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Rights group questions legitimacy of Pakistan election

Commission says PML-N politicians are being pressured to switch loyalties in a crackdown on former PM's party reporter, Lahore reporter, Lahore

Updated: July 18, 2018 05:49 AM GMT
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Rights group questions legitimacy of Pakistan election

Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) president Shehbaz Sharif leads a rally to Lahore airport to receive his elder brother and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif on July 13. (Photo courtesy of PML-N media)

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Pakistan's independent rights group has raised the alarm about "blatant, aggressive and unabashed" attempts to maneuver the outcome of the forthcoming general election.

"While it is critical that the polls are held as scheduled, there are now ample grounds to doubt their legitimacy — with alarming implications for Pakistan's transition to an effective democracy," the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) said on July 16.

The warning came after Pakistan's ousted prime-minister Nawaz Sharif was jailed on his return from London amid a crackdown on his center-right party and workers.

Hundreds of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) workers were rounded up by police before Sharif's arrival in Pakistan and his party's senior leaders were prevented from receiving him at Lahore airport.

The three-term PM was flown to Rawalpindi from the airport and moved to high-security Adiala jail along with his daughter Maryam Nawaz.

There are allegations that politicians, especially those associated with Sharif's PML-N party, are being forced to switch loyalties. In some constituencies, PML-N candidates have returned their party's tickets and announced they will stand as independents.

"HRCP is deeply concerned that the political class is being selectively squeezed. This is apparent from reports that members of the PML-N are being pressured to switch political loyalties, that candidates are being asked to return their tickets, and that electoral opposition to two mainstream parties — the PML-N in Punjab and the PPP (Pakistan Peoples Party) in Sindh — is being manufactured in strategic areas," it said.

"HRCP reaffirms the public perception that all parties have not been given equal freedom to run their election campaigns. Candidates from parties such as the PML-N, the PPP and Awami Workers Party have reported being harassed by law enforcement and security personnel during their campaigns, their movement monitored or restricted without good reason, and their election banners removed en masse, again reportedly by security personnel."

The commission also questioned the decision of Pakistan's electoral body to assign magisterial powers to security forces during election duty.

"HRCP has serious reservations about the extraordinary powers accorded to security forces, ostensibly to ensure the integrity of the polls. That some 350,000 security personnel are to be deployed outside as well as inside polling stations, and that military functionaries have been assigned magistrates' powers on the premises, has blurred the line between civilian and non-civilian responsibility for the electoral process," the commission noted.

Hyacinth Peter, executive secretary of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Major Religious Superiors Leadership Conference, supported HRCP's stance.

"There is no fair play in the run-up to election. It's written on the wall. The results of every election in our country are usually decided before the polls, but now these issues are being more highlighted due to social media."

Peter also fears religious minorities will face more challenges under the next government. "Both state and non-state actors are supporting the extremist mindset. Minorities, women and the labor class will suffer the most if this trend continues," he said.

Pakistan is due to hold the general election on July 25.

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