PESHAWAR, Pakistan — A Pakistani human rights group that has accused the military of widespread abuses as it battles Islamist militants in Pakistan’s rugged border region with neighboring Afghanistan has emerged as a force among the country’s Pashtun minority, drawing tens of thousands to rallies to protest what it contends is a campaign of intimidation that includes extrajudicial killings and thousands of disappearances and detentions.
The group’s charismatic leader, 25-year-old Manzoor Pashteen, has become the face of the country’s oppressed Pashtun, charging that in the name of its “war on terror” the military has used indiscriminate force as it hunts for Taliban hideouts in the tribal regions where the Pashtun dominate, imposing collective punishments like bulldozing the homes of family members of suspected militants and punishing entire villages for extremist attacks.
The catalyst for the group’s creation was the police killing in January of Naqueebullah Mehsud, a 27-year-old ethnic Pashtun and aspiring model who was shot dead in the southern port city of Karachi, where many displaced Pashtuns have relocated after being displaced by the military operations in the tribal regions.
The authorities originally said Mehsud fired first during a raid by security forces on a militant hideout, but later acknowledged he was unarmed and had been targeted simply because he was Pashtun.
His death ignited protests by Pashtuns, who accused Pakistan’s security forces of racial profiling, seeing all Pashtuns as Taliban simply because many insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan are recruited from among Pashtun tribesmen.
Within weeks what began as a small group of about two dozen had morphed into a popular movement. Known as the Pashtun Protection Movement, it has drawn huge crowds to rallies where Pashteen leads the charge, accusing the military of detaining thousands of Pashtuns in internment camps for months or even years without charges and intimidating residents at the dozens of checkpoints scattered throughout the tribal regions.
Residents, he said, were scared silent, too afraid to criticize the army tactics.
“Punishment is all about sending a message to keep silent,” Pashteen told The Associated Press in an interview in Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province and home to the majority of the country’s ethnic Pashtuns. “When we began we were fed up with life, treated like we were not human. One thousand percent we were sure we would be killed.”
Even his father pleaded with him to end his campaign against the military. “He told me that it would be trouble not just for me, but for my family,” Pashteen said.
Yet, as his small group of followers took their grievances from the tribal regions to Peshawar and eventually to the capital, Islamabad, “people joined us,” he said. “For many years our people have wanted to do something. They were looking for a leader.”
Wearing his signature red embroidered cap and a dark, well-kept beard, Pashteen seems an unlikely leader.
Trained as a doctor, he is a pacifist, who refuses — despite prodding from family and friends — to carry a weapon in his car for protection in an area where guns proliferate and are considered a birthright.
His protests are peaceful, he said, adding he has just two demands: The establishment of a peace and reconciliation commission to address the grievances of Pashtuns, including extrajudicial killings, and that the thousands of people in detention centers be brought to trial if they are accused of a crime or be released.
“The military has become a state within a state,” Pashteen said.
Public criticism of the army, considered the most powerful institution in Pakistan, is risky and rarely tolerated.
At the same time, the ascendency of the Pashtun Protection Movement poses a public relations nightmare for the army at a time when it is ramping up its effort to project success in the tribal areas, claiming to have defeated extremism and boasting that terrorist hideouts have been wiped out.