The detention of ethnic Pashtun activists in Pakistan this week has reopened long-standing tensions with neighboring Afghanistan, with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani expressing “serious concerns” about Islamabad’s treatment of the peaceful protesters.
At least 19 members and supporters of the Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM) were detained during an Islamabad protest against police violence on February 5 -- the latest move against the civil rights group.
One of them, prominent human rights activist Gulalai Ismail, was later released.
Ghani, himself a Pashtun, tweeted on January 6 that the Afghan government “has serious concerns about the violence perpetrated against peaceful protesters and civil activists” in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces.
Pakistan rejected Ghani's comments, with Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi saying in a tweet: "Such irresponsible statements are only gross interference."
Afghan leaders should “focus on long-standing serious grievances of the Afghan people," Qureshi added.
PTM, whose support comes mainly from the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, has been holding rallies across Pakistan since early 2018 to protest against what it says are human rights abuses and extrajudicial killings by security forces in the tribal regions.
Islamabad's crackdown against the group has drawn criticism and protests from over the border in Afghanistan, where ethnic Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group.
“We believe it is the moral responsibility of every government to support civil activities that take a stand against the terrorism and extremism that plagues and threatens our region and collective security,” Ghani also wrote in a separate tweet. “Otherwise there could be long-standing negative consequences.”
Afghanistan has long had troubled relations with Pakistan, which Kabul and Washington accuse of harboring the Taliban leadership, a claim Islamabad has denied.
The latest dispute between Islamabad and Kabul comes as Pakistan has been supporting efforts to open a peace process with the Taliban to end the 17-year war in Afghanistan.
The February 5 protest in Islamabad followed the death of PTM regional leader Muhammad Ibrahim Arman Luni in the southwestern province of Balochistan. The authorities ordered an inquiry into the death, which PTM blamed on police.
PTM leader and lawmaker Ali Wazir told the Reuters news agency that 18 activists were still in custody after Ismail, the 2017 winner of the Anna Politkovskaya award, was released this week.
"It was very painful for my family, who took 30 hours to know where I was," the activist told the AFP news agency.
"They didn't charge me with anything. They didn't let me contact my lawyer. They just kept moving me around," she added.
Amnesty International on February 6 urged the authorities to " immediately and unconditionally” release the protesters, who it said had been “arbitrarily detained.”
"It is shocking that the Pakistani authorities have resorted to such heavy-handed methods," the London-based human rights watchdog’s South Asia researcher, Rabia Mehmood, said in a statement.
With reporting by Reuters and AFP