Pakistan’s Tribal Areas Are Still Waiting for Justice as Army Tightens Grip
With the Pakistani military’s crackdown on protesters in the northwestern tribal belt in recent days, the security forces have asserted themselves as the true masters of justice in the region.
Commanders have said that an alternative antiterrorism court system will be used to prosecute leaders of an ethnic Pashtun protest movement that witnesses insist has stayed peaceful. Roads have been closed, and a curfew imposed.
But this is the year things were supposed to be different in the tribal belt, which has waited for something other than summary justice for decades and was promised it would finally happen.
Pakistan voted last year to merge those borderlands, once known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, into the country’s political and legal mainstream. At a stroke, the move assigned the region’s five million residents — the vast majority of them from the ethnic Pashtun minority — the same constitutional rights as other Pakistanis, including access to the national civilian justice system.
Before, it had been run under a harsh frontier code set up long ago by British colonial masters, who put each tribal region under the near-complete power of a single governor. Residents were denied basic rights like access to lawyers or normal trials, and collective punishment for the crimes of an individual was common.
Manzoor Pashteen, the leader of the Pashtun civil rights movement, known as the P.T.M., said that the recent campaign by the security forces had made a lie of last year’s abolition of the old colonial justice code.
“It is very obvious now that FATA and its administrative strings are still in the hands of the army,” he said, using the old acronym for the tribal areas. “In the current authoritarian governance of the army, we don’t think justice could prevail.”
There had been some signs of change. Last month, in one interim court set up in a federal building on the outskirts of the city of Peshawar, even some people waiting their turn to face prosecution under the new system dared to hope things would go better for them.
“Under the old system, we were put in jail and ignored,” said Hajji Amir Khan, a trader in his mid-40s awaiting a court date in Khyber District on charges of smuggling hashish. “I would not be given the chance to be heard by any court.”
Mr. Khan said he had been framed by the police after refusing to pay a bribe. But still, he said, “I am hopeful that I will get relief in this system.”
The army, which accuses the movement of being controlled by Afghan and Indian intelligence agencies, has grown increasingly infuriated. And the Pakistani news media, under heavy intimidation from the authorities, has largely stayed quiet about the topic altogether.
Tension boiled over on May 26, when the security forces shot into a crowd of protesters in the North Waziristan tribal area as they traveled to a sit-in, leaving at least 13 dead, members of the movement said. P.T.M. activists and witnesses said the demonstrators were unarmed. The authorities say that demonstrators opened fire first, hurting several officers, though video clips of the demonstration have not shown that.
Smaller demonstrations have broken out across the region, but some have been squelched, including one on Monday in Peshawar, in which protesters said that the security forces used batons to drive off demonstrators at a peaceful sit-in. And last week, four soldiers were killed in a roadside bombing in North Waziristan, once a militant stronghold.
The unrest has led the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government to ask for the postponement of the first-ever provincial elections in the newly merged areas. The poll had been scheduled for July 2.
The crackdown follows many warnings by rights advocates that any promise of civil protections would be in vain, given the military’s increasing grasp on power in the country.
“The experience of the last few days has exposed the oppressive control of the army in total violation of the laws and the Constitution,” said Afrasiab Khattak, a former senator and a campaigner for Pashtun rights.
For years, residents of the tribal areas have complained of being caught between the brutality of the militant groups that sheltered there, including the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda, and the military.
The Pakistani military frequently conducted operations against militants in those regions, often at the request of the United States and its allies struggling over the border in Afghanistan. One of the most extensive of those offensives, centered on Waziristan in 2014, was hailed by Pakistanis for nearly completely stamping out a domestic terrorism campaign by the Pakistani Taliban that had scourged the country since 2008.
But it also dislocated hundreds of thousands of residents of the tribal areas. And many aspects of de facto martial law in the regioncreated simmering outrage among the Pashtun population there that eventually gave birth to the P.T.M. last year.
As the movement gained momentum, Pakistan’s military began accommodating some of its demands, such as reducing the number of checkpoints in North and South Waziristan, easing aggressive searches, relaxing curfews and starting demining programs.
But many in the tribal regions say the security forces never truly relinquished control. And even with the tribal areas’ merger with Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the advent of the national civilian justice system, local officials say a slow start on funding those institutions has left the security forces with even more authority.
“We, the people of the tribal area, were promised by the Pakistani government that after the merger, police and courts would be dealing with the law and order situation and disputes resolution,” said Malik Nasrullah Khan Wazir, a prominent tribal chief from North Waziristan. “But so far, very little has happened in this regard. In the rest of Pakistan, civil law enforcement agencies are supposed to maintain the law and order situation. But in tribal areas, we have been left at the mercy of the army.”
More than a century of government neglect and two decades of fallout from military operations are unlikely to be undone quickly. But some sort of progress is critical, local officials say.
Nizamuddin Salarzai, a politician in Bajaur District who is running in provincial elections this year, said, “The tribal people are being dragged through yet another phase of governance nightmare.”
“Militaries aren’t trained either for policing or dispensation of justice,” he added. “The absence of both judiciary and properly trained and empowered police after the military operations has brought the military and the public in direct contact with each other on a daily basis — hence creating frictions.”