Human rights defenders defy repression amid some hopes in South Asia

The year began with the death of one of the region’s best-known advocatesfor the dispossessed, Pakistani lawyer and activist Asma Jahangir. For decades, she exemplified the struggles of millions in South Asia. On the streets, she defied political repression, called for an end to enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions, and was beaten and arrested for protesting on behalf of women’s rights. In the courtroom, she faced down threats for her work in representing people, including women seeking to escape their violent husbands, bonded labourers trying to win freedom from their oppressive “owners”, and religious minorities needing to find sanctuary after attacks by hardline mobs.

Shahidul Alam, a Bangladeshi photojournalist

Members of Amnesty have played such a crucial role in facilitating this and in creating the pressure that led to my release.

Human rights defenders

Human rights defenders in Pakistan felt the loss of Asma Jahangir keenly. Scores were arbitrarily detained, disappeared, subjected to arbitrary surveillance, intimidated and prosecuted under draconian new laws that criminalize freedom of expression, both offline and online.Cyber-attacks saw malware spread by fake profiles online, surreptitiously infecting activists’ devices. Members of the non-violent Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) calling for an end to enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions were charged with sedition and detained for comments they made online.

But there was some good news too. Activists Raza Khan and Sagheer Baloch were released in Pakistan after being subjected to enforced disappearance for nine months. In September, Hayat Khan Preghal, a member of the PTM, was released on bail after being detained for critical comments he made on social media.

Across the border, in India, there was also a pattern of demonizing and criminalizing human rights defenders. Ten prominent activists, including Sudha Bharadwaj, Shoma Sen and Arun Ferreira, were arrested under draconian anti-terror legislation in Bhima Koregaon, Maharashtra state. A Dalit activist, Chandrashekar Azan “Ravan”, was held in administrative detention for 10 months without charge or trial.

Women human rights defenders, who face reprisals for their human rights work and are subjected to gender-based discrimination, faced a torrent of online violence and abuse in India this year. Journalist Rana Ayyub and activist Gurmehar Kaur were threatened with sexual violence for exercising their right to freedom of expression. And offline, the civic space continued to shrink as the central government used the controversial Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010 as a political tool to harass organizations critical of its views and actions.

In Bangladesh, even as the government vowed to rid itself of the notorious Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, which has seen hundreds charged and prosecuted for what they have said or written, however peacefully, the law was being used to silence critics. Well-known photographer Shahidul Alam was charged under Section 57 of the ICT Act for comments he made on Facebook and an interview he gave. After his arrest, a pall of fear descended across the country, as students and other activists were subjected to surveillance online. In September, the Digital Security Act was passed, expanding on the ICT Act and retaining its most draconian provisions.

Continuing refugee crisis

Bangladesh continued to host nearly a million Rohingya refugees, in overcrowded conditions. With the prospect of safe and dignified returns to Myanmar looking remote, international assistance is drying up and the Bangladeshi government has announced the transfer of up to 100,000 Rohingya refugees to a secluded silt island off its coast, which experts believe is vulnerable to flooding and cyclones. Despite the challenges, Bangladesh’s attitude towards refugees contrasts sharply with Europe’s callous indifference. In 2018, countries across Europe continued to forcibly return thousands of Afghan asylum-seekers even as civilian casualties remained at record levels.

Attacks in Afghanistan

The hazardous situation in Afghanistan was underscored by deadly attacks by armed groups that claimed the lives of children, aid workers, religious minorities, journalists and many others. At least 34 people were killed in August, many of them children, when a Shi’a neighbourhood was targeted in the capital, Kabul. In April, 10 journalists were killed by a secondary device at the site of an earlier bombing. In September, two more were killed in similar circumstances. It was the deadliest year for journalists in Afghanistan since the conflict there began in 2001. In September, Amnesty International unveiled a mural dedicated to their memory in the centre of Kabul.

Legal developments

In May, Pakistan’s parliament passed one of the most progressive pieces of legislation on transgender rights in the world, making it the first country in Asia to recognize the self-perceived gender identity of transgender people. In India, in a series of landmark rulings, the Supreme Court struck down Section 377 of the Penal Code, which criminalized consensual same-sex sexual relations, Section 497, which criminalized “adultery”, and a rule which prohibited women of “menstruating age” from entering the Sabarimala Temple in Kerala.

In Sri Lanka, Sandhya Eknaligoda, a prominent campaigner for justice for families of the disappeared, who has endured years of hostility and smear campaigns, won an important court victory after a hardline Buddhist monk who had threatened her was imprisoned for six months. In September, President Maithripala Sirisena ordered the arrest of an army officer over the 2010 enforced disappearance of Sandhya’s husband, Prageeth Eknaligoda. Other positive developments in the country included the long overdue setting up of the Office of Missing Persons, the passing of an Act to set up an Office of Reparations, and the return of some of the private land in the north that had been seized by the military.

In Sri Lanka and Nepal, progress was slow on commitments to truth, justice and reparations for past violations. Both governments also tried to impose new restrictions on NGOs, but backed down after objections from civil society groups. In Nepal, a large number of new human rights-focused laws were hastily ushered through parliament. Victims’ groups remained aggrieved that they had not been consulted. For Sri Lanka, the sudden appointment of Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister in October, and the ensuing constitutional crisis, means that human rights and guarantees of transitional justice may be in peril for the future.

There was a change in government in Pakistan, where former cricketing legend turned politician Imran Khan swept to power in July. The new government made a series of heartening pledges regarding human rights, but swiftly began backpedalling on a commitment to grant citizenship to Afghan and Bengali refugees. Faced with resistance from religious hardliners, the government capitulated and reversed the appointment of Atif Mian, an eminent economist belonging to the long-persecuted Ahmadi sect, as an adviser.

Religious bigotry also raised its ugly head in Sri Lanka in March, when hardline Buddhist monks incited violence against Muslims in the city of Kandy, in the island’s central hills, and in Ampara in the east. Muslim homes and businesses were set alight. The government imposed a state of emergency, shutting down social media sites that were used as platforms to inflame the riots. In July, President Sirisena said that he would bring back the death penalty to punish drug traffickers, more than four decades after Sri Lanka last executed anyone. In Bangladesh, the government unleashed its own “war on drugs”, with paramilitaries gunning down more than 200 suspected drug offenders in a wave of alleged extrajudicial executions.

Fresh hopes in the Maldives

Near the end of the year, hope for the Maldives brightened as the long years of repressive rule by Abdulla Yameen came to a close with his convincing defeat in the September presidential election. Earlier in the year, President Yameen had sought to consolidate his grip on power by imposing a state of emergency, arresting the Chief Justice, another judge of the Supreme Court, a former President and more than 200 protesters. Days after the election, Ahmed Mahlouf, a prisoner of conscience who faced up to 20 years behind bars on trumped-up charges, walked free. Others are expected to follow as new President Ibrahim Solih vowed to roll back his predecessor’s assault on human rights.