Prisons are breeding grounds for radicalisation within their walls and recruitment for terrorism acts carried out post the inmates’ release. The leaders’ personality and ability to cultivate a cult-like following among the potential recruits mould the fruition or failure of these security threats worldwide. While this is not a novel security challenge, as the following portion about the rise of the Islamic State attests, the Boris Johnson-led administration appears to now bolster its efforts to confront the complex reality.
For example, the emergence of the Islamic State traces its roots to Camp Bucca in Iraq, where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, its earliest leader, received absolute leeway in conducting his virulent sermons and fomented the surge in radical recruits. His followers eventually assumed leadership positions in one of the deadliest terrorist outfits of the modern era. However, the prison officials had essentially allowed him to run amuck due to his ability to contain in-fighting and resolve tensions between his fellow jihadist prisoners, despite his record of violence displayed during the Sunni insurgency after the United States-led invasion in 2003. Having found themselves in a foreign land and inadept at recognising the socio-cultural and sectarian sensitivities, the American officials presumably refrained from challenging the status quo that had emerged within the camp to minimise tensions and violent episodes engulfing the Iraqi state. However, this meant that the radical Islamist narrative spun by him and disseminated by his followers played a central role in laying the foundations of the carnage and the now dismantled “caliphate” that would follow suit.
The United Kingdom’s (UK) counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation strategy is now being revamped. Dominic Raab, the Justice Secretary, has announced the strengthening of a team, to the tune of £1.2 million, to assist the British government in devising a framework to segregate radically influential and “charismatic” Islamist terrorists from at-risk inmates serving their sentence. This would primarily happen by isolating them in specialised centres to house such high-risk prisoners. Nevertheless, there is a catch. The challenge that this administration will face is in determining who poses a substantial threat and will find a place in the centres. Although three of them are currently operational, until April 2022, only 15 individuals in one prison have made it to the list.
Mr. Raab asserted that the current dispensation is “going to take a more decisive approach in [our] prisons, not allowing cultural and religious sensitivities to deter [us] from nipping in the bud early signs of terrorist risk.” He argued his case by underlining how the right to socialise in prisons traditionally accorded as per the Human Rights Act would remain suspended. In addition, inmates making their arguments against their referrals to such centres would find it a mounting challenge to plead their claims successfully. Furthermore, the empowered Prison Governors will notably have considerable authority to strike down any attempts by radical inmates to undermine national security and instigate chaos spurred by radicalisation.
Driving the policy change
On the surface, this comes on the heels of the recommendations made by Jonathan Hall QC, an independent reviewer of terrorist activities in Welsh and English prisons. Nevertheless, it is improbable to disassociate this policy decision from the debates concerning the viability of Prevent, which is a core tenet of the UK’s counter-radicalisation strategy. It was initially introduced in 2003 by former Prime Minister Mr. Tony Blair. Understandably, the brutal assassination of former parliamentarian Sir David Amess in October 2021 and the subsequent conviction of Ali Harbi Ali for life, the perpetrator in April 2022, have triggered the incumbent administration to counter the catapulting national security crisis decisively.
On the other hand, violent incidents within jails in the recent past are the root of why Mr. Raab appears driven to confront this dilemma head-on. In May 2020, HMP Belmarsh’s-High Security Unit, one of the most secure prisons countrywide, witnessed a horrifying attack on Paul Edwards, a prison officer. He nearly lost his life due to a near-fatal assault by a trio of inmates. He was punched, thrashed, and struck with a chair after Hashem Abedi (the “emir” and brother to Salman Abedi; the Manchester Arena bomber), Muhammed Saeed, and Ahmed Hassan (Parsons Green Bomber) stormed his office. Led by Abedi, Saeed and Hassan were radicalised to retaliate against perceived unfair treatment by prison authorities.
Reportedly, these individuals were housed along with other violent criminals, sowing seeds for intensifying attacks, where discussions about their upcoming trials and information about jihad and terrorism were frequently exchanged.
What is worrisome is that this prison has served as the scene for a spill-over to its other corners. Mohiussunath Chowdhury, who was imprisoned in HMP Belmarsh on terrorism charges after his sword attack on police officers stationed outside the Buckingham Palace in 2017, had a close affiliation with fellow jihadis, including Hassan, Abedi, and Mohammed Emwazi, the Islamic State terrorist infamously known as “Jihadi John.” He was re-convicted in 2020 for planning terrorist attacks after being cleared of prior charges in 2018. Additionally, Sudesh Amman, who stabbed two people and was subsequently shot dead in February 2020, also had a prior conviction. He was jailed for possession and dissemination of terrorist propaganda, before securing an early release days before his knife attack. He and Chowdhary were imprisoned around the same time.
It is equally problematic to discover that Anjem Choudhary, a militant and radical Islamist preacher who, until recently, was banned from making public speeches, and Usman Khan, the London Bridge attacker, are the by-products of a militant Islamist climate cultivated within the same prison as terrorists mentioned above. Khan and Choudhury also spoke alongside each other at a conference in 2009 about Sharia. Individuals like Khan were also mandated to undergo a de-radicalisation initiative termed “Desistance and Disengagement Programme” alongside his fellow detainees.
The Do’s of counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation success & the need for overhaul
These are only a few of several examples within one prison to delineate why the British government is attempting to revamp its counter-terrorism strategy. Under a common roof, the amalgamation and collusion of violent extremist beliefs, followed by constant reinforcement undermines the stable ecosystem within and outside prisons. Moreover, despite their resources an well-trained personnel, the security agencies – MI5 and MI6 require adequate preparation and time to re-engage and subdue such terrorists between their release and their subsequent targeted attacks. During that time frame, these radicalised individuals persons have the potential for these radicalised persons to inflict more violence than before.
Therefore, the government’s rationale is evident and well-understood.
Overall, the presumption is that if such “separation centres” are set up and all high-risk terrorists isolated, the violence within and outside jails will become manageable, if not completely eradicated. This would provide the government, law enforcement, and security agencies sufficient room to re-allocate their resources and personnel towards nipping in the bud any potential radicalised recruits in the public domain before they join violent extremist organisations or carry out terrorist acts. It will also prevent the radicalisation of violent criminals and pre-trial prisoners as they remain disassociated from radical elements.
However, to ensure the centres’ success, challenges such as overcrowding, shortage of specially trained armed and civilian personnel (including de-radicalisation experts), and insufficient funds to procure advanced surveillance for monitoring the detainees’ daily activities need to be overcome. The government must also ensure that it sets up a core committee, comprising a therapists, a prison official, and a social welfare worker, and a law-enforcement and security officer (each), for each of these centres. In addition, 4 to 5 members to evaluate the successes and challenges after every months and accordingly underscore the scope of improvement and loopholes the centres face is also required. Only through a state of heightened monitoring, and constant re-evaluation can the administration hope to weed out terrorism and radicalisation from mainstream society and its fringes. Additionally, the political will of subsequent leaders and perseverance of MI5 and MI6 will also have a significant contribution to determining whether this initiative succeeds or whether is doomed to fail.
On the other hand, in conjunction with the government, the prison officials must also ensure prisoners being housed in such centres should not come into contact, particularly through illicit means, lest they develop a jihadist solidarity, strengthen their beliefs, and harm those safeguarding these places. Moreover, parameters, including the number of people these high-risk individuals have radicalised within and outside prisons, and those who have committed terrorist attacks post their release, the rigidity of their ideological indoctrination, record of violence, cyber activities, conduct as inmates, and the severity of crimes for which they have been convicted, should collectively feature into the framework laid down to decide who will be referred to the separation centres.
Human rights must be ‘front and centre’ in the fight against terrorism
Responses to terrorism must be anchored in the rule of law, human rights, and gender equality to ensure their effectiveness, Secretary-General António Guterres told a UN-backed counter-terrorism meeting that opened in Málaga, Spain, on Tuesday.
“As a moral duty, a legal obligation, and a strategic imperative – let’s put human rights where they belong: Front and centre in the fight against terror,” Mr. Guterres said in a video message to the High-Level International conference on Human Rights, Civil Society and Counter-Terrorism.
The two-day event is taking place against the backdrop of the growing threat of terrorism across the globe, and the resulting increase in related legislation and policies.
Assault on human rights
During the conference, governments, international organizations, civil society and human rights defenders will examine how to formulate terrorism responses that comply with human rights and the rule of law, and ensure meaningful participation of civil society in counter-terrorism efforts.
“This gathering reflects a central truth. Terrorism is not only an attack on innocent people. It represents an all-out assault on human rights,” said the Secretary-General.
The threat is growing and global, he added, listing examples such as the continued expansion of Da’esh and Al-Qaeda in Africa, and resurgent terrorism in Afghanistan.
The UN chief spoke of how extremist groups are targeting women and girls with gender-based violence, including sexual violence, while terrorists are also using technology to “spread and export lies, hatred and division at the touch of a button.”
Meanwhile, xenophobia, racism and cultural and religious intolerance are accelerating.
Reaffirm core values
Mr. Guterres warned that at the same time, global responses to terrorism can make things worse.
“In the name of security, humanitarian aid is often blocked – increasing human suffering. Civil society and human rights defenders are silenced – particularly women. And survivors of terrorism and violence are left without the support and access to justice they need to rebuild their lives,” he said.
The Secretary-General called for reaffirming commitment to core values, including by investing in health, education, protection, gender equality, and justice systems that are accessible to all people.
This must also include safeguarding humanitarian action, respecting international law and “opening the door to civil society – and especially women – to meaningfully engage with counter-terrorism efforts.”
Ensuring long-term efforts
The high-level conference is jointly organized by the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT) and Spain.
In his opening remarks, Mr. Vladimir Voronkov, UN Under-Secretary-General for Counter-Terrorism, stressed that “countering terrorism helps protect human rights, but only if human rights are protected while countering terrorism.”
Moreover, he added the violation or abuse of human rights only plays into terrorists’ hands, as they seek to provoke heavy-handed and indiscriminate responses from security forces.
“Terrorists do this with the aim of undermining public confidence in the ability of governments to protect their own citizens. That is why a human rights-based approach is not aimed at challenging or frustrating counterterrorism initiatives,” he said.
“On the contrary, it’s essential to ensure effective, long-term, and sustainable counter-terrorism efforts.”
The conference follows a virtual dialogue held last year with human rights and civil society partners, also convened by the UNOCT and Spain.
Several thematic sessions will focus on issues such as human rights, the rule of law and principled humanitarian action in the context of counter-terrorism efforts; and support for victims and survivors of terrorism.
Prior to the opening, a workshop and six side events were held to accelerate momentum and commitment towards implementing the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy in a balanced manner.
The strategy, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2006, includes measures that range from strengthening State capacity to counter terrorist threats to and better coordinating the UN’s System’s counter-terrorism activities.
The Foreign Minister of Spain, José Manuel Albares Bueno, who also addressed the opening ceremony, expressed high hopes for the conference.
“The diversity of the themes is a true reflection of the comprehensive nature of the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy in its seventh review, which was co-facilitated by Spain and adopted by consensus by the General Assembly in June last year,” he said.
U.S. Hunts Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi Groups
The US Department of the Treasury and the State Department successfully and effectively conduct counter-terrorism operations against ISIS and al-Qaeda-affiliated Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups, putting constant and systematic pressure on them. The war on terrorism is fought on many fronts: diplomatic, intelligence, covert, sanctions, law enforcement, and military. Over the past two decades, the US designated the most vocal and violent Islamist extremist groups from Central Asia as the “Specially Designated Terrorist” (SDT) и “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” (FTO). Under the provision of the Act “Farrakhan Amendment,” US law enforcement freezes any assets and finances of global terrorist groups, designated SDT and FTO. The US has recently added the Uzbek jihadi group of Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad to global terrorist organizations.
US designated Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad
On March 7, 2022, the US Department of State added Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi group Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ) to the US government’s list of specially designated global terrorist organizations. In addition to this designation, KTJ has been added to the UN Security Council’s ISIS and al-Qaeda sanctions list, which requires all UN member states to implement an asset freeze, a travel ban, and an arms embargo against Uzbek jihadist of KTJ.
The US designation noted that “al Qaeda-affiliated KTJ operates in Syria’s Idlib Province alongside Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and cooperates with other designated terrorist groups such as Katibat al-Imam al-Bukhari (KIB) and Islamic Jihad Group (IJG)” from the post-Soviet Central Asia.
The US Department of State’s statement also noted that “in addition to engaging in terrorist activities in Syria, KTJ has also been responsible for conducting external attacks, such as the St. Petersburg metro attack in Russia in April 2017 which killed 14 passengers and injured 50 others, as well as a suicide car bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Kyrgyzstan’s capital of Bishkek in August 2016 which wounded three people.”
The State Department further stated that as a result of the designation, all property and interests in property of KTJ are blocked, and foreign financial institutions that conduct any transaction on behalf of KTJ could also be subject to US sanctions.
Uzbek Jihadists in Syria denounce US designation of KTJ
On March 13, a week after the State Department designated KTJ as a global terrorist organization, the Shura Council of KTJ released a statement denouncing the US move. In its own statement, which was released on its Telegram channel, the major Uzbek jihadi faction questions the greatness of the US, as their decision was unfair. The KTJ states that “no matter how powerful a government or society might be, it will not be great in the eyes of people if it does not rule with justice and eliminate oppression.”
Uzbek Jihadi group in Syria denounces its designation by the US and claims that “KTJ consists of people who responded to the cries of the oppressed in Syria, because protecting the oppressed people is the duty of all humanity.”
The major Central Asian militant group further asserted that “it is not the policy of KTJ to launch attacks outside Syria” and its members have nothing to do with the suicide attacks on Russia’s St. Petersburg metro and the Chinese embassy in Bishkek in 20016-2017. At the end of their statement, KTJ ideologists claim that “our group does not belong to al-Qaeda or ISIS.” However, this claim is absolutely false.
It is noteworthy that al-Qaeda became the ideological mentor and inspirer of Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Tajik radical Islamists from the Fergana Valley, opening the door to global jihad. KTJ was created by Sirojiddin Mukhtarov (alias Abu Saloh), an influential ethnic Uzbek jihadi Salafist from Kyrgyzstan’s Osh region, in northern Syria in 2013. Under his leadership, KTJ pledged allegiance (Bayat) to al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri and joined the Al Nusrah Front in September 2015. Al Nusrah was an official branch of al-Qaeda in Syria at the time which described itself as al-Qaeda in the Levant.
During the preparation of this material, a group of experts on political Islam listened to KTJ’s bayat once again, in which Abu Saloh clearly pronounced the name Ayman al-Zawahiri and swore allegiance to al-Qaeda. Despite the fact that al-Qaeda and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the successor of al-Nusra, parted ways ‘peacefully’ in 2016, the Uzbek battalion remains loyal to al-Qaeda. KTJ has never disavowed its bayat to Ayman al-Zawahiri. Moreover, during this time, KTJ demonstrated its deft ability to spread the al-Qaeda ideology into the Fergana Valley and among Central Asian migrants in Russia.
To date, KTJ is the most combat-ready, well-equipped and largest foreign battalion in Idlib province, on a par with the Uyghur Salafi-Jihadi group of Turkestan Islamic Party from Chinese Xinjiang. Both are waging jihad under HTS’s auspices against Bashar al-Assad regime. The approximate number of Uzbek militants is about 500 people. It is known that long a hotbed of armed resistance and a center of al-Qaeda-related operations, northwest Syria has become a safe haven for Uyghur, Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz militants and their families.
The KTJ current leader Ilmurad Khikmatov (alias Abdul Aziz al-Uzbeki) is also one of al-Qaeda’s devoted followers. In April 2019, Abdul Aziz, an ethnic Uzbek of the Fergana Valley and former deputy emir of the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) in Afghanistan, was elected the new leader of KTJ. According to a UN Security Council’s report dated 3 February, 2022, “KTJ’s capability is undermined by conflict between the current group leader Abdul Aziz and the former group emir Abu Saloh.” But this is a superficial assessment of the situation taking place among the Uzbek jihadists in Syria.
Noteworthy, Abu Saloh was removed from the leadership of KTJ under pressure of HTS for openly supporting its strongest jihadi opponent, al-Qaeda-affiliated Hurras al-Din (HD), which directly challenged the leader of HTS Abu Mohammad al-Jolani. It is also known that KTJ new leader Abdul Aziz swore bayat to al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the Afg-Pak border zone as member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in 2008. Indeed, at that time, IMU became one of the strongest non-Arab al-Qaeda-linked groups in Central and South Asia. Abdul Aziz trained at the Haqqani Network’s military hub of Mir Ali in North Waziristan, which also hosted an al-Qaeda camp.
So, militant Salafism is the fundamental basis of KTJ’s jihadi ideology. In accordance with its ideological doctrine, the group aims to overthrow the five “tahut” (godless) regimes of post-Soviet Central Asia and build a single Caliphate with Sharia rule in the Fergana Valley. During the Jummah Khutbah, the new imam of KTJ and its major ideologist, Ahluddin Navqotiy, constantly glorifies Jihadi-Salafi scholars from the medieval to the present, such as Ibn Taymiyyah, Muḥammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, Sayyid Qutb, al-Qaeda’s senior figures such as Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, Abu Yahya al Libi, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and prominent modern jihadi thinkers Abu Qatada al-Falastini and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi.
Thus, KTJ’s claim of no ties to al-Qaeda is a complete lie. Today, Uzbek jihadists of KTJ continue to benefit from close and trusted ties to al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the HTS, who act as an ideological mentor and militant umbrella for many foreign fighter groups from Central Asia and the Caucasus.
US continues pressure on Central Asian jihadi groups
This is not the first time that the US government has designated Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups as a global terrorist organization and imposed sanctions against them. It is known, the US State Department has designated the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the Foreign Terrorist Organizations list on September 25, 2000. The IMU was the veteran of the Central Asian jihad, first paving the hijrat to Afghanistan and establishing close relations with the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network and al Qaeda in 1998. The IMU leader Tahir Yuldash (2009) and its military emir Juma Namangoni (2001) were killed as a result of US missile airstrike.
On June 17, 2005, the US State Department designated the Islamic Jihad Union to the Foreign Terrorist Organizations list. The IJU is a splinter faction of the IMU, and a substantial number of its members are from Central Asia. The IJU has been waging jihad in the Afghan-Pakistan region for more than a decade. It maintains close ties with al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders. The US missile airstrike has killed several top IJU leaders, including its emir, Najmuddin Jalolov, in drone strikes in North Waziristan 2009.
According to the recent UN Security Council report, “IJU actively participated in fighting alongside the Taliban in the capture of Kabul and therefore its fighters now experiencing greater freedom of movement in the country. IJU, led by Ilimbek Mamatov, a Kyrgyz national, and his deputy, Amsattor Atabaev, of Tajikistan, is assessed to be the most combat-ready Central Asian group in Afghanistan. It operates primarily in Badakhshan, Baghlan and Kunduz Provinces.” Further, the UN report notes that “Central Asian embassies based in Afghanistan have observed with concern that several leaders of IJU have travelled freely to Kabul. In September 2021, Mamatov and Dekhanov separately visited Kabul.”
On December 29, 2004, the US State Department designated Uyghur Salafi-Jihadi group the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement to the Terrorist Exclusion List (TEL). The group leaders Hassan Mahsum (2003) and Abdul Shakur al-Turkistani (2012) were killed in US drone strike. However, on November 5, 2020, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo removed ETIM from the Terrorist Exclusion List in accordance with the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).
On March 22, 2018, the US State Department designated Uzbek jihadi group Katibat Imam al Bukhari to the US government’s list of specially designated global terrorist organizations. Currently KIB wages jihad in Syria under the HTS umbrella against the Bashar al-Asad regime. KIB is now led by ethnic Uzbek from Tajikistan, Abu Yusuf al-Muhajir, who has a close and trusting relations with Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Minister of the Interior of the Taliban government and leader of the powerful al Qaeda-linked Haqqani Network. The group also operates in northern Afghanistan, specifically Faryab, or other ethnically Uzbek areas. KIB, like the IJU and KTJ, is also a splinter of the IMU and pledged loyalty to the Taliban.
In conclusion, the US government’s designation of Central Asian and Caucasian Salafi-Jihadi groups as a global terrorist organization provides a positive impetus to global counterterrorism efforts. Such a move will certainly help the governments of Central Asia and the Middle East in cutting off the channels of financial, material and military assistance to extremist groups associated with al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Shias: Heretics in a Sunni Pakistan
A suicide blast inside a Shia Mosque took place at Peshawar’s Koocha Risaldar area on March 4, with hospital officials saying that at least 57 people were killed while 194 were injured. Mohammad Asim, a spokesperson for Lady Reading Hospital (LRH), confirmed the casualties, adding that some of the injured were in critical condition. KP government Spokesman Barrister Mohammad Ali Saif said the explosion was a suicide bombing. He added that two terrorists were involved in the attack. Barrister Saif said security was provided to mosques as a “general rule”. He added that the administration had adopted security measures at this mosque as well, adding that such measures were always ensured during congregation prayers on Fridays.
Though, the previous year is marked ‘peaceful’ in terms of attacks on Shia, still two distinct violent incidents took place. On August 19, 2021, explosion happened in Ashura procession of Shia community in Bahawalnagar of Punjab province of Pakistan. In this attack, three people were killed and about 50 people were injured. Prior to this, on January 2, 2021, 11 Shia coalminers were kidnapped and subsequently killed by Islamic State militants in Mach town of Balochistan.
Pakistan is home to more than 200 million people, almost all of whom are Muslim. It is also home to one of the largest Shia populations in the world, as an estimated 20 percent of Muslims in Pakistan are Shia. But, unfortunately, the members of Shia community are endangered to various forms of violence and so far, many thousands have lost their lives in target killings and explosions. Many go missing, never to come back, in acts of abduction. The past two decades of Pakistan’s history have been beset by the menace of violent religious extremism. Protracted dogmatic religious intolerance has led to a sharp increase in sectarian violence in Pakistan, predominantly between Shia and Sunni sects.
Historically, the Shia community has rarely been considered a minority in Pakistan (at least in treatment, if not in number). Shias being targeted in the same way as other religious minorities is a relatively recent phenomenon in Pakistan. Though, the Pakistan government does not officially support discrimination against Shias, it is waning to proficiently counter the influence of extremists and bring an end to viciousness and hatred against the community. The Shia population is spread all over Pakistan. While they do not constitute a majority in any of Pakistan’s four provinces, Shia do form a majority in the Pakistani-controlled autonomous region of Gilgit Baltistan. Significant numbers of Shia live in Peshawar, Hangu, Kohat, Dera Ismail Khan, Orakzai and Kurram areas in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; in and around Quetta and the Makran coastline in Balochistan; in parts of southern and central Punjab; and throughout Sindh. Large Shi’a communities live in urban centres in Pakistan, including Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore, Jhang, Rawalpindi, Peshawar, Multan and Sargodha.
The Hazara community within the Shia sect also suffer violence due to their religious practice, not conforming with the Sunni majority, and also due to the fact of being ethnically ‘divergent’. Among the religious minorities of the country, one can easily say that the greatest burden of sectarianism is borne by the Shia Hazara community. Hazaras have consistently been targeted by terrorists and religious fanatics since 1999 through suicide bombings and targeted killings, with more than 2,000 having reportedly been killed in the last 14 years. A large concentration of Hazaras is in Balochistan, especially in the provincial capital of Quetta. With a population of whom about 600,000 in Quetta, the community, whose physical features make them easy targets, has been targeted in a sustained campaign of murders and bombings that has claimed at least 509 lives since 2013, according to Pakistan’s National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR). In addition, Hazaras are denied access to education and health facilities or to transportation in Quetta. Hazaras often try to conceal their identity by covering their heads when traveling outside the enclave’s groups, and terror outfits such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), continue to organise public and free-spoken anti-Shia rallies, particularly against the Hazara community. Apparently, LeJ uses madrasa (Islamic Seminary) cells to run its extremist militancy against the Hazaras. The LeJ has claimed responsibility for various mass-casualty attacks against the Shia community in Pakistan. According to US Department of State’s Country Report on Terrorism, 2020, in July, 2020, Pakistani police arrested three LeJ operatives who were allegedly planning to carry out an attack in the Gujranwala, Pakistan. Explosive materials, detonators, and a safety fuse were recovered during the arrest.
Apart from direct forms of violence, members of Shia sect also suffer from random blasphemy cases, charged against them. Blasphemy, which is demarcated as the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for God, has always been distorted by religious fundamentalists and fanatics in Pakistan, who have sustained discrimination against the religious minorities of the country. Freedom House reported in its 2021 Country Report for Pakistan: “Members of the Shia sect, Christians, and other religious minorities remain at risk of blasphemy accusations that can arise from trivial disputes and escalate to criminal prosecution and mob violence”. Moreover, the International Religious Freedom Report 2020 noted, “Human rights groups reported an increase in blasphemy cases and allegations against members of the Shia Muslim community”. There were 82 persons imprisoned on blasphemy charges as at 2019, adding that NGOs reported an increase in blasphemy charges in 2020 – at least 199 persons were charged, the highest number of cases seen in a single year, according to the Center for Social Justice (CSJ). Of those, 70 per cent of cases were against Shia Muslims.
The practice of enforced disappearances is a horrible practice followed in Pakistan, regularly pointing ethnic minorities such as Baloch, Pashtun, Sindhi, and Muhajir. However, in case of missing Shias, it is not clear why and on what grounds they ‘disappear’. According to UK government report of July 2021, at least 34 recorded cases had been missing for 2 or more years. Sources indicated that disappearances continue to occur. The report further stated that, in May 2018, estimates for the number of forcibly “disappeared” Shias ranged from 140 to around 300. The abductors, seemingly the security agencies, claim that the missing persons were involved in sectarian violence within Pakistan. The security agencies ‘fear’ that Shias who returned from Syria pose a threat to Pakistan’s stability. Under this excuse, the security agencies pick up Shias who return from Syria. Police and the paramilitary forces recurrently search Shia homes and tell the families that their loved ones will be sent back once the investigation is done. But the people are moved to hidden locations, with no information given to their families, hardly ever come back.
The government under Imran Khan need to protect the rights of Shia citizens by prosecuting those who carry out violence or provoke viciousness against the Shia or any other religious community. The government needs to act to safeguard that Shias, like those of all other faiths or no faith, continue to have the ability to live their lives without threat or fear of abduction and attack.
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