Gulalai Ismail: Activist in hiding flees Pakistan for the US

Media caption,
Gulalai Ismail reveals why she felt she had to leave Pakistan

A Pakistani human rights activist who spoke out against the army has fled the country after months in hiding.

Gulalai Ismail is now in the US, having eluded a country-wide hunt and a travel ban imposed by Pakistan's authorities.

They accuse Ms Ismail of "anti-state activities" and "inciting violence".

The activist said she was forced to run as she feared for her life, telling AFP news agency: "If I had ended up in prison and tortured for many years, my voice would have been silenced."

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.

Ms Ismail added in a statement: "The last few months have been awful. I have been threatened, harassed, and I am lucky to be alive."

She has not revealed 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."

The 32-year-old has requested political asylum and is living with her sister in New York.

Why were police hunting Ms Ismail?

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

However, it appears she attracted officials' attention in the last year, particularly after she began to advocate for women alleging they had been victims of sexual abuse during an army crackdown near the border with Afghanistan.

She herself was alerted to the allegations when a boy came to her to complain about his mother's treatment at the hands of security services.

"Dozens of women had come to tell us that the incident of sexual harassment was not unique," she told AFP in Washington this week. "It is systematic. It had been happening for years."

Ms Ismail was first arrested at Islamabad airport while returning from London in October 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 during a protest over the death of PTM activist Arman Luni, who died in custody. Police deny they beat him. A number of the group's members are in detention.

Image source, EPA

Ms Ismail told AFP on this occasion she was kept for two days without food and water in a cold room, which had a urine-soaked sheet on the ground.

But it was after the final arrest in May, when 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, that she decided to go into hiding.

Who exactly is Gulalai Ismail?

Gulalai Ismail has been a vocal advocate for human rights since she was 16 years old.

From the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in north-west Pakistan, she founded an NGO as a teenager called Aware Girls to educate young girls about their rights. Soon afterwards, she was told a story of a young boy who had been brainwashed into joining a militant organisation and decided to expand her work to combat radicalisation.

"We cannot have peace without gender equality, and without gender equality we cannot have peace. These two things are linked," she explained to the BBC's Outlook programme in 2014.

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 - but she always knew it came with a risk. However, the more people she angered, the more she was determined to continue.

Image source, Aware Girls

"It is... a sign that my work is having an impact," she told the BBC in 2014. "Just two months back my family was attacked, and we were threatened if we did not stop what we were doing we will be attacked again.

"But it is part of the change process, part of the struggle, and it has made me more committed."

How did she get out of Pakistan?

Ms Ismail was told in May last year that her name was on the government's Exit Control List, which meant she was banned from leaving the country. She challenged the ban in the High Court in Islamabad and it was lifted in November, with the court later ruling that her passport should be returned.

However, in May this year her name was put back on the Exit Control List, although she remained in possession of her passport.

After she went into hiding, a massive police operation was launched to find her. But - thanks to a "small network" - she evaded capture, until she was eventually able to cross out of Pakistan.

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.

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