Pakistan shuts art exhibit denouncing deadly police raids

KARACHI, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistani authorities have closed a prominent art exhibition in Karachi that sought to denounce police raids led by an infamous officer that had killed hundreds of people in the southern port city, the artists, exhibit organizers and rights activists said Tuesday.

The artist, Adeela Suleman, said her work at the Frere Hall for the Karachi Biennale consisted of an installation of 444 small concrete tombstones symbolically marking the number of “extrajudicial killings” in raids led by police officer Rao Anwar, an infamous figure in Karachi.

One of the stones honors the memory of Naqeeb Ullah, a 27-year-old aspiring model killed by Anwar’s unit in a 2018 shootout in Karachi. Anwar’s trial in the case is ongoing. Karachi police say the raids were justified operations against militants.

The closing of Suleman’s exhibition on Sunday drew nationwide condemnation from fellow artists and human rights activists who say it was yet another attempt to censor criticism in Pakistan.

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Suleman, a fine arts professor at the city’s Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, said she was “disappointed and sad by the way two men in plainclothes” arrived on Sunday, and forced the organizers to close the exhibition, “right there in the presence of art lovers in the city.”

The plainclothes men never spoke to her, she said.

Her art was an attempt to tell the story of what many see as extrajudicial killings by an unrestrained police force.

“Artists are gravely concerned if we cannot express ourselves,” she said.

Jibran Nasir, a prominent human rights, said he himself witnessed how the plainclothes men — apparently officers from the intelligence agency — forced the exhibit shut.

Pakistan already has censorship on the media in place and “now artists are also being stopped from displaying their artwork,” Nasir said.

Earlier, Nasir tweeted how his own press conference against the exhibition’s closure was disrupted by “unknown men who threw away microphones of the media and shamelessly tried to censor us.”

In response to a query from The Associated Press, Karachi police said they had not received any complaints from the artist or her exhibition’s organizers.

Pakistan has, in recent months, imposed curbs and restrictions on the media in a bid to stop outlets from criticizing the government and the country’s powerful military.

The Karachi incident comes days after Pakistan blacklisted and expelled Steven Butler, the Asia coordinator of global press freedom group the Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ.

Butler had landed at Pakistan’s international airport in the city of Lahore with a valid visa to attend a human rights conference named after Asma Jahangir, a renowned Pakistani activist who died last year of a heart attack. 

Also recently, authorities jailed Mohammad Ismail, father of exiled activist Gulalai Ismail, for allegedly supporting a minority rights movement.

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Associated Press writer Munir Ahmed in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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