In a society where debate on many burning issues is considered a taboo, anyone openly expressing their opinion on such matters is considered a nuisance or like Sherjahan Sahil can be silenced and cornered with the stroke of a pen.
Sherjahan Sahil, who has been placed on Schedule IV of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) 1997, seems to be a “no foe and no friend of anyone”, rather a maverick raising voice against a system which he considers exploitative.
Interactions with his friends and a cursory look at his social media posts show he has struck many a nerve in the local administration, police, the political party he has been affiliated with and local leaders of both the Sunni and Ismaili communities of Chitral.
This scribe tried to dig into the circumstances and factors that might have forced the police and other law enforcement agencies in Chitral to keep this young man from Garam Chashma on the terrorism watch list.
A number of people belonging to political, social and religious circles were approached by ChitralToday and asked about him and the recent government action. Almost all of them were in unison that he is a reckless social media user.
When asked about his possible involvement in any terror activity or links with any proscribed outfit, they expressed their ignorance but said law enforcement agencies might have evidence of it.
But most of the social media users in Chitral, especially youth, termed inclusion of Sahil in the watch list a violation of the right to freedom of expression and misuse of the anti-terrorism law to settle a score by state institutions. They said the police seemed overstepping their power and used the anti-terror law to silence an individual.
Why a person is placed on Schedule IV
According to National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) website, “Any individual about whom either there is a credible intelligence-information or who has a history of being linked to a Proscribed Organization can be proscribed by Home Department of a Province and can be subjected to restrictions on travel, speech and business, under the Anti Terrorism Act, 1997.
“After issuance [of a] notification by the Home Department, name of such proscribed person is included in the 4th Schedule under the Anti Terrorism Act, 1997. Therefore, such proscribed persons are also referred to in local police/ LEAs parlance as 4th Schedulers.”
A memorandum issued with the signature of the district police officer (DPO) Lower Chitral addressed to Mr Sahil informed him: “You have been placed in the list of Schedule IV Under Anti-Terrorism Act 1997 vide notification No (Police-1/HD/11–2/2020) dated April 28, 2020.”
What police say
District Police Officer (DPO) Lower Chitral Wasim Riaz told ChitralToday that Sherjahan’s name was included in the list on the recommendation of the district law and order committee.
“A meeting of the committee was held chaired by deputy commissioner [Lower Chitral] that decided to add his name to the list.” The DPO said Sahil was trying to create sectarianism in Chitral using social media platforms.
“Such people are trying to disturb the peaceful environment and religious harmony,” he said, adding police would not allow anyone to create law and order situation in Chitral.
“If he is innocent and proves his innocence, his name will be removed from the list,” he added.
Not sufficient grounds
But legal and social circles could not see sufficient grounds for the police to justify placement of the social media activist on the terror watch list.
When contacted by ChitralToday, human rights activist and lawyer Niaz A. Niazi said if Sahil had used the social media platform against any state or private institution or any government functionary he should have been proceeded against under relevant sections of the cybercrime law, Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) or Maintenance of Public Order (MPO).
He said applying the terrorism law against anyone with the primary objective of silencing him was against human rights and an infringement on the right to freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution of Pakistan.
Canada-based Dr Khalil Ahmed, mainly known for his outspoken and vocal views on issues of Chitral, said it was the collective responsibility of the people of Chitral irrespective of their sectarian and political affiliations to find out those who were actually responsible to get Mr Sahil into the list of ATA.
He saw a conspiracy to silence the social media activist and claimed that during a telephonic conversation in the recent past Mr Sahil had told him that he was receiving threats from the Khojas of Karachi.
It may be noted that Mr Sahil had also been vocal in criticizing the leadership of the Ismaili institutions in Chitral.
The memorandum placing him on the Schedule IV, among other allegations, also accused him of “Targeting the religious leaders of both the sects and inciting sectarianism in the district.”
Former senior bureaucrat and educationist from Garam Chashma Islamuddin told ChitralToday that Sahil is an anti-corruption activist. Through his campaigns he has rattled many, especially in local Ismaili leadership with whom his relations have been sour.
“These leaders consider him as a blackmailer instead of satisfying him about accuracy of his charges,” he added.
Two sources in the Ismaili community ruled out the role of the local leadership of the Ismaili institutions in getting Sherjahan Sahil into the watch list but said in the past they had tried to silence some dissenting voices.
They said in 2013 Allama Nasiruddin Hunzai’s Khana-e-Hikmat was banned by the federal ministry of interior. Soon afterward, the police in Chitral were provided with a list of 31 people who had links with the Hunzai group.
The list available with ChitralToday includes names of individuals from both Lower and Upper Chitral, some of whom so unknown that they were identified only by their father names.
When asked, a former president of the Ismaili council Lower Chitral expressed his ignorance about the list.
But one of the individuals whose name was included in the list said on condition of anonymity that the list had been prepared by the local leaders of the Ismaili institutions.
Moreover, sources said, Sahil had openly sided with MPA Molana Hidayatur Rehman during a recent row between the MPA and the DC Lower Chitral after a leaked audio of their telephonic conversation with the former using uncivilized language went viral on social media.
Later, however, the tussle between the two was resolved in front of the commissioner Malakand division after the MPA apologized.
But JUI-F Chitral leader Qari Jamal Abdul Nasir told ChitralToday that it was unfair to connect the placement of Sahil in Schedule IV with the row between the MPA of his party and the deputy commissioner.
“A large number of Chitrali people had supported their MPA through social media and probably Sherjahan Sahil was one of them. Government authorities would better know about the reasons why he had been placed on the terror watch list,” he added.
But it is also learnt that in the recent past there was a dispute between two communities of Garam Chashma over opening of a butcher shop there. Members of one community had opposed sale of meat by a youth from the other community, leading to tension.
According to the locals, Sherjahan Sahil through his social media posts had severely criticized the police for failing to protect the constitutional right of the resident to open a shop.
The police might have thought that his campaign could spoil the communal harmony of the area.
Under the law, anyone put on the Fourth Schedule of ATA can file an appeal in the Home Department and then the high court concerned to remove their name from the list.
(Siraj Uddin from Peshawar and Bahram Ali Shah from Karachi contributed to this story).