Pakistan election

Election officials count votes in Islamabad, Pakistan on February 8, 2024. (

(Photo: Muhammed Semih Ugurlu/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Pakistan Election-Day Internet Blackout Condemned as 'Reckless Attack on People's Rights'

"The decision to suspend telecommunications and mobile internet services on an election day is a blunt attack on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly," said an expert with Amnesty International.

A leading international human rights group condemned Pakistani authorities on Thursday for shutting down the country's internet services as voters headed to the polls to cast their ballots in a long-delayed election marred by military interference, terrorist violence, and the imprisonment of the nation's most popular politician, former Prime Minister Imran Khan.

"The decision to suspend telecommunications and mobile internet services on an election day is a blunt attack on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly," Livia Saccardi, Amnesty International's interim deputy director for South Asia, said in a statement issued as polls closed in the world's fifth-most populous nation.

"It is reckless to impede access to information as people head out to polling stations on the heels of devastating bomb blasts and what has been an intense crackdown on the opposition in the lead-up to the elections in the country," said Saccardi. "Unwarranted restrictions on dissemination of information, despite reassurances to the contrary from the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority and Election Commission of Pakistan, are in breach of people's human rights at this critical time in Pakistan."

The internet blackouts across the country were one of many factors that called into question the legitimacy of Thursday's vote, in which dozens of parties competed for nearly 270 seats in the lower house of the Pakistani Parliament as well as positions in regional governments. The Parliament will be tasked with choosing a prime minister after the results are tallied.

Video footage posted to social media showed long lines at polling stations, but early government reports suggested that overall turnout was low relative to other elections in recent years.

Sayed Bukhari, who served as an adviser to Khan, disputed claims of low turnout, calling them a ploy by Pakistan's caretaker government to "rig the votes."

"So this what this incompetent and compromised caretaker government and its officials will do this next, mark my words!" Bukhari wrote. "Despite a historic turnout in most of the country... they will now spread the fake narrative that the voter turnout was very low."

"No extra time to vote has been granted as it usually always does," he added, noting that polls closed as many were still standing in line to vote. "How many channels are going to play this narrative?"

The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) are the three dominant parties in the nation's politics. The Associated Pressnoted ahead of Thursday's vote that "the top contender is PML-N and on its ballot are two former prime ministers, Nawaz Sharif and his younger brother Shehbaz Sharif."

"However," the outlet added, "it is the absence from the ballot of PTI's founder, cricket legend turned Islamist politician Imran Khan, that's at the forefront of public discourse in Pakistan."

Just a week before the contest, Khan was hit with two lengthy prison sentences—10 and 14 years—on consecutive days, one for his alleged release of state secrets and the other for corruption charges that the former prime minister and his allies say were politically motivated.

Khan, who was removed from power in a no-confidence vote in 2022, was already in prison facing corruption allegations before the closed-door trials concluded last week. The no-confidence vote was backed by the U.S. State Department.

Ahead of Thursday's election, as The Intercept's Ryan Grim wrote Wednesday, Pakistan's government worked hard to suppress Khan's popular PTI party, including by banning its famous electoral symbol—a cricket bat—and arresting members of the party.

"With the loss of its bat, PTI was converted from a formidable political party to a loose group of individuals with no legal affiliation overnight, effectively disenfranchising millions of citizens who placed their trust in PTI as a political entity," Grim wrote. "The move has been severely criticized as a 'huge blow to fundamental rights' by the Pakistani legal fraternity and civil society."

In an Economistop-ed written from prison last month, Khan warned that elections held under such conditions "would be a disaster and a farce, since PTI is being denied its basic right to campaign."

"Such a joke of an election would only lead to further political instability," Khan wrote. "The only viable way forward for Pakistan is fair and free elections, which would bring back political stability and rule of law, as well as ushering in desperately needed reforms by a democratic government with a popular mandate. There is no other way for Pakistan to disentangle itself from the crises confronting it. Unfortunately, with democracy under siege, we are heading in the opposite direction on all these fronts."

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