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Tuesday, December 11, 2018
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Traditionally subjected to physical violence, social boycott and enforced disappearances, Pakistan’s social workers and human rights activists face a relatively new threat: they are ‘digitized’ and damned.
Latest study by the Amnesty International, the global human rights watchdog says human rights defenders are under threat from a targeted campaign of digital attacks.
Their social media accounts are hacked and computers and mobile phones infected with spyware, a four-month AI investigation has revealed.
The report does not identify those behind this campaign. But Pakistani media is awash with reports and petitions to the courts about the role of the ‘agencies’ , an euphemism for the numerous intelligence outfits, both civil and military, who carry out their operations.
The report, specific to Pakistan, says government has “done nothing” to investigate these incidents and to restrain the personnel of the ‘agencies’ who are law unto themselves.
Over the years, even the Supreme Court intervention and passing of strictures has done little. The concerned official, often the Interior Secretary, personally or through the Attorney General, gives assurances that are rarely met.
Observers of Pakistan scene see this as yet another indictment of a society that is widely seen as a “security state” wherein the civil and military are in cahoots and the civil apparatus works at the behest of the military, all “for national security.”
These observers say the report would be like banging the proverbial head against the wall when there is a government in transition, overawed by the military playing from behind the scene and a judiciary that has become pro-active in collusion with the military and doing everything to overawe the civilian political authority.
The elections, dates for which have yet to be announced, make the situation even more fluid. However, role of the ‘agencies’ remains persistent. It does not matter whose and which government is in office. The ‘agencies’ keep a watch on even the political class. The civilian governments are prone to use them against their opponents, even as they are themselves placed surveillance.
The new report released on Tuesday, May 15, is titled ‘Human Rights Under Surveillance: Digital Threats Against Human Rights Defenders in Pakistan’. It reveals how attackers are using fake online identities and social media profiles to ensnare Pakistani human rights defenders online and mark them out for surveillance and cybercrime.
The network of attackers uses sophisticated and sinister methods to target human rights activists. Attackers use cleverly designed fake profiles to lure activists and then attack their electronic devices with spyware, exposing them to surveillance and fraud and even compromising their physical safety,” said Sherif Elsayed-Ali, Director of Global Issues at Amnesty International.

The AI team’s investigation showed how attackers used fake Facebook and Google login pages to trick their victims into revealing their passwords.
“It is already extremely dangerous to be a human rights defender in Pakistan and it is alarming to see how attacks on their work are moving online,” he said.
The report highlighted the case of Diep Saeeda, a prominent civil society activist from Lahore. On December 2, 2017, one of her friends, Raza Mehmood Khan, a peace activist who tried to bring people from India and Pakistan together through activities like letter-writing, was subjected to an enforced disappearance.
Saeeda publicly called for Raza’s release, including petitioning the Lahore High Court. Soon after, she began to receive suspicious messages from people claiming to be concerned about Raza’s well-being, the report found.
As per Amnesty International’s investigation, a Facebook user who claimed to be an Afghan woman named Sana Halimi — living in Dubai and working for the UN — repeatedly contacted Ms Saeeda via Facebook Messenger, saying that she had information about Raza. The operator of the profile sent her links to files containing malware called StealthAgent which, if opened, would have infected her mobile devices.
The profile — which the human rights watchdog believed was fake — was also used to trick Ms Saeeda into divulging her email address, to which she started receiving emails infected with a Windows spyware commonly known as Crimson.
Amnesty found that several human rights activists in Pakistan have been targeted in this way, sometimes by people claiming to be human rights activists themselves.
Ms Saeeda also received emails claiming to be from staff of the Punjab chief minister. The emails included false details of a supposed upcoming meeting between the provincial ministry of education and her organisation, the Institute for Peace and Secular Studies. In other cases, the attackers pretended to be students looking for guidance and tuition from Ms Saeeda.
“Every time I open an email I am now scared. It’s getting so bad I am actually not able to carry out my work — my social work is suffering,” she told Amnesty.
Amnesty International’s Technology and Human Rights team was able to trace these attacks to a group of individuals based in Pakistan. The report revealed the network of individuals and companies behind the creation of some of the tools seen in surveillance operations used to target individuals in the country.
Over the past few months, it added, Amnesty had noted with alarm that activists were being subjected to threats, intimidation, violent attacks and enforced disappearances. They included journalists, bloggers, peaceful protesters and other mainstays of civil society.
“As an elected member of the UN Human Rights Council, Pakistan has a responsibility to uphold the highest international standards. It has repeatedly vowed to protect human rights activists and criminalise enforced disappearances, but what we are seeing shows they have done nothing on this front while the situation is getting worse,” said Sherif Elsayed-Ali.
“The Pakistani authorities must immediately order an independent and effective investigation into these attacks, and ensure that human rights defenders are protected both online and off,” he added.
Last December, rights activists launched a campaign to recover peace campaigner Raza Khan, who was allegedly abducted in Lahore.
Civil society groups say progressive activists are routinely "kidnapped" in the country.
Raza Khan went "missing" from the eastern city of Lahore on December 2. His whereabouts are still unknown, but some civil society activists have alleged the military's intelligence agencies have picked him up. Security agencies regularly deny any involvement in such actions.
Khan is a peace activist, who campaigns for better ties between India and Pakistan. He is also very critical of the rising extremism in Pakistan.
"We're concerned about his [Khan's] safety," Atiqa Shahid, a peace activist and Khan's close friend, told German Radio Deutsche Wele (DW).
Shahid and Khan had participated in a group discussion on the issue of extremism the day when the latter went missing.
Pakistan has witnessed a surge in the number of "missing persons" in the past few years. The non-governmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) said in its 2016 annual report that 728 Pakistanis went missing during the year.
In January of this year, renowned rights activist and university professor Salman Haider disappeared from the capital Islamabad. Three other secular activists - Waqas Goraya, Asim Saeed and Ahmed Raza - also went missing. After weeks, all these bloggers returned to their homes, with Goraya claiming that he was "abducted" by Pakistan's law enforcement agencies.
While these activists work in different fields, they all have one thing in common: their consistent and sharp criticism of Pakistan's security establishment and conservative groups.... More
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