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Pakistan Ousts 18 Aid Agencies. Human Rights Minister Tweets 'They Must Leave'

Pakistan has expelled 18 international aid groups from the country, after they were accused of deliberately spreading disinformation, according to a series of tweets issued by the country's human rights minister, Shireen Mazari.

The expulsions reflect what aid workers say is a hardening toward organizations that provide health care, education and food assistance as well as working on human rights, women's rights and free speech issues.

Among the groups were charities such as Catholic Relief, Plan International and World Vision.

This announcement comes alongside lingering suspicions about the work and intentions of international aid groups, said Michael Kugelman, senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

"The state simply doesn't trust these NGOs, as innocuous as their activities may be. There is a sky-high level of mistrust, especially in a country where conspiracy theories are tightly embraced by large swaths of society and the state alike," Kugelman wrote in an email response to written questions.

Those long-entrenched suspicions intensified after the CIA used a Pakistani doctor to help find Osama Bin Laden in 2011. He posed as a worker for an international aid group administrating vaccinations. The doctor, Shakil Afridi, was arrested and is being held in a Pakistani jail.

The expulsions follow a new registration process for aid groups that began in 2015. That led to the government ordering 20 groups to shut down last December. Aid workers said at the time they would appeal the order. Some of 18 recently expelled were those that lost their appeals, including World Vision.

The Associated Press reported that the organizations were mostly based out of the United States. The rest are based out of Britain and the European Union.

The AP cited Umair Hasan, a spokesman for the Pakistan Humanitarian Foundation, an umbrella group representing 15 of the affected groups, as saying those groups had helped 11 million poor Pakistanis and had contributed more than $130 million in assistance.

Shireen Mazari, the Pakistani human rights minister, tweeted that the 18 were "denied registration delib [sic] spreading disinfo. [sic]"

"18 denied for non compliance viz what they had defined as their work. They must leave. They need to work within their stated intent which these 18 didn't do!"

One of the groups whose registration was denied, Plan International, said in an email to NPR: "No reason was provided for the rejection."

Mazari did not respond to requests for clarification or comment. She did, however, say, that protests by American and European diplomatsagainst the shutdowns demonstrated that the organizations had a political agenda.

"Now these INGOs," she tweeted, using an acronym for international non-governmental organizations, are "using EU diplomatic pressure and [sic] latest is US State Dept pressure which shows govt [sic] was right in not registering them as they have political agenda overtones!"

Mazari said the government had re-registered "80 plus" groups to operate in the country but that the "18 denied for non compliance viz what they had defined as their work. They must leave. They need to work within their stated intent which these 18 didn't do."

She further noted that "80 plus INGOs (apart from UN Orgs etc) is a lot already!"

The Pakistani Information Minister, Fawad Chaudhry said he could not say what, specifically, led the interior ministry to expel the organizations. "There was a form, and all the INGOs had to fill out those details, and failed to fill out those details," he said. Other organizations did not clear security requirements, he said in a statement.

Ultimately, Pakistan's powerful military was behind the move to shut down the international aid groups, said a former senior staff member of an international organization that no longer operates in Pakistan.

The former staffer requested anonymity because he did not want the international organization to be associated with his opinions.

"The military is driving this," wrote the former staff member in response to emailed questions. He said the military wanted to ensure it fully controlled to whom aid was delivered — and how. The former senior staffer said local organizations were also being affected, particularly in remote Pakistani areas. "The intelligence agencies virtually have to approve any activities," he wrote.

"Combine that with what's happening to journalists and media outlets, and what you have is a dramatically shrinking space for civil society."

The former senior staffer said it was unlikely that the government would retract its position. They noted the United States lost any real leverage after it suspended millions of dollars in military aid to Pakistan this year. The E.U. was also unlikely to suspend Pakistani access to its markets over the issue.

"In the absence of real financial pressure over this issue, the Pakistani state can withstand Western criticism," the former senior staffer wrote to NPR, particularly in a global environment of rising nationalism and a backlash against liberal institutions.

Kugelman, the senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, said Pakistan would only change course if it was concerned with its reputation.

"For Pakistan, a country that already has an image problem, the optics of expelling charitable organizations are not good, to say the least. With Islamabad trying to capitalize on an improved security situation and attract more foreign investment, it may come to realize that now's not the right time to act in ways that cause its global image to take more hits," he wrote.

In themeantime, Cynthia Colin, a communications executive for World Vision, says that the group has "worked with relevant Pakistan government institutions to hand over responsibility for life-saving and poverty-reducing programs. She adds: "We will do what we can to minimize the impact [on children] and will continue to discuss the possibility of re-starting work under any new legal framework which the government may subsequently introduce."

Plan International also hopes to pick up its work once again. The aid group has been in Pakistan since 1997, providing education, health care, sanitation and other services to children with a focus on girls. Robin Costello, senior director for communications, says that according to the government directive, the group can reapply for registration after six months although "details on the process and the time it will take are currently unavailable."

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Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.