Severe crackdown on free speech and right to peaceful assembly before the general election

On Thursday, February 8, the people of Pakistan will cast their vote in the general election. PEN Norway is concerned that the election will not be fair and free due to “pre-poll rigging.”

The three charges brought against Pakistan’s former Prime Minister, Imran Khan, were delivered just days before the scheduled general elections in Pakistan. Imran Khan, who is one of the most popular politicians in the country, was handed a 14-year prison sentence for ‘corruption’, ten years for ‘divulging state secrets last week’ and seven years for illegal marriage with his wife, Bushra Bibi. Both Bushra Bibi and his close aide, former Foreign Minister of Pakistan Shah Mahmood Qureshi, has also been sentenced.

PEN Norway has been closely monitoring the crackdown on free speech in Pakistan in the pre-election period, including the actions taken by the authorities against the opposition, Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). These actions include the arrest of hundreds of opposition activists, particularly members of PTI, suspension of internet during PTI’s online electoral campaigns and the restrictions on PTI workers’ rights to peaceful protest and assembly as part of the election campaign. Additionally, confiscating PTI’s electoral symbol, the bat, is yet another clear violation of electoral norms.

Harassment and censoring of journalists and media outlets has also been reported across the country. All these measures by the authorities in Pakistan breach international principles of fair and free elections, and raises significant concerns about the integrity and impartiality of the upcoming general election in a country with a population of 231 million.

PEN Norway has received credible reports which indicate that Pakistani authorities have been engaged in a violent crackdown on PTI leaders and activists in various parts of the country, including the most populous eastern province of Punjab and the southern port city of Karachi. In Karachi, police have reportedly illegally detained 72 PTI members since January 31, and in Lahore, the PTI’s Punjab office has been sealed. These actions, coupled with the harassment of senior party leaders and the detention of their family members, spotlight a troubling escalation in the state’s crackdown on the opposition just one week before the elections.

“The unlawful actions by the Pakistani authorities against Imran Khan’s PTI, activists and civil society actors is totally unacceptable. The allegations of pre-election fraud, widespread internet disruptions, and attacks on the opposition violates fundamental rights to free speech, the right to assembly, and the rights to vote. We strongly urge the Elections Commission of Pakistan to take measures to ensure a free and fair election for all,” said PEN Norway’s General Secretary, Jørgen Watne Frydnes.