January 12, 2017; Times of India

Samar Abbas, IT worker and president of the Karachi-based Civil Progressive Alliance of Pakistan (CPAP), has been missing since January 7, 2017. He was reported missing while visiting Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. Abbas’s vanishing occurs just days after four other activists went missing. The Times of India reports that the United Nations and Amnesty International are expressing increasing concern. Human Rights Watch (HRW) is pushing the Pakistani government to more urgently investigate “the apparent abductions of [the] activists who campaign for human rights and religious freedom.”

Voice of America reports that opponents of the current government call the suspected abductions “planned and coordinated” ways to crack down on criticisms of state policies. HRW reports its Asia director, Brad Adams, as stating that the nature of the situation further “puts the Nawaz Sharif government on notice.” Any failure to provide information about anyone taken into custody amounts to declaring the incident an “enforced disappearance…a serious violation of international human rights law.”

Disappearances place individuals outside the protection of the law and make them more vulnerable to torture and other abuses…heightening concerns for their safety.

Talib Raza calls his CPAP colleague’s disappearance “an organized attempt to shut the progressive and liberal voices in the country.” Pakistan’s 24 News reports, “[Abbas’s] 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.”

According to Pakistan’s Express Tribune and the independent human rights group Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), Waqas Goraya and Asim Saeed went missing in Lahore on January 4th, and Ahmed Raza Naseer went missing from Sheikhupura on January 7th. Salman Haider vanished from Islamabad on January 6th. Goraya is an anthropologist who blogged about religious freedom, while Saeed is a blogger who administers a progressive Facebook page about religious freedom and Pakistan’s security policies. Naseer is also a blogger, who administered a Facebook page broadcasting secular views, while Haider is a university lecturer.

HRW reports that Haider’s wife received a text message on January 6th “telling her to pick up Salman’s car. […] That was the last she heard.” Haider’s brother, Zeeshan, told Al-Jazeera that they did find the car, but “could not see any sign of Salman…we don’t know who and why anyone would kidnap my brother.” Meanwhile, the Tribune reports that hundreds of civil society members, human rights activists, and likeminded groups are demonstrating across Lahore and Karachi for the activists’ safe recovery.

The government shut down the websites of four of the activists who went missing prior to Abbas’s disappearance. This was possible because of what HRW describes as Pakistan’s “vague and overbroad” cybercrimes law, which permits the government to censor online content without judicial review. Pakistan is believed by many to have a long history of such censorship tactics. In addition, HRW and other civic groups claim to have “extensively documented the intimidation, torture, enforced disappearances, and killings of activists and journalists.” These incidents not only point fingers at the Taliban and similar extremist groups, but also at the government.

However, the Pakistani government insists that investigations into the missing activists are “moving in the right direction.” On Tuesday, January 10th, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told the Tribune that government authorities “will soon recover all the missing.” He went on to say that “abductions and illegal detentions had been rampant from 2002 to 2008. But, today the situation is different as policies are now framed in parliament.” At the same time, various Pakistani and international media outlets offer counterarguments, like the Times of India indicating that “rights groups say Pakistani activists and journalists often find themselves caught between the security establishment and militant groups including the Taliban.”

Indeed, the 2014 gunning down of Hamid Mir, Pakistan’s famous news anchor, who survived the attack, resulted in accusations against the director general of Pakistan’s inter-services intelligence agency. HRW also points out how Khurram Zaki, member of a religious minority group and human rights activist, who was publicly critical of militant groups, was killed in 2016. Like Sabeen Mahmud, another activist who was killed in 2015, Zaki demonstrated against the government’s censorship of documentaries that criticized violence against religious minorities. Human rights activist and lawyer Rashid Rehman was assassinated in May 2014 “in an apparent reprisal for his willingness to represent people charged under Pakistan’s blasphemy law.”

Human Rights Watch continues its questioning of the Pakistani government’s role in the assassinations. The suspicions underscore “the unacceptably dangerous climate that human rights defenders face across Pakistan.” Referring to the most recent near simultaneous disappearances, HRW argues:

Pakistan’s government has ceded significant constitutional and decision-making authority to the armed forces. The military—which has muzzled the media and critical voices—assumed control of implementing a national plan to address terrorism, largely without civilian oversight. Enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and torture take place with impunity. Violent attacks…are frequent. Sectarian violence and the government’s confrontation with militant groups continue to feed instability. The government ended an unofficial ban on the death penalty, executing more than 300 in 2015.

The News International reports that the U.S. State Department has expressed that it is “very concerned.” Despite Secretary of State Kerry’s assurances that Pakistan is “among the countries in which the U.S. has state-of-the-art security operations centers,” the U.S. will continue to monitor the situation regarding the suspected disappearances of the activists.—Noreen Ohlrich