The disappearances of four prominent online human rights activists in Pakistan has stoked fears over the treatment of liberal secularists in the country.
Poet and academic Salman Haider and progressive bloggers Waqas Goraya, Aasim Saeed and Ahmed Raza Naseer all went missing between January 4 and 7, according to their families and human rights activists, triggering concerns about government involvement.
“All four men were vocal critics of militant religious groups and Pakistan’s military establishment, and used the internet to disseminate their view,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said on Tuesday. “Their near simultaneous disappearance and the government’s shutting down of their websites and blogs raises grave concerns of government involvement.”
Officials at Pakistan’s interior ministry, however, denied that the police or intelligence services were holding the men, adding that they had stepped up efforts to locate them.
Eight years after Pakistan returned to full democratic rule, the country remains riven by tensions between Islamic hardliners and liberals, a struggle many say is being won by the religious faction.
“The Pakistani government is drifting away from liberal policies,” said Ghazi Salahuddin, a prominent columnist for English language newspaper The News. “The examples of this drift include continuing activities by militant organisations which are otherwise banned. The environment of fear and intimidation seems to be growing across Pakistan.”
Mr Goraya, an anthropologist who blogged on issues of religious freedom, and Mr Saeed, who ran a Facebook page where people criticised religious extremists, were reported missing from Lahore, on January 4, human rights workers say.
Mr Haider, a professor at Rawalpindi’s Fatima Jinnah Women University, went missing on the evening of January 6, soon after his wife received a text message telling her to pick up his car.
Mr Naseer, who also ran a Facebook page broadcasting secular views, was taken by unidentified men from his family’s shop in Sheikhupura in the province of Punjab the following day.
This is not the first time human rights activists have been targeted in Pakistan. In April 2015, prominent rights activist Sabeen Mahmud was gunned down by militants after hosting a discussion on disappearances in the southwestern province of Baluchistan.
In May 2014, Rashid Rehman, a lawyer, was assassinated by militants after agreeing to defend a college lecturer accused of blasphemy.
But the targeting of online writers is also reminiscent of events in Bangladesh, which has been hit by a series of slayings of secular activists in recent years, amid a wider struggle between the non-religious but increasingly authoritarian government and violent Islamists.
“Pakistan has never been a particularly safe country for rights activists. Many have been killed, injured, abducted and threatened for their work,” The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said in a statement.
“Events of the last week demonstrate that the dangers already extend to digital spaces. We cannot be sure if the four cases are connected but expect that would be worth looking in to as well.”
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