Trapped between militants and the military

Between a rock and a hard place. That’s one way of describing life for people who live in the tribal region of Pakistan.

A rugged and remote area bordering Afghanistan, and home to more than 20 million people, the tribal areas are one of the least developed parts of the country. Reports indicate that 60% of the population lives below the poverty line, while literacy rates are less than half the national average.

This year the assassination attempt on Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year-old who chronicled her life in the tribal region, threw a spotlight on the brutal imposition of the Taliban’s philosophy on people there. Malala had blogged about her right to go to school and get an education – her notoriety as an advocate for rights for girls made her a declared target of the Taliban. They finally shot her in October, on her way to school. She is being treated in a Birmingham hospital. The pathos of her case has captured the world’s attention and made people think about life living under the Taliban.

 In 2009, the Pakistani Armed Forces launched a decisive operation into areas where armed groups like the Taliban had effectively taken control. They wrested back control, but brought the communities new grief, as they arrested people, tortured them and in some cases killed them.

In a new report, out today, Amnesty has documented how civilians in the tribal belt are terrorised by these two groups. Tribal communities live in fear of deadly reprisals on the merest suspicion. If they are perceived to have overstepped the mark as Malala did, they are a target, and if they are suspected of having collaborated with the state, they risk assassination and torture.

Then there are the armed forces. Rather than providing longed-for protection, the Pakistani authorities have given them free rein to carry out torture and enforced disappearance. In 2011, the armed forces were granted further sweeping powers of arrest and detention under specially-formulated regulations and neither Pakistan’s high courts nor parliament have jurisdiction over the tribal areas.

As one of the civilians in the region says:

“The hands of cruelty extend to the tribal areas, but the hands of justice can’t.”

This poignant story from a father epitomises the vulnerability of people who are accused and detained.

Gulzar Jan, a 40-year-old farmer voluntarily reported to an Army contingent after being accused of Taliban ties by a neighbour.

In August, Gulzar’s father Farooq was notified that his son’s dead body had been brought to a local hospital – it was the first he had heard of his son’s whereabouts in two years. The police said he died of “illness”, but there was no autopsy or investigation into the circumstances surrounding Gulzar’s death by the authorities .

“When I surrendered my son to [the army] he was a healthy man, he weighed about 85kgs. When they handed his body back it was about one-third of his previous size. We bathed him before burial and I noticed his back was covered in lashes that looked like whipping marks,” said Farooq.

This week the US government accused Pakistan of allowing the tribal region to become a safe haven for militants. For the ordinary people who live there, it is anything but.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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