Pakistan protest leader Manzoor Pashteen arrested on conspiracy charges

Ben Farmer
Manzoor Pashteen was arrested on charges including conspiracy - AFP

A civil rights campaigner who has challenged Pakistan's powerful military by raising a protest movement against alleged army abuses has been arrested.

Manzoor Pashteen was held in the early hours of Monday, with police saying he was wanted on charges including sedition, hate speech, incitement against the state, and criminal conspiracy.

His arrest was condemned by supporters, while his fellow leaders of the Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM) appealed for calm.

The movement has rattled the military since it arose two years ago with calls to end alleged abuses against the Pashtun ethnic group in the tribal border region with Afghanistan. The region has been the centre of a bloody fight against militant groups for more than a decade.

Security has improved dramatically after a series of military offensives, and the campaigns have been credited with a nationwide reduction in militant violence. Yet the PTM has accused the security forces of being implicated in extrajudicial killings and disappearances during the lengthy campaigns, and continuing a heavy-handed presence in the area. Large crowds have attended rallies since the movement began in 2018.

The army, which suffered heavy casualties during the offensives, at first made concessions to the protest movement, but has since appeared to harden its stance. Generals have accused the media of exaggerating the scale of the PTM and accused its leaders of being pawns of India and Afghanistan.

“This is our punishment for demanding our rights in a peaceful and democratic manner,” said Mohsin Dawar, another PTM leader. “But Manzoor's arrest will only strengthen our resolve.”

Elizabeth Threlkeld, deputy director of the South Asia program at the Stimson Centre think tank, said the arrest was “a short-sighted and highly inflammatory move by Pakistan's authorities”.

“ Arresting Pashteen risks further fanning the flames in North and South Waziristan and does nothing to address protesters' legitimate grievances,” she said.

Afghanistan's president, Ashraf Ghani, said he was troubled by Mr Pashteen's arrest and called for his immediate release.