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Pakistani Watchdog Decries Assaults On Religious Freedom, 'Unprecedented' Curbs On Media


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
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