Activist in hiding flees Pakistan for the US

Gulalai IsmailImage copyright
Aware Girls

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Ms Ismail has been an outspoken critic of human rights abuses since the age of 16

A prominent Pakistani human rights activist, Gulalai Ismail, has fled to the US, after months in hiding.

In a statement she said: “The last few months have been awful. I have been threatened, harassed, and I am lucky to be alive.”

She did not reveal how she left the country, given she was under a travel ban, but told The New York Times: “I didn’t fly out of an airport.”

Ms Ismail is accused of “anti-state activities” and “inciting violence”.

Reports said the 33-year-old was now in New York with her sister, and has requested political asylum.

Who is Gulalai Ismail?

For many years, Ms Ismail has been an outspoken critic of human rights abuses, especially against women and girls.

From the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, she founded an NGO at the age of 16 called Aware Girls to educate young girls about their rights.

In 2013, she created a team of 100 women to work on issues such as domestic violence and underage marriage.

She has received several awards for her work.

How did she get out of Pakistan?

Ms Gulalai was placed on the government Exit Control List, which meant she was banned from leaving the country.

She has not revealed much information about how she escaped, saying only that she did not fly.

She arrived in the US via Sri Lanka, where Pakistani citizens can travel visa-free, she told Radio Free Europe.

The campaigner gave very few details of her time in hiding or her escape because she said she feared it could “endanger people who helped me hide and exit the country”, according to The New York Times.

Her father, Muhammad Ismail, told BBC Urdu that Ms Ismail had six cases filed against her in the Pakistani courts. And that she had decided her life was in serious danger.

“Gulalai decided to leave the country at this time because she realised that her life is under threat and she has to leave the country otherwise anything could happen to her,” he said.

What led to her leaving?

She was first arrested at Islamabad airport while returning from London in Oct 2018. At the time she was among 19 people charged with making anti-state, anti-military speeches at a rally held by the Pashtun Tahaffuz (Protection) Movement, or PTM, in Swabi in August 2018.

In February of this year she was again arrested in Balochistan province during a protest over the death of PTM activist Arman Luni, who died in custody. Police deny they beat him.

In May, she was charged with incitement “against the state and other nationalities” during a protest over the rape and murder of a 10-year-old Pashtun girl Farishta in an Islamabad suburb.

She had been in hiding since, while the police conducted raids around the country in a fruitless search for her.

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