GLOBAL ECONOMY

Monitoring group offers mixed review of rights in Pakistan

An independent group on Wednesday offered a mixed report card in its annual look at the state of human rights in Pakistan, welcoming the enactment of new laws to protect women but decrying an uptick in religiously motivated vigilantism.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said the country was among the world's most prolific enforcers of the death penalty, having executed 87 prisoners in 2016. Another 426 were sentenced to death last year. Four prisoners convicted of terrorism charges in military courts were hanged early Wednesday, the army said.

Pakistan has executed 432 prisoners since 2014, when it lifted a ban on executions following a Taliban attack on a school that killed some 150 people, mostly children. But most of those executed were convicted criminals and not militants. Forty were convicted by military courts, which have been criticized by rights groups concerned about due process.

The report said fewer people died in terrorist attacks last year, but that Pakistan's judges and lawyers were under increasing threat from targeted killings. It said minorities continued to suffer discrimination and attacks from religious extremists, with little state protection. It noted that Pakistan has one of the world's lowest literacy rates.

The report also criticized the use of a blasphemy law, which mandates the death penalty for anyone convicted of insulting Islam. Earlier this year a student in Pakistan's conservative northwest was attacked and killed by a stick-wielding mob who accused him of blasphemy. There was no evidence of blasphemy, and his death generated widespread protests.

Pakistan last year booked 15 people, 10 Muslims and five non-Muslims, on blasphemy charges, according to the human rights report. Pakistan has never executed anyone convicted of blasphemy, but the mere accusation is enough to ignite mob violence and lynchings in the deeply conservative country.

Freedom of speech also took a hit last year with threats of blasphemy charges levelled against those who challenged state authority, said the report. Six journalists and a blogger were killed last year. There has been a spike in the level of "intimidation of the media and increased levels of self-censorship by the media," the report said.

"The year 2016 saw a disturbing rise in assaults on media houses, TV channel and newspaper offices as well as press clubs by militant, religious and political groups," the report said.

It also criticized a new cyber law that allows the authorities to access a person's online accounts without a warrant.

The report said attacks against minorities have taken aim at professionals, particularly those belonging to the Ahmadi sect, a messianic faith which is reviled by mainstream Muslims, who believe there is no other prophet after Mohammad.

Ahmadis have been fiercely persecuted in Pakistan by hard-line groups, and in the early 1970s Pakistan changed its constitution to declare them non-Muslims.

"The country saw several incidents of violence against Christians. The Hindu community complained of land grabbing, attacks, kidnapping, forced conversions, temple desecrations, rape, and murder," said the report.

Militant groups also attacked Muslim shrines and mosques.

"In more than 30 attacks during the year, militants targeted different Muslim sects — mainly Sunni, Shia, including Hazaras, and Bohra — and worship places and shrines, killing about 110 people and injuring 162 others," the report said.