NEW YORK - With violent attacks on religious minorities rising significantly in 2014, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government is failing at the most basic duty of government – to protect the safety of its citizens, ensure religious freedom and enforce rule of law, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in its World Report 2015.

“Pakistan’s government did little in 2014 to stop the rising toll of killings and repression by extremists groups that target religious minorities,” Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “The government is failing at the most basic duty of government – to protect the safety of its citizens and enforce rule of law.”

In the chapter on Pakistan, the report said, “Political instability reached a crisis point in August and September, as prolonged and violent opposition protests threatened to undermine gains achieved by the country’s first civilian transfer of power following the 2013 election of Nawaz Sharif as prime minister.

“The protests in Islamabad — led by opposition politicians Imran Khan and Dr Tahirul Qadri, who demanded Sharif’s resignation and the formation of a new government — prompted violence by both protesters and the security forces that resulted in at least three deaths and hundreds of injuries. The government responded to the protests by imposing a state of emergency in Islamabad and suspending fundamental rights such as the right to petition the courts to enforce constitutional guarantees. During the height of the crisis, the military intervened at the government’s request, allowing it to dangerously reinsert itself into democratic political decision-making.”

In the 656-page world report, its 25th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. The report was simultaneously released in Islamabad.

In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth urges governments to recognise that human rights offer an effective moral guide in turbulent times, and that violating rights can spark or aggravate serious security challenges. The short-term gains of undermining core values of freedom and non-discrimination are rarely worth the long-term price.

The Pakistan government, HRW said, failed to amend or repeal the blasphemy law provisions that provide a pretext for violence against religious minorities. On May 7, unidentified gunmen killed Rashid Rehman, a prominent human rights lawyer, in apparent retaliation for representing people accused of blasphemy. On October 16, the Lahore High Court upheld the death penalty against Aasia Bibi, convicted of blasphemy for challenging the religious intolerance of a neighbour.

The government announced in September that it had arrested 10 suspects in the 2012 attack on 17-year-old women’s rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize co-winner Malala Yousafzai, but extremist groups continued to operate with near-impunity, the report said. On December 16, 2014, the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) mounted a horrific attack on a school in Peshawar in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that left at least 150 dead – almost all of them children. As a response to the brutal attack, the prime minister rescinded a four-year unofficial moratorium on capital punishment. The Pakistan government has already executed six convicted militants in Punjab on December 19 and 21 as part of its announced policy to speed execution of death-row inmates.

Journalists who cover counterterrorism issues or write critically of the military faced increasing threats, Human Rights Watch said. In April, unidentified gunmen in Karachi seriously wounded television presenter Hamid Mir, an attack that his employer, Jang/Geo, blamed on the director general of the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), a charge which was categorically denied.

Abuses against women and girls – including rape, murder through so-called honour killings, acid attacks, domestic violence, and forced marriage – remained common in 2014. In July, religious extremists committed a series of acid attacks on women in Balochistan, it said.

On June 30, the military launched an offensive involving more than 30,000 troops against the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in North Waziristan. Civilian casualties remained hard to assess due to severe military restrictions on independent media access to the conflict zone, Human Rights Watch said. The conflict has displaced an estimated one million people in squalid displacement camps where the government has failed to provide adequate supplies of potable water, sanitation facilities, and health care, it said. In July, the government passed the Protection of Pakistan Act, an overly broad counterterrorism law that violates international human rights standards and provides the security forces a legal pretext for abuses with impunity.