What’s happening to activists in Pakistan?


What do we know about the missing activists?

Salman Haider, Waqas Goraya, Aasim Saeed and Ahmad Raza Naseer were whisked from different cities within Pakistan’s largest province of Punjab between January 4 and 7.

Another activist, Samar Abbas, was reported missing on January 11.

Haider, an Urdu-language poet and university professor, is the Urdu-language editor for the left-leaning blog, Tanqeed.

Goraya, Saeed and Naseer are bloggers and primarily used Facebook to write about religious intolerance, militancy and Pakistan’s military, other activists told TRT World.

While it remains unclear who is behind the activists’ disappearance, some journalists and members of civil society allege that this is the work of state security agencies.

The government says it has no idea where the men are. Pakistani Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan has assured parliament that efforts will be made to recover the activists.

Their disappearance has created an uproar on social media and sparked protests in various cities.

Did they step on the wrong toes?

This is where the story gets murky.

Aside from Haider, whose published work and poetry is available for review, the Facebook pages of the other activists have been deleted.

Haider, Goraya and Saeed “are related to different [social media] pages, which primarily did satire and commentary on religious and political issues but they were not really instigating people to treason,” Jibran Nasir, a lawyer and a social activist, told TRT World.

The most constant theme in these activists’ work was anti-religious extremism and terrorism, which the army have themselves been fighting, Nasir said.

Haider, the most prominent among all the missing activists, is known for speaking against military operations in Balochistan, where separatists regularly carry out attacks against state installations.

“Salman is among some of the bravest vocal activists, critics and poets in Pakistan. He is the type who doesn’t only criticise social conservatism but also state violence,” Mahvish Ahmad, the cofounder of Tanqeed, who has worked with him for several years, told TRT World.

Hundreds of Baloch men accused of supporting separatist insurgents have gone missing and many of them are presumed dead. (Getty Images)

Some observers don’t agree with the work of the missing activists.

“To call these activists liberal is not entirely correct,” Naufil Shahrukh, an Islamabad based digital media analyst, told TRT World. “Most of the time they’d give a sectarian colour to their opinions.”

The activists were also part of a network of social media commentators that has relentlessly criticised former army chief General Raheel Sharif for reportedly taking up the task of heading a Saudi Arabia-led military coalition, he said.

Is there any evidence against the security establishment?

Pakistan has a history of ‘enforced disappearances’ where hundreds of people have gone missing over the years, according to the NGO Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

“The tolerance level of our state is going down,” Zohra Yusuf, HRCP’s chairperson, told TRT World. “I can’t say for sure if state agencies are behind these latest disappearances but the indications are that this is the case.”

Human Rights Watch (HRW) says that Pakistan’s security establishment has a long history of intimidating critics.

“The Taliban and other armed groups have also threatened media outlets and targeted journalists and activists for their work,” it said in a recent statement.

The trend to abduct suspects without trials started in 2001, when Pakistan began cooperating with the US in the war on terror. (Getty Images)

Jibran Nasir said it was hard to believe a non-state group can pull off a coordinated operation of abducting four activists from three cities within a span of a few days.

“No one is jumping to blame the state,” he said.

“But the fact that Facebook pages of these activists have been taken over by new admins and all the content that we see is pro-state…gives the impression that some state body is involved.”

He also points out that two of the activists arrived in Pakistan recently. “That’s the kind of information only state agencies could get their hands on.”

Is this type of abduction a new development in Pakistan?

HRCP’s Yusuf sees this as a new trend in the case of missing persons in the South Asian country.

“Up till now we saw this happening with political activists or nationalists. Disappearance of these activists is something new,” she said.

One reason for this could be the growing influence of social media on public perception, she said.

“Alternate media has surpassed traditional newspapers. And there is too much control on television. So people use social media to express their views. It seems state is now trying to catch up.”

The introduction of a cyber crimes law in August 2016 gave government sweeping powers to arrest internet users perceived as a threat to national security.

HRW said the law threatens rights to privacy and freedom of expression.

Once too scared to speak openly, the families of the missing protest regularly now. (Getty Images)

Nasir said the abductions are also an attack on cyberspace “especially because people didn’t think they were safe on the streets and so they used the benefit of anonymity to express their views.”

Even if someone has broken the law, he said, a legal course has to be followed. “In Pakistan you have to produce a criminal in court within 24 hours of the arrest.”

For Mahvish Ahmed, the little space that activists were left with seems to be slowly eroding.

“First they pushed us out of the streets, then they pushed us off the newspapers and now they want to push us off online platforms.”

Author: Saad Hasan