Human rights activist Gulalai Ismail speaks speaks at Goalkeepers 2017, at Jazz at Lincoln Center on September 20, 2017 in New York City. Goalkeepers is organized by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to highlight progress against global poverty and disease, showcase solutions to help advance the Sustainable Development Goals (or Global Goals) and foster bold leadership to help accelerate the path to a more prosperous, healthy and just future. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation)

One of Pakistan’s leading women’s rights activists has been released from police custody, she told AFP on Thursday (7), after Amnesty International said she and others had been detained “arbitrarily”.

Gulalai Ismail was arrested along with 17 other members of the Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM), a peaceful organisation defending the rights of ethnic Pashtuns, during a protest in Islamabad on Tuesday.

“It was very painful for my family, who tool 30 hours to know where I was,” she told AFP, adding that she had been freed late Wednesday.

She was separated from the other activists, she said, and was not placed under official arrest.

“They didn’t charge me with anything. They didn’t let me contact my lawyer. They just kept moving me around,” she said.

“You cannot arrest citizens and just disappear them.”

An Islamabad police official dealing with the case swept the claims aside.

Police follow “a proper procedure and her claims of an encounter are unthinkable,” he told AFP, referring to extra-judicial murders, or “encounter killings” as they are commonly known in Pakistan.

He accused Ismail and the other activists of uttering “anti-state slogans”.

Ismail was briefly detained in October after speaking at another PTM meeting. Her brief disappearance this week has inflamed social networks, with the hashtag #WhereIsGulalai going viral.

She has been freed, but “as a human rights defender, she is still not safe,” said Rabia Mehmood, a researcher for Amnesty International.

“It is really alarming that peaceful protests are constantly targeted by the Pakistani state,” she added.

The PTM is demanding, among other things, an end to what it says are enforced disappearances and extra-judicial murders of ethnic Pashtuns by police and other security officials.

Ismail is also the co-founder of Aware Girls, an NGO that promotes gender equality. She has received several international awards.