The disappearance of at least four Pakistani human rights activists and bloggers in the first 10 days of the new year has sent a frisson of fear through the country’s small but vocal human rights community. Salman Haider, the most well known of them, is a teacher of Psychology at the Fatima Jinnah University in Rawalpindi, a poet and a leading campaigner against enforced disappearances in Balochistan for which he blames the Pakistan military. Waqas Goraya, visiting Pakistan from the Netherlands where he lives, runs a Facebook page called Citizens for Secular Democracy; Ahmed Raza Naseer is a blogger as is Singapore-based Aasim Saeed. While Haidar’s car was found abandoned on a highway into Islamabad, Saeed and Goraya disappeared from Lahore, while Naseer’s last known whereabouts were in Nankana Sahib. All four were critical of the military’s role in national affairs, and of religious extremists and the link between the two. Their near simultaneous disappearance, between January 4 and January 10, has heightened fears and suspicions that the security establishment or an extremist group might be behind the alleged abduction. The US, the UN, and Britain have expressed concern for the fate of the four men, as have Human Rights Watch and the Human Rights Committee of Pakistan. Under pressure, Pakistan’s Interior Minister Chaudhary Nisar Ahmed has promised to investigate the disappearances but denied security agencies are responsible.
The incidents are all the more alarming as all four were online campaigners. It has given the impression that there is a plan afoot to silence pro-democracy social media activism, which has taken up issues that traditional media has tended to avoid.
The development has darkened the mood in Pakistan, where the political establishment was celebrating the uneventful exit of the hawkish army chief Raheel Sharif upon his retirement at the end of November. Civil-military relations are not so heated as they had become in the last few months of Gen Sharif’s tenure, and the balance is now seen as having moved back in favour of the elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The disappearances have brought back memories of the 2015 killing of activist Sabeen Mahmud, who was shot dead in Karachi as she left a meeting on Balochistan’s missing persons, and some years before that, the sudden disappearance of journalist Saleem Shehzad in Islamabad, his body turning up days later in an agricultural field.
The latest disappearances only underline a gloomy reality in Pakistan: The more the country has appeared to change, the more determined some elements within seem to be to drag it in the opposite direction.