By Saad Sayeed
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Authorities in Pakistan's largest province have ordered several women's and human rights groups to shut down, accusing them of unspecified "anti-state" activities, an official of a human rights group said.
Pakistan has toughened its stance against local and international non-government bodies in recent years, accusing some of using their work as a cover for espionage. In 2015, it ordered Save the Children expelled but reversed the decision.
"They are shutting up people by harassment," I.A. Rehman, an official of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, told Reuters on Thursday.
Police and security officials have ordered about a dozen non-government organizations (NGOs) to halt operations, mostly in southern Punjab province, Rehman added, with groups working on women's and human rights appearing to be the main targets.
"The provincial government has given orders to district police offices that so-and-so organization has been indulging in anti-state activities, so ban this organization," he said.
Punjab's home minister, Rana Sanaullah, did not respond to written queries about the orders.
However, conservative Pakistan's small community of liberal groups is worried about a new crackdown on anyone seen as criticizing the government, as concern grows over five liberal writers and activists who went missing this month.
The government denies any role in the disappearances.
Two officials of non-government bodies in Punjab told Reuters police had ordered their employees to halt work.
"Yesterday, the police went to one of my colleagues in Bahawalpur and asked him to shut our office over there," said Mohammad Tehseen, director of South Asia Partnership Pakistan, which focuses on women's rights.
The police gave him a letter, seen by Reuters, issued by the Punjab Home Department alleging that his organization was "pursuing (an) anti-state agenda".
Tehseen denied the charge, and said the police would not specify any actions to support the accusation.
Telephone calls to police in the city of Bahawalpur went unanswered on Thursday and Friday.
Other organizations have received similar letters, Rehman said.
Another NGO, Women in Struggle for Empowerment, was ordered to halt work in Punjab and obtained a copy of another letter from a provincial agency accusing it of activities "detrimental to National/Strategic Security".
A copy of the letter provided to Reuters by the group's director, Bushra Khaliq, cites an order from the ministry of the interior.
Sent copies of the documents, Interior Ministry spokesman Sarfaraz Ahmed said a statement would be issued later, but it had not arrived by Friday afternoon.
(Additional reporting by Mubasher Bukhari; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)