Human Rights in Pakistan under General Zia-ul-Haq

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Under the government of General Zia-ul-Haq from 1977–1988, there was significant political and military repression in Pakistan. Among the complaints against the Muhammad Zia ul-Haq administration were its repression of press and journalists, repression of rape victims imprisoned for zina (extra-marital sex) under its Hudood Ordinance, and its repression of protestors, particularly after the execution of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and during the Movement for Restoration of Democracy campaign.

Zia-ul-Haq came to power as a result of a coup, overthrowing Pakistan's first popularly elected Prime minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Though the coup itself was bloodless, civilian opposition in parts of the country was substantial. Martial law was declared, senior civilian politicians opposing Zia were imprisoned, and less well known figures in opposition student groups, trade and journalist unions and political parties were ‘made an example of’ with public floggings.[1]

International geopolitics played a significant role in the state human rights in Pakistan during this time.[2] About two years after the coup, the Soviet Union invaded Pakistan's neighbor Afghanistan, transforming Pakistan and Zia's government into a key cold war ally of the United States, and giving Zia latitude to ignore internationally accepted human rights norms.[3]

Political freedom[edit]

1977 to 1979[edit]

On July 5, 1977 the forces of Pakistan army swiftly moved to arrest the Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, placing all the members of cabinet and leaders of Pakistan Peoples Party under house arrest. With entire party cadres under arrest, the regime faced little opposition until the death penalty for Bhutto was announced on 18 March 1978. His conviction was met with non-violent mass protests throughout Sindh and parts of Punjab. The protest in Nawabshah was crushed in first instance of mass murder by the regime where hundreds of protesting peasants were killed by use of combat helicopters on the orders of the provisional governor of Sindh Lieutenant-General S.M. Abbasi. This was followed by imposition of curfew in Nawabshah, Larkana, Sukkur, Hyderabad and parts of Karachi. The regime made thousands of arrests throughout Sindh and Punjab effectively banning display of the flag of Pakistan Peoples Party or its symbol. Cities throughout Sindh remained in continual state of curfew until April 4, 1979 when Bhutto was executed in secret, without a pre-announced date.[1] The execution was followed by pre-emptive curfew throughout Sindh and reactionary curfews in Multan, Bhawalpur and other parts of Punjab. More than 50 people protested in Lahore, Rawalpindi, Peshawar, by self-immolation while thousands of participants and onlookers were arrested and jailed on grounds ranging from disruption of public order to sedition and high treason.

Public flogging of political prisoners was carried out by "bare-chested wrestlers" during the martial law era. Martial Law Regulation no.48 of October 1979 invoked a maximum penalty of 25 lashes for taking part in political activities.[4] All political activities being banned at that time.[5] When Islamic punishment were introduced, women were also flogged, a fact that the Pakistan Human Rights Society protested in August 1983. In Liaqatpur, Bahawalpur, a woman was lashed for Zina in front of a crowd of 5000.[4]

Movement for Restoration of Democracy[edit]

In February, 1981 a coalition of eleven, primarily leftist, political parties led by Pakistan Peoples Party formed the Movement for Restoration of Democracy. The movement was strongest in Sindh, which was not favored by prosperity or by General Zia. According to author Ian Talbot "massive repression was required" to crush the MRD agitations in Larkana, Khairpur, Jacobabad and Nawabshah.[6] The governor of Sindh was "forced to admit" that 1999 people had been arrested, 189 killed and 126 injured in the opening three weeks of the Movement's campaign.[6] The movement claimed a death toll in thousands. In Nawabshah helicopters of Pakistan military used combat helicopters to shoot masses of protesting peasants.[7] In Sukkur protestors were bulldozed on the instruction of army officer in charge when they refused orders to move and stop protesting. The human rights group Amnesty International reported that torture, imprisonment and violation of human rights increased steadily during 1981 and 6,000 political prisoners were arrested in March 1981.[8]

On September 27, 1982, General Zia issued an executive decree, the Martial Law Regulation No. 53, allowing the death sentence as the prescribed punishment for "any offense liable to cause insecurity, fear or despondency amongst the public." Crimes punishable under this measure, which superseded civil law, included "any act with intent to impair the efficiency or impede the working" of, or cause damage to, public property or the smooth functioning of government. Another was abetting "in any manner whatsoever" the commission of such an offense. The regulation also prohibited the failure to inform the police or army of the "whereabouts or any other information about such a person." It also provided that "a military court on the basis of police or any other investigation alone may, unless the contrary is proved, presume that this accused has committed the offense charged." Thus reversing the principle of justice that citizens are innocent until proven guilty. The regulation was retroactive, as it "shall be deemed to have taken effect on July 5, 1977"—the day General Zia overthrew his predecessor Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.[9]

6 year old Fraz Wahlah leading a protest against marshal law in Pakistan shortly before his arrest, which made him the youngest political prisoner of the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy

During the 11 year regime of General Zia, international human rights groups repeatedly expressed concern over army's ruthless measures to suppress dissent. The Amnesty International, in a report released on 15 May 1978 expressed that, "We are very concerned at the use of flogging in Pakistan and are disturbed that this unusual punishment is also being inflicted on political prisoners for committing acts which often appear to be no more than exercise of the right of freedom of speech and expression guaranteed in the constitution. The first public hanging took place in March, after death sentences were passed by a military court on three civilians convicted for murder. At least 16 prisoners have so far been sentenced to floggings for political activities."[1][9]

According to The Economist magazine: "Relatives, many of them teenagers, have in some cases been held temporarily as hostages until a wanted person was found. Bhutto's Attorney General, Yahya Bakhtiar was beaten up in his cell in Quetta jail this month: his family was given his bloodstained clothes for cleaning."[9][10]

The Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists citing a report by the Lahore Bar Association, charged that "systematic torture" occurred in five Lahore prisons in 1984, particularly at a jail where many political detainees were held. Military courts are used increasingly to clear the backlog of cases in ordinary courts. The survey cited reports that the military courts decide cases in minutes and refuse defendants the rights to lawyers. Special military courts that try serious offenses allow defense counsel but "the judges often obstruct the lawyers in their work," the survey said.[9][11]

On 19 November 1985 the Amnesty International also accused the Zia regime of torturing and denying fair trials to political prisoners tried by special military courts. "As of September, more than 130 prisoners were serving sentences of between seven and 42 years after special military courts convicted them of political offenses or politically motivated criminal offenses. The military courts regularly use as evidence confessions extracted by torture while prisoners are hung upside down and beaten, given electric shocks, strapped to blocks of ice, deprived of food and sleep for two or three days and burned with cigarettes. Many prisoners are held in fetters and chains. People often are tried in courts held in closed session and denied the right of appeal to a higher court."[12] The number of prisoners held without trial and shot on site was estimated to be ten-fold.

In 1986 a national convention ended with a resolution calling for a commission to monitor human rights violations.[13]

International Commission of Jurists again published a report on 7 September 1987 stating that "some human rights abuses continue in Pakistan, including alleged military attacks on villagers, despite the lifting of martial law 20 months ago." The ICJ report cited reports by villagers who said their villages were raided and looted by soldiers sometimes accompanied by local police. "Some male villagers were shot to death and women beaten, in at least two cases pregnant women, who subsequently miscarried." [9] When Zia died in 1988, the reputed Paris daily Le Monde wrote, "Certainly, no defender of democracy or human rights is going to shed tears over General Zia's death." [14]

An estimated 20,000 political workers were hunted down and executed during the regime whereas thousands more fled around western Europe, the Middle East and United States to seek asylum.[citation needed]

The Zia-ul-Haq military regime coincided with much of the Soviet war in Afghanistan (December 1979 to February 1989), which took place across its border and which Pakistan was a major participant helping the mujahideen insurgents against the Soviets. Despite the human rights situation in Pakistan being assessed as "very grim" during this era, the U.S. administration of Ronald Reagan—a major supporter of the Afghan mujahideen—continued to provide military and economic assistance to the Zia ul-Haq government.[15]

Women's rights[edit]

The 1979 Hudood Ordinance decreed by General Zia ul-Haq replaced parts of the secular, British-era Pakistan Penal Code, adding new criminal offenses of adultery and fornication, and new punishments of whipping, amputation, and stoning to death.[16][17] Pakistani women's rights activists and lawyers and international human rights organizations alleged that the ordinance made it exceptionally difficult and dangerous to prove an allegation of rape. Although Zia was killed in 1988, the effects of the law continued until 2006 when it was amended.

In 1979, before the ordinances went into effect there were 70 women held in Pakistani prisons, by 1988 there were 6000.[18] A 2003 report by the National Commission on Status of Women (NCSW) estimated "80% of women" were incarcerated because "they had failed to prove rape charges and were consequently convicted of adultery."[19][20][21][22] According to legal scholar Martin Lau

While it was easy to file a case against a woman accusing her of adultery, the Zina Ordinance made it very difficult for a woman to obtain bail pending trial. Worse, in actual practice, the vast majority of accused women were found guilty by the trial court only to be acquitted on appeal to the Federal Shariat Court. By then they had spent many years in jail, were ostracized by their families, and had become social outcasts.[16]

Two other decrees or proposed decrees that a feuror among women activists were the Diyat Ordinance (which set the "blood money" compensation for a women victim at half that for a male),[23] and later the proposed Law of Evidence (which required two women to testify in place of one man).[23] Human Rights Watch complained the laws relegated women to "inferior legal status" to men.[24]

These were opposed by Women's groups (All Pakistan Women's Association and Women’s Action Forum (which was formed by Najma Sadeque). These rules were challenged on an Islamic basis—the opponents offered an alternative interpretation of the ayah (verse) Quranic injunction [Quran 2:282] used as the basis of the law, emphasised that in other ayat (verses) men and women are assumed to be equal, and noted the importance of the importance of the testimony of two of the Prophet's wives, (Hazrat Khadija and Hazrat Aisha) in early Muslim history.[23]

These pious rebuttal notwithstanding, the protesters were met with tear gas and lathi (baton) charges by police outside the High Court building.[23]

Freedom of Religion[edit]

In 1982 Zia decreed new articles 298B and 298C of the Pakistani Penal Code were decreed by Zia. They prohibited the small Ahmadiyya religious minority were prohibited from saying or implying they were Muslims, prohibited to "preach or propagate by words wither spoken or written" or to use Islamic terminology or Muslim practices of worship. Human rights advocates found these laws violated the principles of freedom to profess religion, freedom of speech and equality of citizens enshrined in both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Constitution of Pakistan.[25]

Freedom of the Press[edit]

The repression of journalists started with the imposition of ban on the publication of the Daily Musawaat (Urdu: مساوات "Equity"). In response to the ban the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists came out openly against the regime. After the failure of efforts to convince the Martial Law authorities to lift the ban, the PFUJ launched a campaign of hunger strike in Karachi from December 1, 1977. The strike was a surprising success, as journalists and press workers from all over the country participated, and within eight days the government lifted the ban.[26] Unchastened the government rebounded from this setback by banning other periodicals: the daily Musawaat in Lahore, and weeklies including Al-Fatah and Meyar, all of which were critical of the Martial Law regime.[26]

After negotiations failed, journalists and press workers launched another hunger strike in Lahore from April 30 to May 30, 1978. To break the strike, hunger strikers were arrested and sentenced under Martial Law Regulations for six months to one year rigorous imprisonment. Three—Khawar Naeem, Iqbal Jaferi Hashimi and Nasir Zaidi—were flogged, while a fourth, Masoodullah Khan, was spared on the intervention of the doctor. Full publicity in official media was given to a break-away, pro-government PFUJ (created by four PFUJ members and known as the "Rashid Siddiqui Group"), who condemning the strike.[26][27]

In October 1978, along with banning all political parties and meetings, rigid censorship was established. Editors of "defamatory" publications were subject to punishment of ten lashes and 25 years of imprisonment.[28]

In January 1982, direct government censorship was ended and editors no longer had to submit stories to Government censors before publication. However, the Government continued to ban press/media coverage of political activity, "which, according to some reporters here, merely shifted the burden of responsibility to editors, making them more vulnerable and therefore more timid."[8]

Ten senior journalists and office-bearers of the PFUJ belonging to the National Press Trust newspapers - Pakistan Times, Imroze and Mashriq - were summarily removed from service because they signed an appeal for “Peace in Sindh“ calling for an end to government repression during the 1983 MRD campaign.[26]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Paracha, Nadeem F. (April 12, 2012). "The general, the dog & the flasher". Retrieved 20 November 2014.  Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Paracha" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  2. ^ Jahangir, Asma. "Human RIghts in Pakistan, a System in the Making". In Samantha, Power. Realizing Human Rights: Moving from Inspiration to Impact. Palgrave MacMillan. p. 176. Retrieved 20 November 2014. Fortunately for Zia, international geopolitics were such that the West was keen to have an ally on the border of Afghanistan. 
  3. ^ Jones, Own Bennet (2002). Pakistan : eye of the storm. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. pp. 16–7. 
  4. ^ a b Talbot, Ian (1998). Pakistan, a Modern History. NY: St.Martin's Press. p. 250. 
  5. ^ Talbot, Ian (1998). Pakistan, a Modern History. NY: St.Martin's Press. p. 250. [footnote 29] 
  6. ^ a b Talbot, Ian (1998). Pakistan, a Modern History. NY: St.Martin's Press. pp. 253–4. 
  7. ^ Christophe Jaffrelot, A History of Pakistan and Its Origins, p. 81, at Google Books
  8. ^ a b KAUFMAN, MICHAEL T. (January 13, 1982). "PAKISTAN ACCUSED OF RIGHTS ABUSES". New York Times. Retrieved 20 November 2014. 
  9. ^ a b c d e Ghazali, Abdus Sattar. "VIII The Third Martial Law". ISLAMIC PAKISTAN: ILLUSIONS & REALITY. Retrieved 3 December 2014. (Chapter 8, p.3) 
  10. ^ The Economist (London), 2.4.1981
  11. ^ Associated Press (AP) report of 10.7.1985
  12. ^ Ramakrishnan, Nitya (2013). In Custody: Law, Impunity and Prisoner Abuse in South Asia. SAGE. p. 188. Retrieved 3 December 2014. 
  13. ^ Jahangir, Asma. "Human Rights in Pakistan, a System in the Making.". In Samantha, Power. Realizing Human Rights: Moving from Inspiration to Impact. Palgrave MacMillan. p. 183. Retrieved 20 November 2014. 
  14. ^ Le Monde (Paris), August 18, 1988
  15. ^ Gupta, Sanjay (1998). Dynamics of Human Rights in the US Foreign Policy. Northern Book Centre. p. 115. Retrieved 20 November 2014. 
  16. ^ a b Lau, "Twenty-Five Years of Hudood Ordinances", 2007: p.1296
  17. ^ Lau, "Twenty-Five Years of Hudood Ordinances", 2007: p.1292
  18. ^ Ashfaq, Abira (Winter 2006). "Voices from Prison and a Call for Repeal: The Hudood Laws of Pakistan". New Politics. Retrieved 18 November 2014. 
  19. ^ Jails and prisoners, State of Human Rights 2004, HRCP 1500 women are "believed to be in jail in March" in 2003 according to the HRCP report.
  20. ^ Hudood Ordinance - The Crime And Punishment For Zina
  21. ^ In 2003 the National Commission on Status of Women estimated 1500 women were in prison, but according to another report (statistics compiled by the Society for Advancement of Community Health Education and Training (SACHET) and Lawyers for Human Rights and Legal Aid (LHRLA) Team for Karachi Women Prison) 7000 women and children were kept in extremely poor conditions in 75 jails in 2003-2004 (sources: Violence against Women and Impediments in Access to Justice
  22. ^ Pakistan: Pakistani religious law challenged)
  23. ^ a b c d Talbot, Ian (1998). Pakistan, a Modern History. NY: St.Martin's Press. p. 281. 
  24. ^ "1992 Report. Pakistan. Double Jeopardy Police Abuse of Women in Pakistan". Human Rights Watch. Retrieved 10 December 2014. 
  25. ^ Talbot, Ian (1998). Pakistan, a Modern History. NY: St.Martin's Press. p. 283. 
  26. ^ a b c d "July 5 is one of the darkest days in country’s history: PFUJ". Associated Press of Pakistan. Retrieved 5 December 2014. 
  27. ^ "PFUJ give Honor & Tribute to May 13, 1978 Heroes of Journalism". Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists. Retrieved 5 December 2014. 
  28. ^ Talbot, Ian (1998). Pakistan, a Modern History. NY: St.Martin's Press. p. 259. On 16 October, however, Zia postponed the polls and announced a ban on all political parities and meetings. Rigid censorship was also introduced, and editors of `defamatory` publications could now be punished by ten lashes and twenty-five years of rigorous imprisonment.