Pakistan rights group warns extremists trying to influence political campaigns in close election

Ben Farmer
A police officer checks mock voters while other looks on, as they perform a rehearsal for security measures, outside a polling booth, ahead of general elections in Karachi, Pakistan - REUTERS

The Facebook post from Imran Khan's political party announcing the support of a new backer at first glance looked like a run-of-the-mill electoral announcement in Pakistan.

Except the cleric pledging support to the sportsman-turned-politician was Maulana Fazal ur Rehman Khalil, the founder of a banned terrorist group who remains on an American terror watchlist.

The endorsement from the veteran jihadist as well as the open campaigning of known extremists ahead of this week's general election has again bought attention to what rights groups say is the worrying role of militancy in a close-fought election.

Leaders of banned militant groups have been able to stand as candidates and mainstream parties have been accused of cosying up to them for votes.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan this week expressed alarm at “the stealthy reappearance of banned outfits under other names and the fact that the state has conferred political legitimacy on them by allowing them to contest the elections”.

“That their campaigns have consistently misused religion to peddle a dangerous, divisive rhetoric is cause for serious concern,” the commission said in a statement.

Maulana Khalil, an Islamabad-based cleric, is not standing in the election, but has backed Mr Khan's Pakistan Justice Movement party (PTI).

A veteran of the jihad in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, in 1985 he founded the militant Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen (HuM) group. The organisation, which is banned by both Pakistan and America, later focused on Kashmir.

Maulana Fazal ur Rehman Khalil remains on an American terror watchlist Credit: AP

The US State Department describes HuM as "a Pakistan-based terrorist organisation that seeks the annexation of Kashmir into Pakistan and poses a direct risk to US, Afghan, and allied interests in Afghanistan".

In February 1998, Khalil signed up to Osama bin Laden’s call for attacks on US and Western interests. He no longer leads the group, but concerns about his activities saw him put on an American terrorist watchlist only a few years ago.

Other leaders of militant groups are contesting seats, sometimes as independents, or for front parties.

The Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat (ASWJ) group is banned in Pakistan for inciting sectarian violence against the country's Shia minority, but several of its leaders are standing in the poll.

Muhammad Ahmed Ludhianvi, who runs the group, was taken off Pakistan's own internal watch list last month as he prepared his candidacy.

Supporters of Pakistani cricket star-turned-politician and head of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Imran Khan (unseen) gather at his political campaign rally Credit: AFP

Another high profile figure, Hafiz Saeed, has a $10 million US bounty on his head and is accused of masterminding the Mumbai attacks. Yet while he is not standing, his Milli Muslim League  party is fielding more than 200 candidates. 

While radical Islamists have traditionally won little of the vote themselves, major political parties have been busy courting them with polls putting Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and Mr Khan's PTI neck and neck.

Campaign posters In Lahore Credit: BLOOMBERG

Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, former prime minister for the PML-N visited the ASWJ for ask for their support earlier this month.

“All major parties try to have these extremist outfits on their side to secure seats in areas where these groups hold strength”, the political analyst Zahid Hussain told the Daily Times.

“These extremist outfits should not have been allowed to contest elections in the first place. Their presence in the electoral process puts a question mark on the state’s efforts against terrorism. Their campaign is based on hate speech, and their involvement in the elections will further radicalise the society.”

Pakistan was last month put on a international finance “grey list” for its failure to crack down on money laundering and the funding of terrorist groups.

Western allies including Britain have long pushed Islamabad to do more to curb militant groups on its soil.