Pakistan's new Prime Minister Imran Khan addresses lawmakers after being elected by the National Assembly in Islamabad on August 17, 2018. Photo: AFP/ handout

Pakistan’s government has come under increasing pressure from a number of countries after asking 18 international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) to close down and leave the country.

Concerns have been raised that action was taken against the charities without clarity and arbitrarily, while some say the decision was driven by the military and intelligence agencies.

With charities underscoring the shrinking space for civil society in Pakistan, a group of western states, led by the United States and the European Union, wrote to Prime Minister Imran Khan last month expressing “serious concerns” about the targeting of INGOs.

“Restriction on civil society risks affecting Pakistan’s international reputation as a genuine partner on human development and undermining confidence of the international donor and business community,” said the letter to Khan.

On Thursday, Pakistan looked to address the criticism through an official order. “Pakistan’s INGO policy framework is fully aligned with nationally determined development priorities and needs. We recognize and appreciate the assistance from the donor community and INGOs,” the official government communique read.

Obscure process

The government’s statement came one week after the human rights committee in the Senate took notice of the INGOs being banned and urged the interior ministry to make the process more transparent.

The Senate committee discussed the case of the Al-Rahmah Welfare Trust Organization, a charity focused on helping orphans and widows in Afghanistan, Syria and Pakistan. The notice sent to Al-Rahman in September accused the charity of “indulging in dubious activities.”

While the government order on Thursday claimed that “the grounds for rejection are clearly laid out in the policy document provisions,” Pakistan People’s Party leader and Senate human rights committee chairperson Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar said the INGOs were not categorically told what their crimes were before being asked to wrap up their operations.

“This is unfair and has resulted in foreign envoys writing to the prime minister asking why the groups aren’t informed about their unlawful activities,” he says. “Such decisions need to be taken by the cabinet and not just the interior ministry.”

Despite the government in its statement claiming that INGOs continue to operate “freely in Pakistan,” the clampdown on charities continues unabated in the country.

Army involvement

In interviews with Asia Times, officials from five different charities revealed being coerced by members of the country’s security agencies. “The interior ministry is the front, of course. The orders come from the GHQ,” said an official, referring to the military headquarters. “Those groups that don’t have their licenses canceled are forced to toe the line of the security agencies, and are basically at their mercy.”

Insiders say that Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies have become increasingly skeptical about the INGOs following the case of Shakil Afridi, the doctor who helped the US Central Intelligence Agency hunt down Osama bin Laden in 2011.

Save the Children, the INGO Afridi was affiliated with as part of the Bin Laden operation, was asked to leave the country twice, first in 2012 and then it was forced to permanently down its operations in 2015.

While Save the Children claimed it had no involvement in the operation, since its exit Pakistan has increased its crackdown on international aid groups.

Under the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government, INGOs were frequently given their marching orders. In December last year, 27 INGOs were asked to leave. The PML-N’s successor, the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI), seems to be pursuing an identical policy.

“This is because they aren’t the ones making this policy; it is the aliens [a euphemism for the army] who are taking these actions under the garb of counter-terrorism,” said Mohammad Tahseen, Convener of the Pakistan Civil Society Forum (PCSF) and Founding Director of the South Asia Partnership Pakistan Mohammad Tahseen.

“While there have been cases where foreign groups have been involved in suspicious activities, the state has largely become paranoid with regards to the INGOs, and isn’t letting them do their work properly,” he added.

Tahseen expects the situation to deteriorate under Lieutenant General Asim Munir, the new Director-General of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), who comes with the reputation of being a hardliner.

Speaking to Asia Times, veteran charity worker Maryam Bibi, who has collaborated with various local and international aid organizations in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and tribal regions, said the only way for INGOs to survive in Pakistan was for them to “compromise.”

“You need to know who is calling the shots and compromise. Over the years I have learned that a confrontational approach can be counter-productive,” she says.

“For instance, since Dr Shakil Afridi’s arrest, I’ve personally made sure that every time my organization is inviting someone from overseas, their name and details are shared in advance with the security agencies. If you’re proactive and cooperate with them, you can survive.”

Bibi, however, urged the government to bridge the communication gap with the charities.

“What is direly needed is a platform that works as a bridge between the INGOs and the government, so that concerns can be shared and only those involved in unlawful activities are targeted.”

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