Noting that the space for debate in their country is shrinking, several prominent Pakistani dissidents currently living in various countries gathered from December 14-6, 2018 in Washington DC  to discuss ways of ensuring greater support for pluralist ideas, human rights, and democracy in Pakistan.

“Terrorism and international isolation, not dissent, are the real threats to Pakistan but unfortunately Pakistan’s establishment refuses to recognize that reality,” declared former Pakistan ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, while opening the two-day deliberative conference titled ‘Pakistan After the Elections.’

Haqqani said that the heavy-handed suppression of diverse views in Pakistan would not end the country’s economic crisis nor would it help the government’s stated purpose of projecting a positive image for the country. “The best way to have a positive image is to build a positive reality, one that is free of the taint of terrorism, external dependence, and lack of democracy,” he said.

Attended by prominent scholars, journalists, bloggers, and social media activists, many of whom now live in exile, the conference ended on Sunday with an event addressed by U.S. Congressman Brad Sherman, Chairman Emeritus of the Asia subcommittee of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

The conference is the third to be organized by South Asians Against Terrorism and for Human Rights (SAATH), a grouping of prodemocracy Pakistanis co-hosted by Haqqani and US-based columnist Dr. Mohammad Taqi.

Earlier SAATH conferences were held in London in 2016 and 2017. This year, organizers scaled down the conference’s size as some of the forum’s Pakistani participants were legally barred or intimidated by authorities from participating.

Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) member of the National Assembly, Mohsin Dawar, was detained at Peshawar airport as he was leaving Pakistan a few days ago. He informed the conference organizers that the government had unlawfully stopped him from attending the meeting.

“Pro-democracy Pakistanis, including liberals and Baloch, Sindhi, Pashtun, Seraiki, and Muhajir nationalists see the appointment of Imran Khan as Prime Minister as a virtual military takeover, with a very poor civilian façade,” SAATH said in a press release announcing the event.

“In our discussions, we hope to address questions such as where Pakistan stands in the aftermath of the 2018 elections, what are the consequences to Pakistan of mainstreaming terrorists and terror groups, and how might the weakening voices for reform and a liberal vision be strengthened,” the press release added.

Dr. Taqi said that freedom-loving Pakistanis needed to join hands “to create space for intellectual and political discourse.”

“The Pakistani press remains in chains, electronic media is being coerced into submission, journalists are being hounded by the deep state, and the political parties have been tamed into submission,” he observed, adding that “resistance would continue to the Pakistani establishment’s totalitarian project.”