ISLAMABAD: The recent disappearances of bloggers and human rights activists are significant as they mark a notable change in the profile of those missing, as compared to the past.
Defence analysts and lawmakers are worried by the current trend, which they say shows that the definition of ‘anti-state elements’ is evolving in Pakistan.
Over the past decade and a half, the kind of people who went missing has shifted. In the early 2000s, under the regime of retired Gen Pervez Musharraf, those speaking in favour of militancy or calling for the enforcement of Sharia law went missing.
The next wave of disappearances targeted nationalist elements that were against the influence of the centre, such as the missing activists from Balochistan.
This latest wave of disappearances, however, seems to be targeting those speaking against the narrative of the state.
Profiles of recently disappeared men very different from nationalists, fundamentalists who went missing in the past
Poet, writer and human rights activist Salman Haider, who is a lecturer at the Gender Studies department of Fatima Jinnah Women University (FJWU), went missing from Islamabad on Jan 6 in Loi Bher police precincts.
Others who have been reported missing include Waqas Ahmed Goraya, Asim Saeed and Ahmed Raza Naseer. Another Karachi-based activist, Civil Progressive Alliance Pakistan (CPAP) President Samar Abbas, has been reported missing from Islamabad since Jan 7.
Security analyst Amir Rana told Dawn that the recent actions – if taken by security agencies – were “unpredictable”. This shows that they want quick results in stemming anti-establishment material on social media.
“But this campaign against the people who were speaking against the state and religion so far seems to have proven counter-productive,” he commented.
“It cannot be said with any surety whether intelligence agencies have picked them up or if they were kidnapped by elements who believed their comments about religion were blasphemous. It can also be a conspiracy to defame the armed forces,” said defence analyst Imtiaz Gul.
However, he said that if these people had been picked up by an agency of the state to send a message to certain quarters, “I can surely say that the move has not served the country. It has become a matter of embarrassment within Pakistan and abroad,” he said.
PPP Senator Farhatullah Babar, who is also a member of the Senate Human Rights Committee, told Dawn it was clear that those who challenged the narrative of state could not be declared “anti-state”.
“However, these people have been picked because their narrative was not the same as the state; it is unfortunate that freedom of speech is stifled in the name of national security and religion,” he said.
“Though the media is considered free and independent, even it has started to practice self-censorship whenever issues of national security and religion arise,” he said.
Talking about the missing bloggers, Mr Babar said that a vicious social media campaign has been launched against them. “This is very disturbing situation. Things have become so bad that the families of those who have gone missing don’t have the courage to lodge complaints against those who are responsible for abducting their loved ones,” he said.
In Salman Haider’s case, a kidnapping case has been registered against unknown persons in the Loi Bher police station and Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan has assured the Senate that law enforcement agencies are doing all they can to recover the missing men, wherever they may be.
National Commission for Human Rights member Chaudhry Muhammad Shafique told Dawn that the commission condemned the disappearances of all persons.
“I have personally visited the families of Salman Haider, Waqas Goraya and Samar Abbas. They all are middle-class families with an academic background and they are really scared. It cannot be said with any surety these persons are in the custody of some agencies or if they have been kidnapped by any other group; but the act itself is condemnable,” he said.
“We are concerned by efforts to control freedom of expression on social media. If there is anything that is against the law, legal action should be taken and the culprits should be tried in court. There should be an open society because that is the only way development in the realm of human rights can be ensured,” Mr Shafique said.
However, a police official told Dawn on condition of anonymity that if an individual was picked up by intelligence agencies, police were powerless to act.
“Intelligence officials ask us to accompany them when they fear that residents of an area may offer resistance when they try to pick someone up. When matter eventually reaches the courts, it is police that is called to account,” he said.
“Police are also used whenever missing persons are produced in court. Sometimes, suspects are handed over to police after completion of investigation. Last year, a member of Hizbut Tahrir was arrested by agencies and, after investigation, was finally handed over to police for legal action,” the official said.
Another security official, however, admitted that there was no law that allowed intelligence agencies to arrest suspects.
“If police are employed to arrest a suspect, he can’t legally be handed over to the intelligence agencies, either,” he said.
Published in Dawn January 16th, 2017