Amnesty International on Monday called for the immediate and unconditional release of human rights defender Muhammad Hayat Khan Preghal, a prisoner of conscience who has been detained solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression. Muhammad Hayat Khan Preghal has been charged for comments he made online that were critical of Pakistani state policies. The detention marks the latest in a series of alarming attacks on human rights defenders – including activists, journalists, bloggers and users of social media.
Muhammad Hayat Khan Preghal is a vocal supporter of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), a nonviolent movement that is calling for an end to enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, discrimination and other human rights violations against Pakistan’s Pashtun ethnic minority. Hayat is the social media lead for the PTM. Hayat was detained from his house in Dera Ismail Khan on 5 July 2018 while visiting family during holidays from the UAE, where he works as a pharmacist.
The authorities did not provide any information about his fate and whereabouts until six days later, when he called his family and told them he was arrested by Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA). His family only discovered his whereabouts when he was permitted to call them on the afternoon of 11 July 2018.
According to his family, Hayat was due to fly back to the UAE on 10 July 2018. The First Information Report (FIR), a criminal report registered with the police, does not mention Hayat by name but includes URLs to social media posts he made from his Twitter and Facebook accounts. These accounts and Hayat’s mobile phone, laptop and USB were accessed by the FIA’s Cyber Crime Unit during his detention.
The digital forensic analysis report compiled by the FIA against Hayat states that he “transmitted defamatory, humiliating and insulting remarks/comments against the state institutions of Pakistan.” One of the objectives of the forensic report was to verify if the URLs of the Twitter and Facebook accounts given in the FIR, or police report, were in fact Hayat’s. Amnesty International believes that the FIA report demonstrates that Hayat’s accounts were under surveillance, apparently due to his political and ethnic affiliation with the PTM.
Hayat has been charged under Section 9 and 10 of Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 (PECA) for “anti-state activity through social media”, and section 500 and 109 of the Pakistan Penal Code. He was rejected bail by the lower court of Islamabad, decision that was appealed by his lawyer before the Islamabad High Court (IHC) on 31 July. Since then, and despite multiple hearings and complete judicial remand, he has not been granted bail yet.
Amnesty International has made the following recommendations to the Government of Pakistan
* Immediately and unconditionally release Muhammad Hayat Khan Preghal, as he is a prisoner of conscience that has been detained solely for the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression
* Put an end to the harassment, stigmatization, intimidation, unlawful surveillance and arrest of human rights defenders and ensure they can freely express their opinions and dissent without fear of reprisals
* Condemn and counteract the permissive environment which fosters attacks on human rights defenders and the demonization of free expression and opinions
* Repeal or substantially amend Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 so that it is brought into line with international human rights standards.