Five social activists have gone missing in Pakistan in the past two weeks, prompting concerns from international rights groups. Samar Abbas is the latest of these social-rights fighters to go missing in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. His absence was reported by Talib Raza, another activist that works with Abbas at the Civil Progressive Alliance of Pakistan (CPAP), a group that fights against extremism. Abbas’s brother corroborated the complaint to the press when they questioned him about his brother’s whereabouts.
“The family waited for a few days to inform people. When the stories about other activists disappearing started emerging, it became clear what was going on,” Raza told Reuters.
Although there is not currently any evidence of wrongdoing, a number of civil rights groups have accused the Pakistani government of being involved in the recent rash of disappearances.
“Now, with the disappearance of Salman Haider and at least three other activists, a dark new chapter in the state’s murky, illegal war against civil society appears to have been opened,” an editorial in the English-language newspaper out of Pakistan, The Dawn, posited earlier this week.
“By intimidating and picking up social-media activists like this, they have taken away our microphones,” Jibran Nasir told Reuters. Nasir, a human rights lawyer, recently filed an application with Pakistan’s supreme court requesting judicial intervention into the issue. The court has yet to respond to his request.
Hundreds of protestors have taken to the streets in Pakistan, demanding that the local government work to locate the missing activists, and the government has claimed to already be hard on the case, even before Abbas was added to the list.
“This is state bullying. The people who have done this have broken the law,” Senator Afrasiab Khatak, a former head of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, told protesters who gathered in Islamabad. “This country does not belong to any general, or any bureaucrat, or a capitalist or a feudal lord, it belongs to its people. We will not remain silent.”
Among those who have gone missing in recent weeks are Salmad Haider, a poet and university professor, who was last seen in Islamabad on Friday. Three bloggers, Waqas Goraya, his cousin Asim Saeed, and Ahmed Raza Naseer, have also disappeared. Each of these men has established ties to, or are considered a part of, a pro-democracy movement in Pakistan.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has responded to these disappearances by stating that they are “greatly alarmed” and that the situation demonstrates that speaking out against extremism can be dangerous, even if only done so via the internet.
“The events of the last week demonstrate that the dangers already extend to digital spaces,” they said in an official statement, before adding that there was not yet any concrete evidence to connect all of the disappearances.
Human Rights Watch has also provided their perspective on the case, suggesting that regardless of whether or not the government was involved in whatever events led to these men going missing, they would be held accountable if they fail to locate them.
“The nature of these apparent abductions puts the government on notice that it can either be part of the solution or it will be held responsible for its role in the problem,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
Many in Pakistan find themselves caught between the Pakistani government and dangerous organizations that operate within the region, such as the Taliban. Pakistan is considered one of the world’s most dangerous nations for activists and journalists, with a record of detaining, beating, and even killing those with views contradicting the ones held by the ruling majority. Still, that in itself is not an indicator of the Pakistani government’s guilt.
Although the whereabouts of these missing activists remains unknown, one thing is for certain: The way Pakistan addresses these disappearances will likely have lasting ramifications in the way the people of Pakistan perceive their government.
“No government should tolerate attacks on its citizens,” David Kaye, the U.N.’s special reporter on the right to freedom of expression, told the Times of India. “By making the investigation of these disappearances an urgent priority, the Pakistani authorities can send a strong signal that they take seriously the responsibility for the life and security of all of its citizens, particularly in cases involving freedom of expression.”
Featured image courtesy of AFP