Project Peca II: A weapon of mass intimidation

Farieha Aziz

lifetime ban on Nawaz Sharif, other political knockouts in the lead up to the 2018 general elections and the eventual formation of the PTI government set the stage for what was to follow over the next two years. In contrast to the oft referred to “civil-military imbalance” towards the end of the PML-N government’s term, the PTI proudly proclaimed that the army and its government were “on the same page.”

The phrase “fifth generation warfare” was popularised by then DG ISPR Asif Ghafoor through a press conference, where he stressed the role of media in generating a positive image of Pakistan and the function of journalism to this end. During the press conference, the DG ISPR also spoke about the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) and displayed an infographic with pictures of journalists accused of sharing “anti-state” remarks.

The PTM had only risen to national prominence in 2018 after the extrajudicial murder of Naqeebullah Mehsud in Karachi. The PTM’s jalsas gained momentum across the country, agitating the issue of missing persons and enforced disappearances, which also led to clampdowns on their protests, and FIRs and arrests against organisers and participants. Due to a sustained media blackout of anything to do with the PTM, social media was their primary medium of expression. Hence, Peca was also used to persecute and silence those associated with the PTM.

The clampdown

In July 2018, rights activist Hayat Preghal was taken into custody, charged under sections 9 and 10 of Peca, along with sections 500 and 109 of the PPC for allegedly posting content “critical of Pakistani state policies” on social media. Preghal, who was visiting his family in Dera Ismail Khan, was allegedly picked up by law enforcers.

His family remained unaware of his whereabouts for six days after which they were informed that he had been arrested by the FIA. Following his arrest, Amnesty International called for Preghal’s immediate release, as “a prisoner of conscience” who had been “detained solely for the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression.” He was granted post-arrest bail by the IHC on September 25, 2018. However, Preghal was directed to submit his passport to the trial court after the IHC declared that “the nature of the offence” was such. He was also placed on the Exit Control List (ECL) as per the court’s instructions.

The case of Shahzeb Jillani
In April 2019, the FIA registered an FIR against Shahzeb Jillani, charging him under sections 10, 11 and 20 of PECA, and 34 and 109 of the PPC. This was in response to a complaint filed against him by Maulvi Iqbal Haider, who identified himself as a “practicing advocate of the superior courts”.
Haider stated in his complaint that while he was switching channels, he came across Jillani making “defamatory remarks against respected institutions of Pakistan,” on a Dunya News programme in 2017, and then again in March 2019. He also mentioned that Jillani made “negative remarks about the Armed Forces on social media.”
At first Jillani found it laughable, to be accused of cyber terrorism. But then he was told a case had been filed and he must obtain bail or he would be arrested. Jillani obtained pre-arrest bail, which was confirmed two weeks later. Even on the day of the bail confirmation hearing, there was no way to predict whether bail would be granted or not, since it was not simply a matter of law but a political endgame. Weighing down was the fact that if bail was denied, the FIA could take Jillani into custody right there.
All this while, uncertainty loomed, not knowing what would happen in court and outside. In court, as an accused under the law, Jillani had to be present in the morning to mark his attendance. The IO and prosecutor did not show up until much later in the day, sometimes one was present and the other was not.
It took one-and-a-half months and several appearances in court before the FIR was ultimately disposed of as C-Class by the magistrate, but this was only after there was widespread public condemnation of the FIR, consistent media coverage of the case and court hearings, and on ground support by various individuals, journalist unions and rights groups — some known, others not known to Jillani.
The National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Human Rights also took up his case. The FIA ultimately dropped the cognizable section from the final challan, leaving only Section 20, giving an indication to the court that they were no longer interested in pursuing the case further. All this contributed to the case being disposed of within a shorter time frame, whereas when the FIR was registered, Jillani was told it could take years for the case to conclude.
Prior to the registration of the FIR, he had received warnings through social media and colleagues. He knew he was on the radar, but did not think it would go so far. At the time, Jillani was employed with Dunya News.
Weary of self-censorship, he planned to leave and had informed the organisation he would be leaving in March 2019, but soon after, the FIR was registered — not that the organisation stood by him.
Even though the remarks referenced in the complaint against him were aired by Dunya News, succumbing to pressure, they sacked Jillani as he faced a criminal case with an imprisonment term up to 14 years. The sacking came immediately after his participation in a solidarity protest outside the press club to raise the issue of the abduction of two journalists, which was viewed as an escalation from his side for not bowing down. The message was clear: if you speak up, you will suffer longer and more.
Jillani concedes he did not know just how mala fide PECA was as an instrument to muzzle journalists. The maliciousness was evident from the disclosure by FIA officials privately when Jillani joined the investigation and recorded his statement at the FIA office. There, he was told that they had initially refused to entertain the complaint as no case was made out, but ultimately they were pressured into pursuing the case and invoking the section with the highest punishment. Resultant loss of earnings, attending court hearings, being labelled as anti-state or anti-Pakistan means potential employers steer clear, and is a far more sinister and insidious way of shutting somebody down.
Preghal’s Twitter and Facebook accounts, as well as his phone, laptop and USB were accessed by the FIA’s cybercrime unit during the time he was detained. According to his lawyer, no material was recovered from his possession during the course of the investigation.

During this time, Preghal, who was employed outside of Pakistan, was left jobless due to the initiation of the case and his name being on the ECL. Though he was released from jail in October 2018, it was not until January 2022 that the case finally came to an end after he filed an acquittal application, when the court held that “no further proceedings could be carried out against the petitioner/accused.” His name was removed from the ECL in March 2022 after he approached the IHC.

The list

In April 2019, an application was filed at the FIA’s Peshawar office, along with a list of Facebook and Twitter accounts that included PTM leaders, supporters and activists, accusing them of spreading “hate speech and fake information against government institutions of Pakistan.” The first FIR was registered against Ismail Mehsud, then Dr Abdul Hai in August 2019, and Professor Ismail in October 2019. Charges against all three were under sections 10 and 11 of Peca and 109 of the PPC.

While there was a general rumour about the existence of a list, it was only when Mehsud’s house in Islamabad was raided in August 2019 that this was known with any certainty. The FIR against Mehsud was registered in Peshawar, but his home in Islamabad was raided and he was taken from there. His whereabouts remained unknown for several hours. It was only discovered later in the night that he had been taken to Peshawar and presented before a court there the next morning, following which he was sent to Peshawar jail. Why and how a resident of Islamabad, with no residence in Peshawar was taken there, and whether the relevant authorities in Islamabad were intimated and involved, remains unclear.

Similar action was taken against Dr Abdul Hai. A resident of Peshawar, his house was raided late at night, with heavy police presence, which was captured in the CCTV footage at his house. He, too, was taken from his home without any intimation that there was an FIR against him.

It was after he and Mehsud were formally charged and presented before court, that the application with other names, the FIRs, as well as screenshots of their social posts were discovered. This is also when they discovered that the FIA had begun its inquiry in April, immediately after it received the complaint and approached a local magistrate to seek permission to write to Facebook and Twitter, seeking details of the accounts mentioned in the list. The magistrate granted the permission, after which they wrote to the social media platforms. Both platforms, however, did not divulge the information in this particular instance.

The FIA, as stated in the FIR, then scoured through Mehsud’s Facebook profile, where a phone number against his account was listed. On this basis, the FIA approached the telecom company for subscriber details against the number, and obtained Mehsud’s personal information such as his name and address as on his CNIC, which was provided to them. Mehsud was unaware that his information had been provided.

Dr Hai’s FIR also mentions his Facebook profile and the phone number associated with the account. Both FIRs are vague with respect to details but state that “through a source”, it was found that they both operated their respective Facebook accounts. Their devices were seized when they were taken into custody. Dr Hai was also sent to Peshawar jail, after being produced before a magistrate. Both spent a month in Peshawar jail after which they obtained bail from the Peshawar High Court. The trial in their cases has not commenced to date; it has already been over two years since the registration of the FIR.

Uncertainty prevails

The application, on the basis of which their FIRs were registered naming others, remains in place. What has happened to that list, whether any action is pending against others, is there likely to be, and whether there is a period after which such a complaint lapses, is not known. How long does the FIA have to act on such a complaint or can they use this as a basis and act even several years later? This uncertainty prevails and hangs as a threat over others named in the list. Knowing they or others are on the list and action can be initiated at any time, with the FIA waiting to prowl, has led some to keep a low profile or self-censor.

In cases against those associated with the PTM, bail almost always has to be obtained from the high court due to refusal to grant it by lower courts. There is always the threat of a bail cancellation application being moved. Trials linger so that those charged are forced to make multiple appearances in court over what has now become years. This puts a financial, psychological, emotional and physical strain on the persons implicated in the cases.

Personal and professional lives are both in a state of disarray, impacting the ability to earn and keep households running. Many PTM activists and supporters belong to lower or middle income households. They are reliant on pro bono legal help or services at a reduced fee, but there are still court costs to cover or commute to hearings to cater to — in addition to running their households. Few volunteer to represent them due to the perception that these are politically motivated cases at the behest of intelligence agencies.

Alongside the crackdown on PTM in 2019 were FIRs against political workers, media persons and journalists. In February 2019, the FIA registered an FIR against Din News TV host Rizwanur Rehman Razi under sections 11 and 20 of Peca and 500 of the PPC, for posting “defamatory and obnoxious content against the judiciary, government institutions and intelligence agencies” through his Twitter account. His son, who tweeted from his Twitter account, said some men took Razi away in a car. Later, the FIA stated that he had been “summoned.” His phone was seized, a forensic report produced. According to the FIA’s report, Razi admitted to uploading the content, apologised for it and agreed not to upload such content again.

The case of Prof Ismail Khan

In October 2019, an FIR was registered against the father of activist Gulalai Ismail, Professor Ismail, under sections 10 and 11 of PECA. Though this was the second FIR registered against Professor Ismail, it was the first case in which he was arrested. In the FIR, he was accused of spreading “hate speech and fake information against government institutions of Pakistan on Facebook and Twitter.”
He was abducted from outside Peshawar High Court, where he had gone to attend the hearing of a case. He was roughed up in the process, something the FIA officials handling his case apologised for, saying it was not them who had picked him up. It was only after public pressure that his custody was revealed. Meanwhile, his devices were seized and social media accounts accessed. The devices remain with the FIA.
When produced before a magistrate, the FIA sought physical custody but instead he was sent on a 14-day judicial remand. After his bail application was rejected in the lower court, Professor Ismail was granted conditional bail by the Peshawar High Court, subject to submitting a surety of Rs100,000, personal guarantee by two individuals, with the warning to “be careful.” In April 2019, the FIA moved a bail cancellation application which to date, has not been decided and hearings remain ongoing.
The case remains ongoing, but this is not the only case Professor Ismail is facing. He, his wife and daughter Gulalai Ismail, were later implicated in a terror financing case.
While his wife was able to obtain bail, his pre-arrest bail application was turned down by the court and he was taken into custody. He was later granted bail in April 2021 by the Peshawar High Court. Prior to being taken into custody in the anti-terrorism case, due to court visits, both Professor Ismail and his wife contracted Covid-19. Both had underlying conditions and had to fend for themselves during the time they were unwell as there was no one to look after them.
With all their children outside the country, none of them could return to look after the parents due to the fear of coercive action and more cases against them. While Professor Ismail and Gulalai Ismail are targeted for their expression and politics, even the non-political members of the family such as Professor Ismail’s wife, other offspring and their spouses, who don’t have the same interest or inclination towards political discourse in Pakistan, due to their association as members of the family, are made to suffer, and in turn cannot visit their extended family.
Not only has the family been harassed through cases, with investigations that run on, bail hearings that linger on or trials that do not commence, actions against them outside the court isolate them in society.
The family remains under constant surveillance. Anybody they come into contact with — or who keeps in touch with them — is harassed. So much so that even household staff to help with domestic chores are not available to them and they cannot avail basic facilities such as hailing a cab, because anybody who provides any service is also harassed.
Relatives’ houses visited by them in the village were raided or members were called in for questioning. Those in the village fear the police. When operatives from the counter-terrorism department or intelligence agencies show up, it affects their reputation and dignity and the community then looks upon such people with suspicion. Their own house was raided in the early hours of the morning at a time the neighbourhood was awake and residents were departing for morning prayers, to make a spectacle.
This tactic is used to stigmatise people such as themselves to make them a liability on others so others distance themselves.
In March 2019, a letter by the FIA was found in circulation, naming six individuals with directions to register enquiries against them for displaying the picture of “murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi on their social media profile DPs which conveyed a very disrespectful message to the visiting guest” — the Saudi crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who was visiting at the time. While that was the end of the matter after public condemnation, in April 2019, an FIR was registered against journalist Shahzeb Jillani under sections 10, 11 and 20 of Peca, and 34 and 109 of the PPC for “defamatory remarks against state institutions.”

In June 2019, Waleed Butt, president of the Hamza Youth Wing Punjab of the PML-N, was arrested and charged under sections 11 and 20 of Peca, as well as sections 500, 505 and 109 of the PPC. In July, the FIA arrested Mian Tariq, accused of making a video of Judge Arshad Malik. He was remanded into FIA custody for two days. At the hearing, he informed the court that he was tortured and his bones were broken.

The court ordered a medical report be presented. Tariq was later sent on a 14-day judicial remand. More arrests were made in connection to the judge’s video. In August 2019, the FIA sent Maryam Nawaz a questionnaire about the video pertaining to Judge Arshad Malik. Various PML-N leaders were summoned to appear before the FIA in the ongoing investigation.

Thus continued the saga of the illegal harassment of citizens through legal means. By now, the Peca law had been established as the go-to tool for the state to silence or intimidate its naysayers. This would continue over the subsequent years, despite the courts’ interventions and outcry by activists, metastasising according to the need of the hour and what party was in power.

Source: Dawn, December 14, 2022