Karachi University’s Associate Professor Dr Riaz Ahmed arrest and subsequent bail this week has been described as a silencing tactic by the state that is becoming increasingly anxious to tighten the noose around dissent. There has been much debate on how, in the garb of the National Action Plan, the state is launching a crackdown on organisations and individuals working on rights.
However, the fact that the state does not care for the resistance/protests or for the fact that the way these arrests are pursued reveals its own incompetencies is a terrifying message.
Dr Riaz Ahmed is Associate Professor with the Department of Applied Chemistry, University of Karachi. He has been a leading activist for over 20 years, closely attached with socialist and leftist causes. He has written and translated several publications on socialism and human rights and has played an active role in organising and mobilising civil society on rights issues. He also served as the President of the Karachi University Teachers Society, a body working for the rights of the Karachi University Teachers.
Dr Riaz was detained on April 1, 2017, while he and colleagues were en route a press conference to condemn the detention of Dr Hasan Zafar Arif. Dr Zafar Arif, a retired philosophy professor and founding member of Karachi University Teachers Society, himself was detained in Karachi, in October 2016 as he set out to participate in a press conference against the detention of MQM workers. The charges against him include facilitating and listening to hate speech (MQM Leader Altaf Hussain’s speech on August 22, 2016), promoting enmity between different groups and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings.
Perhaps, this is as unreasonable as the contents of the FIR filed against Dr Riaz last week. The FIR states he was arrested in the course of snap checking as he was headed to the press club for the purpose of a press conference. It states the police found a loaded Stoeger Cougar 8000F in his possession. The gun, for the non violent, has been described as “double-action, auto-loading pistol with no-nonsense, rugged performance you can rely on when it matters most” by the website Impactguns.com. The FIR emphasised that Dr Riaz could not produce the weapon’s license upon demand.
The FIR also states that in this snap checking, the concerned policeman recognised Dr Riaz as the person who was “at the forefront of support for facebook bloggers who are guilty of blasphemy.” Not questioning the need for including the line in the report, the blatant disregard for the legal sensitivities in describing the accused or allegations is evident as the statement pronounces both Dr Riaz and the “facebook bloggers” as guilty, and hence punishable.
Dr Riaz was taken into custody along with two female colleagues, both later released. His physical remand was sought the next day before the duty magistrate and a hearing for his bail plea took place on 5 April at the Sessions Court. After reserving the order for a day, he was released on bail on 6 April. However, this is merely the beginning of an arduous legal course as the ridiculous charges levelled against him remain.
It is also to be noted that an attempt to organise the said press conference in support of Dr Zafar Arif on March 30 was called off at the last minute because of the Karachi Press Club’s demand to share the press release in advance and also an instruction not to issue any “anti-Pakistan” statement. This was shared in the media by Vice Chairman (Sindh) Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Asad Butt who was one of the organisers of the March 30 press conference.
There have been various debates on the reasons behind the recent spate of detentions, including the famous case of five bloggers in January, Wahid Baloch last year, Sindhi and Baloch nationalists and workers of MQM who have been facing the state’s ire for years now. There is a broad consensus that the move is aimed at silencing dissent and warning against activism on the ever stretching list of items included in the ‘national interest’ agenda.
Waiting outside the Karachi’s City Court for the hearing of Dr Riaz’s bail plea, his colleagues were almost unanimous about the key message directed at activists by way of his detention. Dr Riaz Shah, a colleague of Riaz Ahmed, observed that in a broader framework, this is linked to CPEC, War Against Terrorism and a neo liberal agenda. “The security bubble created by an aggressive yet murky crackdown on terrorists and criminals is being pushed alongside economic development projects,” he said.
There is popular support for these actions as the middle class draws much comfort from the improvement in the security situation. Linking the freedom of expression with blasphemy and exercise of defence of rights by human rights defenders as malicious anti-Pakistan activities, is propaganda being aggressively sold by the media and happily bought into by the population that has never been taught critical inquiry or respect for rights.
Pakistan is one of the many countries highlighted for shrinking space by Civicus, a global civil society alliance, that monitors civic space for the purpose of strengthening citizen action. Pakistan has been described as “repressed” in terms of civic freedoms for the population. This is a step ahead of Saudi Arabia which is called “closed” for its civic space and behind India, described as “obstructed”.
As explained by their website, in a repressed state, the “civic space is heavily constrained. Active individuals and civil society members who criticise power holders risk surveillance, harassment, intimidation, imprisonment, injury and death”.
However, this shrinking of civic space runs as a common trait across South Asia. In India, the government is taking targeted actions against civil society organisations, academics and activists. In Bangladesh, there have been 212 documented cases of disappearances of activists since 2009. For all the space offered by a vibrant democracy, the civil society in both the countries is struggling to deal with the rising wave of nationalism and a pro-security agenda.
The free space enjoyed by the Pakistan state to execute such actions has certainly been served on a silver platter by way of regressive laws and poor implementation of rights related laws. Laws regulating fundamental rights such as those related to Freedom of Association, Freedom of Expression, and Freedom of Assembly, when reviewed clause by clause, reveal astonishing restrictions that make the realization of these rights appear as an impossible proposition.
Coming back to Dr Riaz’s arrest, those living in Karachi link it to the specific context of the city. Following the 2013 LEA operation in Karachi that resulted in over 1,000 extrajudicial killings (there is no account of arbitrary detentions), and a clampdown on the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, there has been very limited resistance over the actions that are seen to have brought peace back to the city.
The silence has further provided space to expand violations of human rights on the part of the state as the back of political resistance against such acts has essentially been broken.
A very negative image of MQM further fuels the public indifference. A friend of Dr Riaz feels that he could have avoided the arrest if the planned press conference for Dr Arif was not linked with the MQM.
This theory may be supported by the fact that Dr Riaz got away with his recent activism against the takeover of KU property by security personnel, a packed session on Baloch missing persons shortly after T2F’s Sabeen Mahmud’s killing at the KU (her murder was linked to organising a similar session at her dialogue space, T2F), and a fierce street protest against the recent wave of terrorism.
Sartaj Khan, another colleague of Dr Riaz, opines that the reason Dr Riaz got away with his earlier endeavours and faced an arrest for an act linked with the MQM is because of the way the ruling class looks at issues. “If the ruling class is divided over a matter, activists can get away with resistance. If they are unanimous over an issue — such as doing away with MQM — they will target all related activities indiscriminately.”
In the wake of these events, the question arises, what course of action should movements and resistance take when faced with an unreasonable and unaccountable state that is also supported by popular public opinion on top of an environment of rights deficit. Other “safe” and open forms of activism such as social media are also actively under attack by way of regressive laws such as The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2015.
There is a need to rethink the selective addressing of issues on the part of civil society. Zero to feeble resistance on arbitrary detentions of political workers, extra judicial killings of individuals only accused and not tried for terrorism, and steering clear of the security operations in Balochistan and FATA strengthens isolation.
Activism devoid of solidarity may not go beyond an exercise in futility.