Human rights organizations Tuesday urged Pakistani authorities to investigate the disappearance last week of four liberal activists known for their vocal criticism of the country’s security policies and opposition to religious extremists.
“All four men were vocal critics of militant religious groups and Pakistan’s military establishment, and used the internet to disseminate their views,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement Tuesday. “Their near simultaneous disappearance and the government’s shutting down of their websites and blogs raises grave concerns of government involvement.”
Many activists are concerned that they were picked up by security forces, civilian or military.
Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said the disappearances were being treated as a priority matter by the government, and their primary goal was to recover the missing activists safely.
“Enforced disappearances are not the policy of the Government of Pakistan, and it will not tolerate them,” Mr. Khan said in parliament Tuesday. “Pakistan is a democratic, constitutional country.”
The Pakistani military and its intelligence agencies have long been accused of supporting some jihadist groups and carrying out forced disappearances, allegations that it denies. There was no immediate response from the military on the missing men.
Members of Pakistan’s parliament also demanded the men be located.
Salman Haider, a university professor and poet, was allegedly abducted by unidentified individuals on the outskirts of the capital, Islamabad, on Friday, Jan. 6, Interior Minister Khan said. Bloggers Waqas Goraya and Asim Saeed went missing in the eastern city of Lahore on Jan. 4, police said. Ahmad Raza Naseer, also active online, was allegedly seen being abducted from the central Pakistani city of Nankana Sahib on Jan. 7, according to activists.
“The pattern of these disappearances suggests that it is a planned and coordinated action, undertaken to silence voices which are critical of prevalent socio-political issues in Pakistan,” lawmakers from the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party said in a statement filed in parliament Monday. “This is a serious matter and needs immediate response from the government.”
Mr. Haider is a vocal critic of religious extremists as well as the military, including alleged enforced disappearances by security forces, especially in the conflict-torn southwestern Balochistan province, an accusation denied by officials. His family said they received a text message from his phone Friday night, mentioning the location of his car on a highway. There has been no contact since. Mr. Khan said Mr. Haider was followed by at least one vehicle before he was stopped and taken.
Zeeshan Haider, the missing Mr. Haider’s elder brother, said that he hadn’t received threats but “there is a possibility that his disappearance is related to his activism.”
Pakistan’s interior ministry said the police are making “all possible efforts” to locate Mr. Haider, assisted by the country’s intelligence agencies.
Mr. Goraya, who usually resides in the Netherlands, and Mr. Saeed went missing while they were in the Wapda Town area of Lahore where Mr. Goraya was interested in purchasing some property, local police officials said. “We have launched an investigation,” said Haider Ashraf, the deputy inspector general for police operations in Lahore. “We don’t have a cause of disappearance yet.”
Mr. Naseer was sitting with his friends at a shop on Saturday when unidentified men arrived and took him away in a vehicle, according to activists who are providing assistance to Mr. Naseer’s family. The family has so far not received information about the identity of the men who took him away, or why.
There was no known arrest warrant, or pending legal action, against any of the four, according to their families and fellow activists. Mr. Khan, the interior minister, said there is no apparent connection between the disappearances. Activists, however, suspect the incidents are linked.
Fellow activists, who asked not to be identified because of concerns for their security, said Mr. Goraya, Mr. Saeed and Mr. Naseer regularly received threats online because of their positions. Posts on a popular pro-military Facebook page “Pakistan Defence”, which says it isn’t affiliated with the military, called the disappearances a defeat for “secular and infidel” elements, and accused the missing men of blasphemy. Activists said such comments were being posted to malign them, and to distract from their anti-extremist views.
Last year Pakistan passed a law on internet activity that critics say restricts free speech and gives the government sweeping powers.The government says the law is needed to counter online harassment and terrorism.
Human rights campaigners said the manner and timing of the disappearances added to the anxiety many feel while speaking on issues related to the military or religious extremists. Protests against the disappearances were due in several cities Tuesday.
“There is increased fear, but also, there are a lot of people speaking out about the missing people,” said Nighat Dad, a digital rights activist. “Previously, discussion would become muted after someone was attacked for voicing concerns.”
“Pakistan has never been a particularly safe country for rights activists. Many have been killed, injured, abducted and threatened for their work,” the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent body, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, these actions have not always come from non-state quarters.”
The Dutch embassy in Islamabad said that it couldn’t confirm that Mr. Goraya was a citizen of the Netherlands and it hadn’t been contacted by his family.
“The forced disappearance of citizens is a human rights violation and the Netherlands believes the Pakistani government will take effective measures to stop such incidents,” the Dutch embassy said.
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