ISLAMABAD | Pakistan rights group issues warning ahead of polls

ISLAMABAD | Pakistan rights group issues warning ahead of polls

ISLAMABAD— Pakistan’s independent Human Rights Commission warned Monday of “blatant, aggressive and unabashed” attempts to manipulate the results of elections set for later this month, with prominent activist I.A. Rehman calling it “the dirtiest election” in the country’s troubled relationship with democratic rule.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) in its statement raised several warning flags including allegations that members of disgraced prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League party were “being pressured to switch political loyalties,” while some of Sharif’s candidates were being asked to step down.

In jail since his return to Pakistan last week, Sharif is serving a 10-year sentence on corruption charges. On Monday he appealed the conviction as did his daughter, Maryam, and his son-in-law, who received seven and one-year sentences respectively also on charges of corruption over the family’s purchase of luxury apartments in London. If the judge grants the appeal, Sharif could be released on bail.

Violence has escalated in the run-up to the balloting, with horrific attacks over the weekend killing 153 people, including a provincial assembly candidate during an election rally in southwestern Baluchistan province.

In election-related violence, gunmen on Sunday night opened fire at the election headquarters of the secular Awami National Party in the town of Chaman in Baluchistan, wounding former senator Daud Achakzai who was campaigning for Zumurak Khan, a contender for a seat in the provincial legislature.

On Friday in Baluchistan’s Mastung district, an Islamic State group suicide bomber killed Siraj Raisani, a candidate for the provincial assembly, along with 148 others during an election rally.

So far more than 170 people have died in election-related attacks, underscoring the security threat ahead of the vote.

The Human Rights Commission in its statement questioned a decision by the Election Commission of Pakistan to deploy 350,000 security personnel outside as well as inside polling station on election day.

Rehman expressed concern that the deployment of security personnel to the polling stations could intimidate voters. Instead Human Right Commission member and co-founder Hina Jilani said security personnel should be deployed to protect campaigns ahead of elections when the dangers are self-evident.

“These (terrorist) forces were supposed to be eliminated, but still they exist and can strike where they want,” said Jilani, who is also a member of the Elders, an international non-government organization of public figures known for their work promoting peace and human rights.

At a news conference in the capital of Islamabad, Jilani bemoaned the “growing influence of radical religious forces,” and the participation in elections of proscribed groups operating under new names.

“The HRCP feels strongly that the political space ceded to banned outfits has emboldened militant groups,” according to their statement.

Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League party is heading into the race for the 342-seat National Assembly and four provincial parliaments weakened by the scandal surrounding Sharif and an irate military.
Sharif, who has been banned from politics, is believed to have run afoul of the military, which has ruled Pakistan directly or indirectly for most of its 71-year history, when he sought to restrict its involvement in civilian affairs and criticized army efforts to combat extremist groups, despite Sharif’s own past courting of religious groups in search of votes.

Rights groups say the military is seeking to influence the election outcome to keep Sharif’s party out of power.

In its statement, the Human Rights Commission said candidates from Sharif’s party, as well as the left-leaning Pakistan People’s Party and the secular Awami Workers party, “have reported being harassed by law enforcement and security personnel during their campaign, their movements monitored or restricted without good reason and their election banners removed without cause.”

By KATHY GANNON and MUNIR AHMED ,Associated Press