Islamabad: The voices against the alleged forced disappearances of at least five of the social media activists in Pakistan, untraceable for the past three weeks, added to the worries of their relatives and liberal voices of the country after religious extremists’ threatened to lodge ‘blasphemy’ case against these activists amid “death threats”.

At least five social media activists from a diverse religious and social background were separately reported as ‘missing’ by their families in first week of the New Year from country’s capital city Islamabad and its cultural capital Lahore, according to police reports. Despite their dissimilar backgrounds these activists were regarded for their liberal views and bold social media posts criticizing extreme approaches in religion, military, state and government.

Islamabad based Salman Haider –a minority (Shia) Muslim, a rebel poet, writer, activist, teacher and Urdu section editor of an online magazine “Tanqeed” criticizing military’s political role– went missing on January 4.

A Karachi-based activist and a small businessman Samar Abbas – running a progressive alliance of youth – from the same minority sect was reported (to police) as “missing” on January 7 during his visit to Islamabad, according to his brother.

Waqas Goraya, a Holland-based student with progressive views, came on his sister’s marriage ceremony to Lahore and was abducted along with his cousin – Abd-ur-Rehman Cheema – his father Liaqat Goraya told police.

Aasim Saeed, with a degree in computer sciences from a reputed private university in Lahore and working in an information technology company in Singapore for the past eight years – also came to Lahore to his family to attend marriage ceremony of his younger brother was picked by some men after they rang the doorbell of home, his father Ghulam Haider said.

Another person Ahmad Naseer was picked from a town Nankana Sahib in Punjab province by some people in double cabin vehicles with tinted glasses, his brother Tahir Naseer said.

No private person or organization has claimed responsibility of these abductions till date. Moreover, Pakistani authorities have also not shared anything with media regarding any progress in the investigations.

“The most worrying thing for the family is no body from government or authorities have contacted us and given detail of the investigations or shared any information,” Ghulam Haider, father of Saeed said, adding that his son had no association with any religious or political group and use to visit Pakistan only for short time.

“My brother is hemophilic and has severe allergy issue and if he is not given medicine his skin starts tearing. We are worried about his health and survival,” Salman’s younger brother Faraz Haider said.

The issue of missing persons in Pakistan came in the spotlight several years ago with the abduction of persons linked to terrorism by security agencies; nationalist activists from province of Balochistan, an area in serious conflict with a dominant military; human rights activists and anti-terror voices in Pakistan by militant groups and the people criticizing military’s political role.

Rights groups allege that the latest abductions are linked to intelligence agencies because they want to silence voices criticizing the follies of the system and setting example for those expressing their independent views against state and military’s policies on social media.

On the other side, exposing the ideological divide and presence of religious extremists in a country like Pakistan where such groups are also alleged of having murky relationship with military for certain perks, some extremist religious groups moved an application to the police in Islamabad to lodge a blasphemy case against these activists for their alleged ‘derogatory’ remarks on social media and hand them a death sentence.

However, the country’s Interior Minister has urged such groups to not propagate untrue things putting the lives of these missing persons in further danger. Police, last week, also stopped one of these groups to hold a press conference against these “missing” persons. They arrested one of the conference organizers belonging to a very radical mosque in the capital city. However, he was released after a brief detention, police said.

The families of the “missing” activists have denounced the blasphemy allegations calling them a “malicious” campaign with deadly consequences against these (missing) persons. The social media has gained popularity as an informal venue for raising public voices. However, lack of gatekeeping of facts has led to a spread of disinformation in its pages sometimes leading to defamation. This is a key reason why social media has been used as a tool for social, religious, political and national propaganda. Current governments have tried to find a cure for this by curtailing the social media freedom and erecting laws. But how much control is good and who profits in the end are important to consider.

“The rise of social media and online journalism like blogs expanded the space for dissent and people can say what they cannot say publicly or on formal media. And in the latest cases these missing activists are said to be running similar satirical pages,” Raza Rumi, writer and academician viewed, adding, “Pakistan has also recently passed controversial cybercrimes law curtailing digital freedoms by giving government more power to control and block information of its choice through variety of offences.” Rumi urged the state to take strict action against people wrongly acusing these activists and recover these abducted persons at the earliest. He also reminded Pakistan of its obligations under the United Nations Convention against Torture and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to put an end to enforced disappearances beyond lip service.

Last week, human rights activists held second protest in Islamabad urging the state to tell or trace the whereabouts of these abducted activists and called for not attacking social media space.

In 2012, Pakistan’s Senate passed a unanimous resolution condemning the practice of enforced disappearances, mostly reported from province of Balochistan. The Senate also expressed that such forced disappearances were in violation of Articles 9 and 10 of the Constitution of Pakistan, which guarantee security and safeguard regarding arrest and detention. Further, in 2015, a special “Committee of the Whole House”, also consensually suggested legal and constitutional remedies to address issue of ‘missing persons”.

“As many as 104 senators approved these suggestions to address the issue of forced disappearances and missing persons but till date the government has not responded to these points,” Senator Farhatullah Babar, member of Senate’s Standing Committee on Human rights said, adding, “These suggestions included to bring such measures of picking people by intelligence agencies under the law; sign United Nations Convention on forced disappearances to recover such abducted persons; inform and compensate the families of the victims.”

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