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Mourners gather to attend a funeral for the victims of a blast at amarket in Quetta on April 12.

A Pakistani human rights watchdog has urged the mainly Muslim country to endorse and implement measures to protect its religious minorities, which it says continue to face "harassment, arrest, or even death."

In its annual report released on April 15, the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) said that extremist groups "continued to target [Shi'ite] mosques, religious gatherings, religious leaders, and other individuals in attacks resulting in at least 112 persons being killed" in 2018.

The report came out days after a suicide bombing that appeared to target the Shi'ite ethnic Hazara community in the southwestern city of Quetta claimed the lives of at least 20 people. The attack was claimed by both an affiliate of the Pakistani Taliban and the Islamic State group.

The report, titled State Of Human Rights In 2018, also raised concerns about incidents of forced conversions and marriages of women and girls from the South Asian country's Hindu and Christian communities to Muslim men.

HRCP said that around 1,000 cases of forced conversion of Hindu and Christian women and girls were reported last year in the southern province of Sindh alone.

Some of the girls were recovered on court orders, it said.

Earlier this month, an Islamabad court allowed two sisters from the Hindu community to live with their Muslim husbands, rejecting allegations from their parents that their daughters were abducted and forcibly married.

A government investigation concluded the girls were 18 and 19 and that they were not forced to change their religion.

HRCP also expressed concern over what it says was the misuse of blasphemy laws in Pakistan, where around 70 people have been lynched since 1990 on accusations of insulting Islam.

"The blasphemy laws have been grossly abused with many people lodging false complaints to settle their personal vendettas," it said. "In many cases, blasphemy allegations end up in a mob lynching or targeted killing of the accused before they can be tried or heard in a court of law."

Forty people are currently on death row or serving a life sentence after being convicted on charges of blasphemy, according to HRCP.

The report cited the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who was released last year after spending eight years on death row for alleged blasphemy.

She has been in protective custody at a secret location since her acquittal in October 2018.

HRCP also said that Pakistani media faced "unprecedented" curbs last year, particularly in the run-up to the country's general elections.

"Under the opaque shroud of 'national security concerns,' the restrictions on media coverage were stepped up, journalists increasingly took to self-censorship to evade intimidation and threats, cable operators were prohibited from broadcasting certain networks, the distribution of a national newspaper was severely curtailed, and a media blackout was imposed on coverage of certain events," it said.

In September 2018, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said that the climate for press freedom in Pakistan was deteriorating as the country's powerful army "quietly, but effectively" restricted reporting through "intimidation" and other means.

With reporting by AP
People attend a protest against the construction of a waste dump in Arkhangelsk, northwestern Russia on April 7.

The Russian government is developing a draft law that will "further jeopardize" freedom of expression and assembly in the country, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has warned.

The bill, if adopted, would enable the authorities to "freeze the bank accounts of people who donate to or finance protests that are deemed unlawful," the New York-based human rights watchdog said in a statement on April 15.

The provision on financing public assemblies is one of several amendments being considered in a bill to prevent and address the financing of terrorism, extremism, drug trafficking, and money laundering.

HRW said that the provision had the "insidious effect of placing the financing of unauthorized demonstrations in the same category as these other forms of serious criminal activity."

Damelya Aitkhozhina, Russia researcher at HRW, urged Russia to immediately drop the provision from the bill, "On amendments to laws of the Russian Federation concerning the financing of terrorism and other illegal activities," saying that it would enable the government "even to target and intimidate someone who paid for some flyers or protest signs."

In recent years, the government "has created new obstacles to the exercise of free expression and assembly and has pushed peaceful protesters to the margins of the law," HRW said in its statement.

It cited a law on public assemblies that requires protesters to seek authorization for public assemblies and enables the authorities to "routinely deny requests for authorization on a plethora of grounds."

"Police routinely disperse authorized and 'unauthorized' protests and detain, beat, harass, fine, and intimidate peaceful protesters," the watchdog said.

It added that posting information online about upcoming, unauthorized public gatherings may also result in detention, and repeated violations can lead to a prison sentence.

Last month, an 18-year-old Russian activist became the first person punished under a new law that prohibits adults from encouraging minors to take part in unauthorized protests.

"As public discontent over the government's economic, social, and political agenda grows, authorities need to stop looking for ways to stamp down the public, and look for ways to listen to what protesters are saying," Aitkhozhina said.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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