Did Pakistan’s government abduct outspoken activists?

Human Rights | Human rights campaigners warn against official attempt to silence moderate voices
by Julia A. Seymour
Posted 1/23/17, 01:03 pm

Human rights activists in Pakistan warn the country is tumbling toward Islamic extremism, pointing to the disappearance this month of five activists as proof of ongoing efforts to silence more moderate voices in the public square.

The five outspoken human rights advocates—bloggers Waqas Goraya, Aasim Saeed, and Ahmed Raza Naseer; professor and poet Salman Haider; and Civil Progressive Alliance of Pakistan (CPAP) president Samar Abbas—were all abducted the same week, beginning Jan. 4. 

Making things even worse, a group called the Civil Society of Pakistan filed a formal complaint of blasphemy against the activists after their disappearances, The Express Tribune reported. Many piled on the allegations, which led to violence at a recent rally for the missing men.

All were liberal critics of the government and of growing Islamic extremism in Pakistan. VOA reported Haider was well known for accusing military intelligence of activist abductions in Baluchistan province. CPAP is an non-governmental organization that fights extremism and speaks out for minority groups. 

International Christian Concern’s William Stark called the situation “tense” and voiced concern about its chilling effect, fears echoed by other activists.

“Disappearances of people mean the disappearance of voices—and of an alternate, dissenting political dream for what Pakistan can be. They only have to pick up a handful of people, as they’ve done now, to scare and silence us all,” journalist Mahvish Ahmad told Al Jazeera.

No one knows definitively who took the men, although family members and others in the human rights community blame the government. 

Activist Mona Aurangzeb called the abductions “an alarming trend.” 

“The state is giving the impression that no matter who you are: if you raise your voice or create problems, you have to pay the price,” Aurangzeb told Asia News.

Government officials deny involvement in the disappearances, according to Voice of America.

Naseer’s brother, Tahir, was with him when a “nondescript man” showed up asking questions.

“The man tells him to take his phone and come and sit in the car outside, where a sahab [important man] is sitting who wants to ask you some questions,” Tahir told Al Jazeera. Naseer never returned.

Asad Butt, vice chairman of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said the blasphemy complaints came from people who want further Islamization of Pakistan. Such claims further endanger the abducted men since vigilantism in response to blasphemy charges is common in Pakistan.

“It is their way of threatening the people. That is why we have been demanding that the government amends the blasphemy law,” Butt told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

Family members of three of the missing men held a press conference denouncing the blasphemy as propaganda.

Muslim clerics threw bricks at people gathered to rally on behalf of the activists on Thursday but no one was injured. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that about 100 members of the group Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah hurled stones and chanted slogans. At least one banner said “Beheading is the punishment for blasphemers.”

That same Islamic coalition issued a fatwa against Pakistani activist Shaan Taseer over his Christmas message urging people to remember and pray for victims of Pakistan’s abusive blasphemy laws.

Julia A. Seymour

Julia worked in communications in the Washington, D.C., area from 2005 to 2019 and was a fall 2012 participant in the WORLD Journalism Institute mid-career class. She relocated to Denver in 2019. Follow Julia on Twitter @SteakandaBible.

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