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After Months On The Run, Pakistani Rights Activist Says She Will Continue Her Struggle From U.S.


Gulalai Ismail spoke to RFE/RL by telephone from the United States.
Gulalai Ismail spoke to RFE/RL by telephone from the United States.

Prominent Pakistani human rights activist Gulalai Ismail, who has fled to the United States after being on the run from the authorities for months, has vowed to continue her "struggle" for democracy in Pakistan.

"The reason why I left was to continue my struggle. I have already fought for the democratic rights of our people for 15 years and I will continue," Ismail told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal on September 19.

The 33-year-old, who faces allegations of committing "anti-state activities" in Pakistan stemming from her participation in a rally in August 2018, said she arrived in New York City three days earlier and applied for asylum.

Ismail expressed concern over the fate of her family and friends, who she said had been "harassed" by the authorities while she was hiding in Pakistan.

"They filed terrorism cases against my parents. I am sure [state agencies] will avenge my escape from the country and will go after my family," she said. "Whatever happens to my family, it is the Pakistani state and its agencies that will be responsible."

Ismail said she had arrived in the United States via Sri Lanka, where Pakistani citizens can travel visa-free. She said she had a multientry U.S. visa after she had visited the country last year.

The award-winning activist gave few details about her time in hiding, saying she feared she could "endanger people who helped me hide and exit the country."

Ismail said pictures of her "were everywhere on the [Pakistani] borders with the word 'Wanted' on them," adding, "People were deployed on the borders to prevent me from leaving Pakistan, especially on the border with Afghanistan."

"I will do everything I can to support Gulalai’s asylum request," U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (Democrat-New York) said, according to The New York Times.

"It is clear that her life would be in danger if she were to return to Pakistan," Schumer said.

In November, Ismail was detained by federal agents after landing at Islamabad airport.

She was released on bail, but authorities confiscated her passport and placed her on the Exit Control List, barring her from leaving the country, based on allegations stemming from a speech Ismail gave during an August 2018 rally organized by the Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM).

The group has denounced the powerful Pakistani Army's heavy-handed operations in the militancy-hit tribal regions.

Police in Swabi, a town in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, filed charges against 19 PTM supporters for "unlawful assembly," "punishment for rioting," and "punishment for wrongful restraint."

Ismail, a Pashtun, was added to the list of alleged perpetrators the next day, although there were no specific charges filed against her.

'Space For Civic Voices Is Shrinking'

The activist has denied the allegations against her, telling RFE/RL in November that they were "part of a malicious attempt by state actors to silence human rights defenders."

Ismail, who won the Anna Politkovskaya Award in 2017 for campaigning against religious extremism, said she feared being sent to prison on what she and others consider to be trumped up charges.

She said the accusations against her and PTM supporters were part of a wider campaign to stifle free speech in Pakistan, which has been ruled by the army for nearly half of its statehood.

"The space for civic voices is shrinking," Ismail told RFE/RL. “A narrative has been built around civil society as anti-state, destroying local culture, and promoting Westernization."

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has said the state has made allegations of anti-state activities "an expedient label for human rights defenders, particularly those associated with the PTM."

Dozens of rights defenders and journalists critical of the authorities have been detained, arrested, or have fled Pakistan out of fear for their safety in recent years.

The PTM made national headlines when thousands of people from the tribal areas and northwest Pakistan marched to the capital, Islamabad, in February 2018. The rally, ignited by the killing of a young Pashtun shopkeeper in an allegedly staged gunbattle with police in the port city of Karachi, exposed long-held grievances among Pashtuns.

The group has called for judicial probes into those killed by the military and has campaigned for ending enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, and discrimination against the country's Pashtun ethnic minority.

The PTM has staged dozens of rallies since, with scores of activists jailed. Two of the PTM’s leaders, lawmakers Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir, were apprehended by security forces in May. They remain in detention.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the regional desk editor for Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2012, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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