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Pakistan watchdog says country failing on human rights

ISLAMABAD (AP) — An independent rights group in Pakistan said Monday that the country has failed to make progress on several issues over the past year, ranging from forced disappearances to women's rights and protection of religious minorities.

The damning report card issued by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says people continue to disappear, sometimes because they criticize the military or advocate better relations with neighboring India.

It said a controversial blasphemy law continues to be misused, especially against dissidents, with cases in which mere accusations that someone committed blasphemy against Islam led to deadly mob violence. While deaths directly linked to acts of terrorism declined in 2017, the report says attacks against minorities were on the rise.

The 296-page report was dedicated to one of the commission's founders, Asma Jahangir, whose death in February generated a worldwide outpouring of grief and accolades for the 66-year-old activist. Monday's report also took aim at religious bigotry in Pakistan and the government's reluctance to push back against religious zealots. It said conservative groups continue to resist laws aimed at curbing violence against women, giving greater rights to women and reducing gender segregation.

"Freedom of expression and freedom of association is under attack, except for those who carry the religious banner," commission spokesman I.A. Rehman said at the release of the report, which accused Pakistani authorities of ignoring "intolerance and extremism."

The report pointed to a few signs of progress, including a "landmark development" in the country's largest province, Punjab, where authorities now accept marriage licenses within the Sikh community at the local level, giving the unions protection under the law.

But it said religious minorities continue to be targeted by extremists, citing attacks on Shiites, Christians falsely accused of blasphemy against Islam, and Ahmedis, a sect reviled by mainstream Muslims as heretics. Gunmen attacked Christian worshippers as they left Sunday services in Quetta a day before the report was released, killing two and wounding five others.

"In a year when freedom of thought, conscience and religion continued to be stifled, incitement to hatred and bigotry increased, and tolerance receded even further," the report said. Last year was a troubling year for activists, journalists and bloggers who challenged Pakistan's military. Several were detained, including five bloggers who subsequently fled the country after their release. From exile, some of them said their captors were agents of Pakistan's intelligence agency, ISI. The agency routinely refuses to comment on accusations it is behind the disappearances. The bloggers were also threatened with charges of blasphemy.

In December, Raza Mehmood Khan, an activist who worked with schoolchildren on both sides of the border to foster better relations with India was picked up by several men believed to be from the ISI after leaving a meeting that criticized religious extremism.

In recent weeks, Pakistan's Geo Television has been forced off the air in much of the country. Many activists have blamed this on the military, which took umbrage when the outlet criticized the country's security institutions.

"Press freedom is under attack in Pakistan and the situation has worsened in the last few years, with attacks against journalists intensifying, especially those orchestrated by the powerful military establishment," said Taha Siddiqui, a journalist who was forced into exile after an attempted kidnapping earlier this year. He blamed the ISI, which denied any involvement.

"Earlier, journalists were attacked, abducted or killed __ now channels like Geo News, and even news articles are going missing," said Siddiqui, who was the Islamabad bureau chief of a New Delhi-based TV network. He also worked for France 24.

Last year, a government-mandated commission on enforced disappearances received 868 new cases, more than in two previous years, the report said. The commission located 555 of the disappeared but the remaining 313 are still missing.

"Journalists and bloggers continue to sustain threats, attacks and abductions and blasphemy law serves to coerce people into silence," the report said.

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