Activists and journalists facing harassment, being forcibly disappeared or killed in Pakistan

Activists and journalists facing harassment, being forcibly disappeared or killed in Pakistan
Protest against disappearences of Sarang Joyo, a writer and social activist (Twitter: @Qasum_Baluch)

Pakistan remains a dangerous place for activists and journalists. Over the last few months, a number of individuals have been victims of enforced disappearances including journalist Matiullah Jan, political activist Mohammad Amin and human rights defenders Idris Khattak and Sarang Joyo. No one has been held accountable for these crimes. Editor-in-chief of the Jang group, Shakilur Rehman and family are facing judicial harassment while anti-corruption journalist from Balochistan, Anwar Jan Kethran was killed. Academics have also been accused of blasphemy or sedition.


Journalist released after abduction by armed men

A prominent Pakistani journalist was picked up by unidentified armed men from a busy street in Islamabad on 22nd July 2020 and released 12 hours later.

About ten armed men in three vehicles grabbed journalist Matiullah Jan soon after he arrived to pick up his wife from a school in Islamabad where she teaches. Closed-circuit TV footage showed the armed men surrounding his car; witnesses said he was thrown into a vehicle in broad daylight and taken away. The video sparked an outcry on social media, with many pointing fingers at the Pakistani secret services.

Jan is known for his criticism of the country’s powerful institutions, including its military. In 2018, Jan was labelled “anti-state” by the military’s spokesperson at the time, Maj. Gen. Ghafoor. He has called the ongoing crackdown on Pakistan’s media outlets “a systematic attempt by the military and its intelligence agencies to assert control with the facade of a democratically elected government”.

In a video released online subsequently, Jan reportedly pointed fingers at Pakistan’s security agencies for his abduction. In the video he spoke about how a hood was put over his head. Jan said he was also blindfolded and handcuffed for most of the time he was in detention. Jan recalled how he was pushed and shoved when kidnapped and when he was taken to what appeared to be a cell in an abandoned police station. He said, “time and again they told me that they knew who I was and that I needed to be aware of the consequences of what I was doing”.

After spending several hours in the confined cell, he was taken to a desolate area. After a while they unlocked his handcuffs and then left him in the middle of nowhere. He said his biggest disappointment was when he appeared before the Supreme Court after being released. The court ordered a report on his “alleged” abduction instead of accepting that it had actually happened.

Journalists in Pakistan are under threat from a variety of actors, with rights groups decrying increasing government and military censorship, intimidation and harassment of journalists in recent years. Further, as previously documented, enforced disappearances have been used as a tool to muzzle dissent and criticism of military policies.

Student activist Mohammad Amin abducted for more than two weeks

According to human rights groups, 26-year-old political activist Mohammad Amin was allegedly abducted by the country’s security forces. Amin was forcibly taken from his residence in Shah Faisal Colony in Karachi on 14th July 2020. Amin is associated with the Progressive Youth Alliance and is an advocate of students’ rights.

Security forces reportedly raided Amin’s house in Karachi without any warrant and took Amin away. Amin’s sister, Sairo Bano, said in a video message that her family is being threatened and harassed for speaking up and demanded the release of her brother.

Following Amin’s abduction, the family submitted a habeas corpus petition in the High Court. According to the family, officials refused to register their complaint and provide any information about Amin’s whereabouts.

Adam Pal, leader of the Red Workers’ Front, told People’s Dispatch, “No FIR [first information report] has been registered for this case, which is quite usual now in such cases. No state institution including the courts has taken responsibility for this abduction”.

According to local sources that spoke to the CIVICUS Monitor, Amin was released on 1st August 2020. His family said he was badly beaten initially while in custody.

Authorities admit they have disappeared activist Idris Khattak in custody

On 16th June 2020, the Ministry of Defence finally admitted that human rights defender Idris Khattak was being held in state custody. As previously documented, Idris Khattak was on his way home from Islamabad on 13th November 2019 when his rented car was intercepted near the Swabi Interchange of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province by four unidentified men in plain clothes.

UN human rights experts welcomed the disclosure by the government of the whereabouts of Idris Khattak yet strongly condemned his enforced disappearance. The independent experts said:

“The enforced disappearance of Mr. Khattak, which began over seven months ago, is an intolerable attack on his legitimate work of monitoring, documenting and advocating against a range of human rights and minority violations in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan.”

According to reports, the authorities will be charging him under the 1923 Official Secrets Act (OSA). His whereabouts have not been disclosed, and he has still not been granted access to a lawyer or his family.

The Peshawar High Court on 16th July 2020, turned down a petition to produce Khattak in court and to raise questions on the legality of his arrest and detention by Pakistan Military Intelligence. Justice Ikramullah Khan, who heard the petition, stated that the court did not have any constitutional jurisdiction to make such orders.

Khattak is a human rights defender and independent researcher, who has documented human rights violations faced by people in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

Activist returns home after going missing for a week and allegedly tortured

Human rights activist Sarang Joyo went missing after leaving his residence in Akhtar Colony, Karachi, at midnight on 11th August 2020. His family believes he was picked up by security personnel.

Sarang, aged 34, is a research associate at the Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology (SZABIST), Karachi. He was leading the Sindh Sujagi Forum to highlight Sindh’s issues including enforced disappearances.

According to a statement issued by the Voice of Missing Persons of Sindh (VMPS), “Sarang Joyo was a strong voice of the Sindhi Missing Persons. We believe that by arresting and forcibly disappearing peaceful political activists like Sarang Joy, Pakistani agencies are doing their utmost to stifle the peaceful political voice of Sindh”.

On 17th August 2020 he returned to his home. His father said "unknown people had dropped" his son off at Sohrab Goth and that Sarang had then come home in a taxi. Details around his disappearance has yet to be made public but his father informed a human rights senate committee that Sarang was admitted to a hospital for treatment for physical injuries that he sustained and for the intense mental stress he was suffering from after his detention.

Authorities drops anti-terrorism charges against human rights defender

On 2nd July 2020, the authorities dismissed baseless charges of “terror-financing” under the Anti-Terrorism Act against human rights defender Muhammed Ismail. Ismail is a prominent member of Pakistani civil society and the focal person for the Pakistan NGO Forum (PNF), an umbrella body composed of five networks of civil society organisations (CSOs) in Pakistan.

However, he still faces charges under the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act for “hate speech” and “spreading false information against government institutions” and is currently on conditional bail.

The case was brought against him in connection with judicial harassment of his daughter, Gulalai Ismail, for her human rights work. Gulalai Ismail has faced persecution from authorities for her peaceful advocacy for the rights of women and girls and her efforts to end human rights violations against the ethnic Pashtun people in Pakistan. She was forced to leave the country due to concerns for her safety.


Editor and family members harassed by authorities

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW) Shakilur Rehman, 63, editor-in-chief of the Jang group, has been in pretrial custody for nearly five months. On 12th March 2020, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), an anti-corruption watchdog that has been implicated in serious abuses, arrested Rehman on charges relating to a 34-year-old property transaction.

Rehman had requested bail on the grounds that he was in ill-health and posed no flight risk, but on 8th July the Lahore High Court denied him bail. The next day the court heard an NAB petition seeking the arrest of Rehman’s wife and four children concerning the same property transaction. In 1986, at the time of the property transaction, Rehman’s children were aged eight, six, four and one.

Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch said:

“Pakistani authorities should stop using vague and overbroad anti-corruption laws against dissenting voices. Seeking the arrest of Mir Shakilur Rehman’s children for alleged acts when they were hardly more than toddlers shows how ludicrous the case against him is.”

HRW said that media outlets are under pressure from the authorities not to criticise the government. The Jang Group alleges that, over the past two years, the NAB has sent more than a dozen threatening letters to its reporters, editors and producers for reporting that has been critical of the bureau.

The National Accountability Bureau has been widely criticised for being used for political purposes. Created under an ordinance promulgated by the military dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf in 1999, the bureau was granted unchecked powers of arrest, investigation and prosecution. The bureau may detain people for up to 90 days without charge.

Anti-corruption journalist from Balochistan killed

Anwar Jan Kethran, a newspaper reporter who covered local corruption in Balochistan province in south-western Pakistan, was shot dead by two gunmen as he was returning home on 23rd July 2020 in Barkhan, a city in the northeast of the province.

His family has accused Abdur Rehman Khetran, the provincial food and population minister, of ordering his murder. They say the minister had told the reporter to “stay away from journalism” because of his coverage of corruption.

Daniel Bastard, the head of Reporters Without Borders (RSF)’s Asia-Pacific desk said:

“Everything indicates that Anwar Jan Kethran was killed because he informed the public about allegedly corrupt practices by local officials. We therefore urge Balochistan First Minister Jam Kamal Khan to conduct an independent investigation into this murder so that both perpetrators and instigators can be quickly brought to justice.”

The family filed a complaint accusing Khetran’s bodyguards of carrying out the attack. On 27th July the police registered a case against Abdul Rehman Khan Khetran and his two guards over the murder.

Pakistan is one of the worst countries in the world for journalists, ranking 145th out of 180 countries and territories in the RSF 2020 World Press Freedom Index. According to the Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE), at least seven journalists were reported killed in Pakistan in 2019.

Authorities behind cyber-harassment of women journalists

On 12th August 2020, a group of Pakistani women journalists issued a statement denouncing a cyber-harassment campaign against them by government officials and supporters. Issued by 20 women journalists and now carrying around 50 signatures, the statement condemned a “well-defined and coordinated campaign” of social media attacks on women journalists and commentators whose views and reporting have been critical of the government and “more specifically its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.”

Shehar Bano, the editor of The News International newspaper and vice-president of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists said those involved in the harassment are not ordinary people but have political support. Asma Shirazi, a political journalist with Aaj News TV and recipient of the Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism in 2014, said, “As soon as you tweet something, the trolls begin trying to silence you”. Gender-based harassment, rape threats and abusive language are among the serious threats that women journalists face in Pakistan.

Geo News TV reporter Benazir Shah said the social media harassment usually follows a very specific pattern. “First government officials target you, calling your tweet ‘fake news’ or accusing you of being an ‘enemy of the people’ Then, after the official harassment, you are bombarded with abusive language by other people displaying the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party flag or Prime Minister Imran Khan’s photo on their Twitter accounts”.

Academic freedom at risk

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan expressed alarm In June 2020 at what it considered recurring attacks on academic freedom of expression through use of the country’s controversial blasphemy or sedition laws that could carry a death sentence.

The statement followed the arrest of a professor, Sajid Soomro, from Shah Abdul Latif University in Sindh province on 10th June 2020 on charges of blasphemy and sedition. The professor is known to Pakistani authorities for his dissenting views and criticisms of the country's most powerful clerics.

When another professor, Dr Arfana Mallah, who is also a human rights activist, raised her voice in solidarity, she was immediately subjected to a vicious smear campaign led by clerics with political associations, calling for her to be charged with blasphemy. Dr Mallah added that followers of a religio-political party, Jamiat e Ulema e Islam Fazal (JUI-F), took aim at her on social media and local representatives of the party tried to file a police report against her.

Under pressure from radical religious groups and the police, Dr Mallah subsequently issued a written apology, explaining that her social media posts meant no disrespect to Islam or the Prophet.

An accusation of blasphemy in Pakistan is considered tantamount to a death sentence. People in the past have been killed by mobs, shot by their own guards or sentenced to death by the courts. Prime Minister Imran Khan has voiced his support for the blasphemy law.