UN rights body expresses alarm at ‘pattern of harassment’ of Imran Khan’s party ahead of Pakistan polls

The UN human rights agency voiced concern over Pakistan’s crackdown on members of Imran Khan’s party ahead of parliamentary election to be held on Thursday.

"We are disturbed…by the pattern of harassment, arrests and prolonged detentions of leaders of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party and their supporters, which has continued during the election period," said Elizabeth Throssell, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for human rights.

It comes as Mr Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party complained of harassment by officials and raids by Punjab police at their election offices and homes of party leaders and supporters. The authorities have denied the claims.

Khan has been sentenced to 34 years in jail after being convicted in four cases and has been disqualified from running for the 8 February election. His party and supporters claimed the sentencing was punishment for his rhetoric against Pakistan’s powerful military.

Appealing that all parties must be allowed to compete fairly, Ms Throssell said the UN’s rights body “deplore all acts of violence against political parties and candidates, and urge the authorities to uphold the fundamental freedoms necessary for an inclusive and meaningful democratic process”.

"Pakistan’s democratic gains over the past 15 years have been hard-won in the face of many security and economic challenges. Elections are an important moment to reaffirm the country’s commitment to human rights and democracy, and to ensure the right to participation of all its people, including women and minorities," she said.

Pakistan is holding elections for a new parliament on Thursday with at least 44 political parties in the fray for a share of the 266 seats that are up for grabs in the National Assembly, or the lower house of parliament, and an additional 70 seats reserved for women and minorities.

The campaigning is set to end by midnight local time on Tuesday but candidates are still allowed to lobby for votes door-to-door.

The election pits Mr Khan’s PTI against Pakistan’s two legacy parties, the incumbent Pakistan Muslim League (N) party and the Pakistan People’s Party. Analysts expect a PML (N) victory that would install Nawaz Sharif as prime minister for a record fourth term, after PTI were stripped of the right to campaign under their cricket bat election symbol and forced to back a list of independents instead.

Mumtaz Zahra Baloch, a spokesperson for Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry, said in a statement that “Pakistan is fully committed to foster an inclusive democratic process, uphold the rule of law, and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms guaranteed in its laws and Constitution.”

She said the judicial system in Pakistan provides for fair trial and due process. “Domestic legal remedies are available in case of any complaints in the electoral process.”

Earlier, Pakistan’s caretaker interior minister Gohar Ejaz also vowed to ensure free and fair elections in the country despite a recent surge in militant attacks, adding that troops would be deployed in sensitive areas. “We will not let anyone cast an ill-intentioned gaze at our national security,” he said. “We won’t let anyone disrupt the election process,” he was quoted as saying by the Dawn.

Pakistan has invited international observers to monitor the election, though some analysts say the vote’s credibility is at stake due to "pre-poll rigging" and the rejection of the candidacies of Khan’s party.

Amnesty International, among several other human rights organisations, urged authorities to "guarantee uninterrupted access to the internet and digital communication platforms for everyone across the country" after Mr Ijaz said internet disruptions were a possibility during Thursday’s election if local authorities requested it.

The internet is usually suspended in Pakistan to restrict communication among militants following attacks.

Additional reporting by agencies