take place. In November 2006, arsonists burned down an Ismaili place of worship in Chitral district, according to the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

Freedom of association and assembly are restricted. The constitution of Azad Kashmir forbids individuals and political parties from taking part in activities that are prejudicial to the ideology of the state’s accession to Pakistan. Political parties that advocate Kashmiri independence are allowed to operate but have not been able to participate in elections. According to Amnesty International, some people who do not support the accession of Azad Kashmir to Pakistan have been dismissed from their jobs and denied access to educational institutions. A number of nationalist political parties have been formed in the Northern Areas that advocate either self-rule or greater political representation within Pakistan. However, their leaders are subject to harassment, arbitrary arrest, and long jail terms. The Balawaristan National Front, which advocates independence for the Northern Areas, estimates that more than 70 individuals are facing sedition or treason cases as a result of their political activities.

Police in recent years have suppressed antigovernment demonstrations, sometimes violently, in both Azad Kashmir and the Northern Areas, and have imposed lengthy curfews in order to prevent protesters from assembling. The protests have included rallies by nationalist political organizations, student marches, and demonstrations by the Shiite or Sunni communities. In October 2005, 10 people were killed in clashes between Shiite students and security forces in Gilgit; press reports alleged that security forces had fired indiscriminately into a group of unarmed students who were protesting the death of another student in police custody. Police in Muzaffarabad also used excessive force to break up a November 2005 demonstration by earthquake survivors who were protesting their eviction from a camp. In February 2006, police detained leaders of the JKLF, including Amanullah Khan, after they attended a peaceful rally in Rawalpindi against the construction of the Basha Dam. Khan was detained for a week and was not permitted to receive visitors during that time, according to the U.S. State Department’s human rights report.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are generally able to operate freely. In 2003, the HRCP established an office in Gilgit to monitor the human rights situation in the region. However, the Aga Khan Rural Support Program—run by the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF), an international development organization that focuses on Ismaili communities worldwide—has been subjected to increasing harassment and violence. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2006 International Religious Freedom report, Sunni extremist groups in recent years have vandalized AKF-founded schools and health clinics and have attacked AKF personnel, although no such attacks were reported in 2006. Following the October 2005 earthquake, there were reports of some intimidation and violence directed at NGOs involved in the relief effort. The British Broadcasting Corporation reported that the Sindh-based Muttahida Qaumi Movement was forced to temporarily close its camps and abandon its relief efforts in November 2005 after repeated attacks and intimidation by suspected militants. The situation for labor rights in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir is similar to that in Pakistan.

The judiciary of the Northern Areas consists of district courts and a chief court, whose decisions are final. The NALC Legal Framework Order of 1994 provides for a separate court of appeals, and this was finally established in 2005. The territory continues to be governed by the colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulations, under which residents are required to report to local police stations once a month. Judges are appointed on three-year contracts, which can be extended “subject to performance.” The ICG has called that arrangement a recipe for judicial subservience to the executive. Azad Kashmir has its own system of local magistrates and high courts, whose heads are appointed by the president of Azad Kashmir. Appeals are adjudicated by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. There are also Islamic judges who handle criminal cases concerning Islamic law. According to the HRCP, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) operates throughout Azad Kashmir and the Northern Areas and engages in extensive surveillance and monitoring (particularly of pro-independence groups and the press), as well as arbitrary arrests and detentions. In some instances, those detained by the ISI, the police, or the security forces are tortured, and several cases of death in custody have been reported. Impunity for acts of torture and other mistreatment of civilians by the military and intelligence forces remains the norm.

A number of Islamist militant groups, including al-Qaeda, operate from bases in Pakistani-administered Kashmir with the tacit permission of Pakistani intelligence. Several militant groups that advocate the accession of Kashmir to Pakistan receive weapons and financial aid from the Pakistani government in support of their infiltrations into Indian-administered Kashmir. The militant presence increased in the Northern Areas during the 1999 Kargil conflict with India, and several militant groups continue to operate there and engage in anti-Shia activism. Under pressure from the United States, General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s president, undertook several steps in 2002 to curb infiltrations across the LOC, such as banning the main militant groups and persuading them to close some of their training camps in Azad Kashmir. Although infiltration into Indian-administered Kashmir has declined since 2004, neither the militant groups nor the Pakistani military has abandoned this tactic altogether. Tension between the Islamist, pro-Pakistan groups, and the pro-independence Kashmiri groups has reportedly intensified. Members of Indian Kashmiri militant groups who have crossed over into Azad Kashmir, many of whom have pro-independence leanings, face some discrimination and harassment from Pakistani authorities.

Until a bilateral cease-fire was declared in November 2003, shelling between Indian and Pakistani forces around the LOC in Kashmir killed or displaced numerous civilians; some of these people remain unable to return to their homes. In addition, the Azad Kashmir government manages relief camps for refugees from Indian-administered Kashmir, the bulk of whom arrived after the situation on the Indian side worsened in 1989. Many more of the refugees (approximately 1.5 million) live outside camps in Azad Kashmir and throughout Pakistan. The appropriation of land in the Northern Areas by non-Kashmiri migrants from elsewhere in Pakistan, which has been tacitly encouraged by the federal government and army, has led to dwindling economic opportunities for the local population as well as an increase in religious and ethnic tensions.

The status of women in Pakistani-administered Kashmir is similar to that of women in Pakistan. While the HRCP reports that honor killings and rape occur less frequently than in other areas of Pakistan, domestic violence, forced marriage, and other forms of abuse continue to be issues of concern. In the first reported case of its kind, three military personnel were accused in the rape of a woman in Azad Kashmir in July 2005; despite being pressured to withdraw the accusation, the family was able to have a case registered. Women are not granted equal rights under the law, and their educational opportunities and choice of marriage partner remain circumscribed. In February 2004, a spate of attacks by suspected Islamist hard-liners opposed to women’s education targeted girls’ schools in the Northern Areas.