By Fatima Zaidi
Days after rights activist Wahid Baloch was recovered after being missing for four months, the Karachi Press Club witnessed a demonstration for the second consecutive day on Tuesday to demand recovery of four progressive activists who went missing earlier this week from Lahore and Islamabad.
Concerns with respect to the disturbing trend of the disappearances were voiced by several human rights activists and organisations.
Organised by the Awami Workers’ Party (AWP), the protest was attended by activists of various political and social organisations.
With unconfirmed reports of more than four activists gone missing from different cities of Punjab, the protest specifically demanded immediate recovery of Salman Haider – a prominent progressive activist, also a poet and a writer – Ahmed Waqas Goraya, Aasim Saeed and Ahmed Raza Naseer.
While Goraya and Saeed were said to have gone missing on January 4 from Lahore, Haider disappeared two days later from Islamabad, whereas Naseer was picked up from his family’s shop in Sheikhupura on January 6.
The demonstrators demanded to know why and where were the social media activists being kept and who was behind the disappearances.
They called for immediate recovery of the four men and urged the state to stop muzzling voices through such inhumane tactics.
The protest was a part of the AWP’s call for action in other cities, including Peshawar, Islamabad and Lahore, simultaneously.
Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s (HRCP) Sindh President Asad Iqbal Butt observed that the disappearances were a cause for great concern. “It seems as if this state is gradually losing all semblance of mental stability.”
Picking up those not involved in militancy is just plain absurd, he said, adding that activists were merely practising their right of freedom of speech – a right to ensure which the state had signed several international conventions.
He urged the authorities to let people express their opinions regardless of how different they were from their narrative. “If the state won’t let people talk, the situation would only worsen. And the difference in opinions, debates and levels of tolerance has always been considered the beauty of a country, and not vice versa.”
If they had actually done something wrong, then the charges should be made public and the activists produced in court within 24 hours; the rule of law would then take its own course, he added.
An activist associated with the Awami Jamhoori Mahaz (AJM), Khurram Ali, said it seemed Pakistan was transforming into a military state where the space for dialogue was fast shrinking. “It was Sindh, Balochistan and KP first, and now Punjab. Every time concerns are raised over missing persons, the authorities sanction laws such as the 90-day detention. If passing these laws has failed to make this state feel secure, I don’t know what else will.”
Ali opined that such tactics would only push people towards a revolt. “It baffles one to know that it is incredibly easy for banned organisations to protest, while those with differing opinions are whisked away…. This is a country whose ruling elite itself makes a mockery of its laws day in and day out!”
Voicing similar concerns, another leftist political activist from Islamabad observed: “These recent events have had a chilling effect on political activism in the country. Whereas before political workers had to be concerned about their activities on ground, now they have to first think about the security of their lives before even posting a tweet or Facebook update on a political issue.”
He added: “Activists face threats from the state on the one hand and religious extremists on the other. While those of us in central urban areas feel relatively safer about speaking on issues that those in the peripheries couldn’t – such as the conflict in Balochistan – the space to air these views is now fast constricting for us also.”
A journalist with a prominent social media following, Bilal Farooqi, opined that the disappearance of the bloggers appeared to be the start of something really terrible.
He observed: “The message being given through these abductions is that anyone who raises their voice against the growing religious extremism and enforced disappearance of people in Balochistan and Sindh and criticises the state’s policies will be dealt with in a manner that others will fear following their examples…. But the presence of all these people [recording their protest at the press club] here today proves that such tactics have neither been able to suppress sane voices in the past nor will they do so now.”