Pakistani government must protect Swat valley civilians

According to official estimates, over the past year more than 1,200 people have been killed and between 200,000 and 500,000 have been displaced in the Swat valley as a result of fighting between Pakistani Taleban groups and the military.

The Pakistani government is being urged to act immediately to protect hundreds of thousands of people from insurgents in the Swat valley and elsewhere in the country.

“For the past five years the government’s response to the rise of insurgents in Swat and the Tribal Areas has vacillated between launching often indiscriminate and disproportionate military operations that mostly harm civilians and abandoning Pakistani citizens to abusive insurgent groups,” said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific director.

Since 2007, a local armed group ideologically affiliated with Afghanistan’s Taleban movement has managed to take effective control of nearly 80 percent of the Swat valley territory. The area was once a tourist destination just 100 miles from Islamabad and is normally home to around 1.5 million people.

Over the past two years, radical cleric Maulana Fazlullah and his followers have increasingly established control over the Swat Valley, imposing a de-facto administration. The group has consolidated its control by setting up a parallel justice system with over 70 “courts” to administer “speedy and easy justice”. This means meting out punishments that amount to cruel, degrading, or inhumane treatment. The Pakistani Taleban recently threatened to kill all lawyers and judges if they failed to stop working with the state judicial system.

In Swat, the Pakistani Taleban have committed serious human rights abuses, including the unlawful killing of scores of government workers as well as those whom they view as violating their edicts. The Taleban have publicly whipped men for shaving their beards, destroyed shops for selling music and forcibly prohibited women from leaving their houses unless escorted by a male relative.

The main square of Mingora, the area’s largest city, has been locally dubbed Khooni Chowk, or “bloody square”, in reference to the more than two dozen bodies the Pakistani Taleban have publicly displayed there.

“The Pakistani Taleban have shown their contempt for the lives and rights of the people of the Swat valley, whilst Pakistani military forces have often violated the human rights and safety of the people that they are ostensibly trying to protect,” said Sam Zarifi.

There are an estimated 3,000 Taleban insurgents located in the Swat Valley. They often endanger civilians by seeking shelter in villages, knowing that this might provoke military reaction.

Up to 15,000 government troops are deployed in Swat to root out insurgents. They have used helicopter gunships and heavy artillery in their operations, often in an indiscriminate way, harming civilians as they do so. Tens of thousands of people who have fled the area have cited their fear of government military operations, rather than the Taleban.

“The Pakistani government needs to implement a strategy that focuses on respecting the rights and the well-being of its citizens and refrains from heavy-handed military operations which put civilians at risk. The government should also ensure it does not leave its citizens at the mercy of the Taleban.”

Amnesty International has condemned the Pakistani Taleban’s campaign against education, especially for girls. Over the past 18 months, the Taleban have destroyed more than 170 schools in Swat, including more than 100 girls’ schools. These attacks have disrupted the education of more than 50,000 pupils, from primary to college level, according to official estimates.  

The organization urged the government to take protective measures to guarantee that pupils of both genders, including those who have fled their homes, have access to education when schools reopen on 1 March.