Mon, 10 Aug 2020

Prominent Pakistani human rights activist Gulalai Ismail, who had been on the run from authorities for months, says she has arrived in the United States.

Ismail told RFE/RL by telephone on September 19 that she arrived in New York City three days earlier and has applied for asylum.

The 33-year-old faces allegations of committing "anti-state activities" in Pakistan stemming from her participation in a rally in August last year.

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

"The last few months have been awful," Humanist International (HI), a Britain-based nongovernmental organization, quoted Ismail as saying on September 19. "I have been threatened, harassed, and I am lucky to be alive.'

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 award-winning 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 gun battle 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 group 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.

/**/ /**/ /**/ SEE ALSO: ';Your Passport, Please';: Celebrated Activist Discovers The Price Of Dissent In Today';s Pakistan

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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