The United Nations’ top human rights body expressed concern Tuesday over the “pattern of harassment” against members of former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s party ahead of this week’s parliamentary election.
During a news briefing in Geneva, Liz Throssell, spokesperson for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged Pakistani authorities to ensure a fully free and fair voting process.
This came amid complaints by Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party of harassment and the inability to hold rallies similar to the former ruling party and its candidate Nawaz Sharif. Authorities have denied such claims.
Khan has been sentenced to 34 years in jail after being convicted in four cases and has been disqualified from running. His party and supporters claimed the legal charges are a punishment for his rhetoric against Pakistan’s powerful military.
Last week alone, Khan received two prison sentences in separate cases: 14 years for corruption and 10 years for leaking state secrets. Khan’s lawyer, Babar Awan, told the Associated Press that the cases did not follow judicial process and were rushed through the courts in a bid to sideline the popular former prime minister ahead of the polls.
Gohar Khan, the head of the PTI, urged supporters of Imran Khan to vote for the party anyway, saying winning the election was “the best way to avenge” him.
Throssell said the U.N.’s rights body was disturbed “by the pattern of harassment, arrests, and prolonged detentions of leaders” of the PTI and its supporters.
She said all eligible parties in Pakistan must be able to compete fairly.
“Ahead of Thursday’s parliamentary election in Pakistan, we deplore all acts of violence against political parties and candidates, and urge the authorities to uphold the fundamental freedoms necessary for an inclusive and meaningful democratic process,” she said.
She said the upcoming elections are also a “reminder of the barriers faced by women and minority communities in Pakistan, particularly the Ahmadis.”
Pakistan declared the Ahmadis non-Muslims in 1974. In recent months, radical Islamic extremists attacked their worship places and even graveyards. Ahmadis claimed some of the attacks happened in the presence of police.
Throssell expressed concern over some political parties not meeting the legal quota of women representatives. Pakistan’s parliament reserves 22 percent of the seats for women. She also said minorities having separate voter lists exposed them to violence.
On Tuesday, caretaker Interior Minster Gohar Ijaz said that all arrangements were in place to ensure a free and fair election despite a recent surge in militant attacks, adding that troops would be deployed in sensitive areas.
The campaigning is set to end by midnight local time Tuesday, but candidates are still allowed to lobby for votes door-to-door.
Pakistan has invited international observers to monitor the election, though some analysts say the vote’s credibility is at stake due to “pre-poll rigging” and the rejection of the candidacies of Khan’s party.
Amnesty International, among several other human rights organizations, urged authorities to “guarantee uninterrupted access to the internet and digital communication platforms for everyone across the country” after Ijaz said internet disruptions were a possibility during Thursday’s election if local authorities requested it.
Internet is usually suspended in Pakistan to restrict communication among militants following attacks.
The balloting comes as Pakistan is mired in political feuding and an economic crisis gripping the country.
With Khan out of the picture, there seems to be only one top contender for the post of premier – Nawaz Sharif, a three-time ex-prime minister who has returned to the country and been absolved of past convictions.
Sharif, as well as his seemingly main competitor, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, son of the assassinated premier Benazir Bhutto and the head of the Pakistan People’s Party, addressed rallies on Tuesday, making competing claims that their parties were expected to win the vote.