Pakistani court to hear petition terming women's rights movement 'anti-state'

By Mubasher Bukhari

LAHORE, Pakistan, Feb 26 (Reuters) - A major women's rights movement in Pakistan is facing a legal challenge over a march scheduled for next month over allegations that the organisers' activities are "anti-state".

The event, known as the Aurat March, using the Urdu word for 'women', has been held in multiple cities in Pakistan for the last two years to coincide with International Women's Day on March 8.

Organisers say they have faced a backlash from conservative elements in the country, including threats of murder and rape.

A petition attempting to bar the march from its announced venue and ban all associated promotion on social media will be heard by a court in Lahore on Thursday, alleging that "heavy funds" have been donated to the organisers by "anti-state forces".

The case was lodged by a lawyer who has a record of filing cases against freedom of expression on online platforms. While many of his cases have failed, he recently successfully petitioned the same court to declare former Pakistani military dictator Pervez Musharraf's death sentence illegal.

"By openly displaying their aspirations some these women, men and gays dare to take a step ahead in creating the environment that is traditionally, culturally and morally less binding upon them," the legal complaint said.

The case against the Aurat March also refers to new social media rules, approved by Pakistan's government this month, which increase regulation of cyber space and that rights activists say could be used to stifle dissent and free speech.

"Our lawyer will counter the petition in court tomorrow," one of the organisers, Dr Aliya Haider, told Reuters. "We hope that the court will decide the matter on merit."

Earlier this week, a mural put up in Lahore by volunteers to promote the march was vandalised within hours of being set up, supporters said, adding that they had permission from the owners of the structure on which the mural was set up.

Authorities are yet to respond to requests to provide CCTV footage to help identify the vandals.

Global human rights watchdogs have noted concerns in recent years over what they see as a growing clampdown on civil society in Pakistan, along with the increased use of sedition and anti-state charges to quell dissent.

Last year's march attracted tens of thousands of women across Pakistan, which a Thomson Reuters Foundation poll in 2018 found to be the sixth most dangerous country for women. (Reporting by Mubasher Bukhari; Writing by Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Alex Richardson)