On June 24, 2020, police reportedly beat and arrested dozens of students in the Balochistan province during a nonviolent protest demanding internet access needed for online classes.
Balochistan, the westernmost province of Pakistan, is majority ethnically Baloch and Pashtun. In recent years, reports of human rights violations in Balochistan have been increasingly common.
Starting in February 2017, internet access was shut down in several parts of Balochistan, allegedly for security reasons. Even before COVID-19, the internet shutdown affected students’ and scholars’ ability to conduct research online.
In early 2020, universities in Pakistan and many other countries suspended in-person academic activities in an effort to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19. The Baloch Students Alliance, formed by students living in Balochistan from various higher education institutions, organized a social media campaign in May 2020 over the Higher Education Commission’s decision to begin online classes without a reduction in tuition fees, and despite a lack of adequate access to the internet in Balochistan. Starting on June 23, students across the province held public protests over this issue. They argued that commencing online classes while Balochistan lacked internet access effectively denied students from the province access to higher education.
On June 24, about 300 students marched in the streets of Quetta, the province’s capital, from the Quetta Press Club to the Balochistan Assembly. Police reportedly confronted, beat, and arrested dozens of students — some sources report as many as eighty — for violating a ban on public gatherings put in place in response to COVID-19. On June 25, the students were reportedly released.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arrest and beating of students in apparent retaliation for the nonviolent exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly — conduct that is expressly protected by international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, to which Pakistan is a party. State authorities have an obligation to refrain from restricting expressive activity, so long as it is nonviolent and responsible. And while authorities have an obligation to protect public health during a pandemic, such measures must be proportionate and consistent with state human rights obligations. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, detentions intended to restrict campus expression undermines academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democratic society generally.