Three days ago, the Supreme Court of Pakistan, in the handling of the Faizabad dharna case, expressly recognised the right to protest. The SC stipulated that citizens have the right to peacefully protest and hold demonstrations, and may do so against any action or decision of a government or authority- this included the right to peaceful assembly and the right to freedom of speech and expression.

Unfortunately, the days lining up to and following the verdict have not exemplified these constitutional principles well. The past few weeks saw the arrest of several members of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), as alleged by the movement’s leaders. At least 18 activists of the PTM were detained from outside the National Press Club in Islamabad. Moreover, panic spread on social media yesterday as prominent human rights activist and Professor Dr. Ammar Ali Jan was reported to have been arrested from his residence in the early hours of the morning. In the FIR registered against Jan, the complainant said that Jan was leading a group of 100-150 people from “Pashtun Ittehad Movement”.

It must be said that the activities of those arrested and the protests they took part in were completely peaceful protests. In the case of Dr. Ammar Ali Jan, the protest was on Liberty Chawk in Lahore, a frequent spot for peaceful protests, and was full of civil society and rights activists. Among the PTM activists detained, among them was rights activist Gulalai Ismail, recipient of the International Humanist of the Year Award, who was kept in detention for nearly 30 hours, and released as a result of intervention from senior members of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government at the centre. There is no evidence that the activities of any of those detained or arrested were violent or against the State; rather they were a demonstration of a peaceful expression of disagreement which our Constitution allows.

The coming of new government signalled that the practice of unwarranted detentions and arrests to clamp on dissent may end. Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari has repeatedly expressed her support on this matter, as has Chief Justice Asif Khosa. It is thus disappointing that the State is still adopting an inefficient and callous approach towards protesters. Arresting civilians for merely protesting is not only against the spirit of democracy, but it also does the State itself no favours since such arrests usually lend prominence and credibility to the protesters’ cause.