Politicians have urged Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan, to lift a travel ban on a woman who peacefully opposes the Taliban and tries to prevent young people being recruited for jihad.

Gulalai Ismail runs a human rights group called Aware Girls renowned globally that promotes women’s rights and tries to prevent youngsters being radicalised by terror groups.

She has won a number of major international awards and travels widely to speak on peace and countering terrorism, including visits to Scotland.

But Pakistan’s new government led by former cricketer Khan has banned Ismail from travelling abroad. She was detained at Islamabad Airport recently on return from London and placed on Pakistan’s exit control list.

In 2015 Ismail assisted The Ferret during an investigation into Islamist terrorism in northwest Pakistan.

Living in the shadow of Pakistan’s suicide bombers

She also arranged interviews with bereaved families who lost children when the Pakistan Taliban massacred 132 school children in Peshawar in December 2014.

Ismail was 16 when she founded Aware Girls in 2002 with her younger sister, Saba, an organisation promoting women’s rights.

Both women have been the target of hate campaigns and suffered death threats due to their work.

They have trained hundreds of activists for a network called Seeds of Peace that aims to prevent people being radicalised for jihad and suicide bombings.

Nobel Peace Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai, received training from Aware Girls in 2011 before her attempted assassination by a Taliban gunman.

In May, Ismail visited Scotland and spoke at an event at the Scottish Parliament.

Acclaimed Pakistani campaigner criticises UK’s counter terrorism strategy

Politicians who attended included SNP MSP, Kenneth Gibson, who has written to Imran Khan asking for the travel ban to be lifted. He has also asked Scotland’s Justice Secretary, Humza Yousaf MSP, to raise the issue with Pakistan’s government.

Gibson said: “Gulalai is a brave and compelling speaker with a determination to improve human rights in Pakistan. One would have thought that the new Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan, would want to present a fresh and positive new image to the world of a Pakistan striving to improve human rights and individual freedoms under his leadership and so this ban is deeply disappointing.”

He added: “Banning potential critics who love their country and simply want to make it a better place for all Pakistani citizens is not the way forward. I urge Mr Khan’s government to rescind this ban and allow Gulalai to engage with fellow human rights activists across the world. I have written to the Pakistani Prime Minister seeking an overturning of this ban.”

SNP MSP, Bill Kidd, also attended the event. He said: “I am genuinely shocked by this ban on Gulalai being banned from travelling abroad. Ms Ismail is an inspiring speaker, as we heard in the Scottish Parliament this summer, and she is a great credit to Pakistan internationally as her human rights and peace awards testify. I call on Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan to step in and lift this unwarranted ban on Gulalai Ismail.”

Gulalai Ismail must be immediately and unconditionally released. Rabia Mehmood, Amnesty International

Ismail said she plans to appeal the ban.

She added: “I was arrested for a day and then released on interim bail. I was detained by FIA (Federal Investigation Authority). My name has been put on exit control list so a travel ban imposed on me. Crime: human rights and peace activism.”

Rabia Mehmood of Amnesty International said: “Gulalai Ismail must be immediately and unconditionally released. There is no justification whatsoever for her detention or for imposing a travel ban on her. She is being detained solely for her peaceful human rights work.”

In 2015, Ismail helped journalists gain entry to two so-called militant madrasas in Swabi district, a Taliban stronghold in northwest Pakistan. One of the madrasas – Panjpir – was where the late Pakistan Taliban leader, Maulana Fazlullah, aka Radio Mullah, studied.

Ismail is a supporter of the nonviolent Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), which has been campaigning across Pakistan against enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions and discrimination against the country’s Pashtun ethnic minority.

Over the past year, the authorities have banned peaceful rallies organised by the PTM and some of its leading members have been arbitrarily detained and prevented from travelling within the country.

Some members have also faced a series of charges for alleged sedition and cyber crimes.

The Pakistan Embassy in London did not respond to our request for a comment.

Photo thanks to Humanists UK, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons. A version of this story was published in the Daily Record on 21 October 2018.


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