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Pakistan Releases Leading Rights Activist After Hours-Long Detention

Pakistani rights activist Gulalai Ismail
Pakistani rights activist Gulalai Ismail

Pakistan has released a leading campaigner for women's rights and Pashtun rights after detaining her for nearly nine hours in Islamabad, activists said.

The detention of Gulalai Ismail on her return to Pakistan from the United Kingdom on October 12 had sparked an outcry and raised fears that Pakistan was cracking down on dissent.

Ismail's brief detention by Pakistan's Federal Investigation Agency when she arrived at Islamabad's airport prompted Amnesty International to put out a statement demanding her release.

Activists said the agency released Ismail, whose work on women's rights has received international awards, but officials kept her travel documents.

While in custody, Ismail wrote texts and issued an audio message speaking out about her detention. She said she was detained for speaking at a rally in August for the Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM), a group calling for rights for the Pashtun tribal population of Pakistan's restive northwest.

Ismail has joined the group in criticizing the Pakistani military's operations in the tribal regions, which have killed many innocent civilians.

"This is not an attack on Gulalai Ismail or PTM," the activist said in her audio message. "This is an attack on our freedom of speech."

Activists said nine other people detained on the same grounds are still being held at a police station in Swabi, a district of northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province where the rally took place.

The PTM emerged at the start of this year with marches demanding the end of extra-judicial executions and enforced disappearances committed by security forces against Pashtuns living in the province and tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan.

The movement has become less vocal since June as campaigning geared up for a general election in July which brought former cricketer Imran Khan, also a Pashtun, to power in the country.

"Support for @Gulalai_Ismail by activists and general public proved fruitful," the group tweeted after Ismail's release.

A photo of the activist smiling and raising her fist while surrounded by six other women activists was circulated after her release on social media.

Ismail's detention came amid increasing complaints by Pakistan's media and civil society groups about increasing pressure from Pakistan's powerful army.

Ismail was still a teenager in 2002 when she co-founded Aware Girls, a rights group that promotes gender equality in Pakistan's most deeply conservative areas.

Among other accolades, she was awarded the Chirac Foundation Conflict Prevention Prize in 2016 and the Anna Politkovskaya Award in 2017.

With reporting by Radio Mashaal, AP, and AFP