Human rights activists hold up a picture of Salman Haider, who went missing during a protest to condemn the disappearances of social activists in Karachi. Photo: Reuters

An increasing number of Pakistani activists and human rights campaigners are coming under attack with many disappearing for months. Concerns are growing that Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies are targeting them as part of a larger crackdown.

Raza Khan, the Lahore-based peace activist, who was last seen leaving his office on Dec. 2, has been missing for more than a month. While his whereabouts remain unknown, there are fears that he has been abducted by state agencies.

Khan’s disappearance sparked off protests by his supporters and admirers across the world. Other activists, such as the Baloch brothers, Mumtaz and Kamran Sajidi, were picked up in Karachi on Jan. 4. Both returned home five days later amid reports that they had been abducted by law enforcement agencies.

Mumtaz Sajidi refused to share details of what happened. “My family has not allowed me to speak to the media because of security reasons,” he told Asia Times. But family sources hinted that they suspect security agencies had played a role in his ‘disappearance’.

Pakistan’s clampdown on free speech and the spate of disappearances are believed to be part of a plan to suppress dissent. Khan, for example, was the convener of Aaghaz-e-dosti, a joint initiative of India’s Mission Bhartiyam and Pakistan’s Hum Sab Aik Hain. The group has been working on improving ties between the two South Asian neighbors.

Beena Sarwar, a journalist, a filmmaker and an editor at Aman ki Asha, stressed that promoting peace between India and Pakistan has now become perilous. “What’s unprecedented is that those who never before had a voice or platform are now able to voice this consensus through social media,” she told Asia Times.

Khan’s continued absence is systematic of the state’s clampdown on human rights campaigners. Other key activists have also come under fire. The prominent journalist and known critic of the military, Taha Siddiqui, was the target of an attempted abduction recently.

Noor Nabi, another activist and the chairman of Okara Military Farms Union Council and General Secretary of the Anjuman-e-Mozaraeen Punjab, was mysteriously found in jail earlier this month after he went missing last year.

State agencies

The rise in abductions gathered pace in January 2017 when five secular bloggers went missing because of their views on social media. Salman Haider, who was among them, alleged that state agencies were involved in his abduction and torture after fleeing the country.

He also believes that Khan and Nabi have also been targeted. “I think Raza [Khan] was abducted to create fear among civil society sections working for better relations between Pakistan and India, and [Noor] Nabi for his links with the Okara land rights movement,” he told Asia Times.

“I fear that some elements from our ‘deep state’ or establishment are involved as Okara farmers are in a direct clash with the military,” Haider added. “Meanwhile, the establishment believes that relations with neighboring countries – especially India – is its sole domain and has a deep distrust for non-government organizations working in this space.”

State agencies are not the only ones targeting dissents as activists have come under attack from the media. The lawyer and human rights campaigner, Jibran Nasir, was accused of blasphemy in December on the local television station Bol.

The claim was made after he filed a ‘retrial’ appeal in the Supreme Court for Sharukh Jatoi and his accomplices in the Shahzeb Khan murder case. “It is my legal right to go to the Supreme Court and I’m being targeted for that,” Nasir said. “They did the same to me a year ago when I demanded a fair trial for those activists that were abducted.”

Freedom of speech

Nasir cited polarization in Pakistani society as a stumbling block for activists. “There is agreement when you talk about education [and] water sanitation, but not when you talk about freedom of speech or freedom of religion,” he said, adding that all state institutions are complicit in suppressing voices.

“All our institutions, including parliament, political parties, the executive, the military, the intelligence agencies, [and] the media have not unanimously agreed upon the fundamental principles of democracy,” he claimed.

Speaking from his personal experience, Haider believes those missing are being kept in ‘safe houses’ for interrogation. The only way to rescue them, he said, was through protests and international pressure.

“My family and friends came out with a clear mind, and used all the resources they had to run the movement for my release in the media, on social media and on the streets,” he added. “Mounting international pressures by writing to human rights organization and involving them can also play an important role.”

Sarwar maintains it’s about time the state realized that the spread of ideas cannot be stopped. “People have always challenged the state’s monolithic narrative and they always will. That is the beauty of the human spirit,” she said.

“The difference between the censorship of the past and now is that the state needs to shut down more platforms and it is relying more on illegal methods than it did before,” she added.

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