The government of Pakistan is under fire for the suspected abductions of at least four social media activists in the last week. Amid gathering protests and mounting pressure from human rights advocates and journalists, Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan assured lawmakers on Tuesday that intelligence agencies are looking into the disappearances. Meanwhile, one more activist was reported missing today.
Samar Abbas, president of a rights organization called Civil Progressive Alliance Pakistan, dropped off the grid on Saturday while on a business trip to Islamabad, his family told local media.
The other four bloggers – prominent poet and professor Salman Haider, as well as Waqas Goraya, Asim Saeed and Ahmed Raza Naseer – are all outspoken critics of Pakistan’s conservative government, military power and militant religious groups.
“Their near simultaneous disappearance and the government’s shutting down of their websites and blogs raises grave concerns of government involvement,” Human Rights Watch wrote in a press release on Tuesday.
Pakistan has a long record of being among the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. According to the International Federation of Journalists, 102 media workers have been killed since 2005. Of those, 73 were killed just since 2010 – a rate of almost one journalist every month. Journalists are “targeted on all sides,” Reporters Without Borders said in their country profile – by extremists, intelligence agencies and the military, in particular.
This same week, TV reporter Imdad Phulpoto claimed that he was unlawfully detained, tortured and released the same day by police for several stories he had done exposing corruption in the National Assembly.
The government has an “immediate obligation” to locate the missing individuals, Human Rights Watch said, and “the government’s failure to provide information on the fate or whereabouts of a person taken into custody amounts to an enforced disappearance, which is a serious violation of international human rights law.”
Initial reports said that Goraya, who is usually based in the Netherlands, and his cousin Saeed went missing from Lahore last Wednesday, but according to the Guardian, their friends and family said they were taken on Friday. The pair ran a politically left Facebook page that recently criticized the military for its forceful crackdown on political groups in Karachi, interference in national politics, and alleged corruption among senior officers.
Saeed’s father told the police in a statement that four men arrived at their home and “forcefully took him away” in a pickup truck, according to the Guardian, and Goroya’s friends said he was detained the same day.
Naseer, a polio victim, also ran a secular, progressive Facebook page. He was taken from his family’s shop in Punjab on Sunday, his brother Tahir told AFP.
Haider’s disappearance drew the most attention. As a gender studies professor at Fatima Jinnah Women University, an “immensely popular” social commentary poet and blogger at Dawn, Pakistan’s most widely read English-language newspaper, he fiercely condemned enforced disappearances in the province of Balochistan. His family said he wondered if he might be next.
On Friday, Haider’s wife received a text from his phone, hours after he was expected home, saying he had abandoned his car on the Islamabad-Rawalpindi highway, Agence France-Presse reported. Police found the car and filed a missing persons report.
“It’s ironic that the thing he was talking about six months ago happened to him,” Haider’s brother Zeeshan told Reuters.
Because of Haider’s high public profile, the interior ministry over the weekend only mentioned investigating his disappearance and none of the others’. Protestors gathered on Tuesday, holding signs with the hashtags #RecoverSalmanHaider and #RecoverAllActivists.
“[If] in the capital of Pakistan, a professor who has a very active social media presence can disappear, what will happen to an average person who does not have anyone behind him?” Zeeshan said to Reuters.