On December 1, 2019, police in Lahore, Pakistan brought criminal sedition charges against as many as 300 student protesters who had attended a November 29 protest – one of nearly 40 student protests nationwide.
Student activists, led by an umbrella group known as the Progressive Students Collective, gathered in 38 cities throughout Pakistan as part of a nationwide “Student Solidarity March” to demand the repeal of a 1984 law outlawing student unions, greater protection against sexual harassment on campus, and the reversal of a recent decision to slash university funding. At the protest in Lahore, police alleged that the students had chanted slogans that were against “state institutions” – meaning the country’s military. The protesters are not alleged to have engaged in, or incited, violence, and reports indicate that the protests were generally peaceful. In addition to the arrests, an unknown number of student protesters were reportedly expelled from their institutions. The mass criminal charge follows the arrest of several protest organizers from Punjab University. (See report).
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the criminal prosecution and expulsion of students in apparent retaliation for nonviolent expressive activity – conduct that is expressly protected by international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Pakistan is a party. State authorities have an obligation to refrain from actions intended to restrict or retaliate against such conduct. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, wrongful arrests and prosecutions in connection with nonviolent expression undermine academic freedom and democratic society generally.