As protests break out over the disappearances of activists in Pakistan, it is evident that the state and the police are siding with religious outfits seeking to curtail freedom.
Karachi: Pakistan is notorious for cases of disappearances – Balochis, Sindhis, Pakhtuns have been abducted in the past and now, people from Punjab are being abducted.
More than 1,000 Baloch activists and political workers are believed to have been abducted since former president Prevez Musharraf’s era and his policy of enforced disappearances is being continued. Sindhis and Pakhtuns are being abducted from Punjab and many missing people have been found dead in their cities.
Human rights organisations have voiced concern about the missing people, including for writer, Wahid Baloch, who was reunited his family recently after he was detained in July 2016.
Salman Haider, a lecturer at Fatima Jinnah University, was abducted on January 6, 2017. Four bloggers also went missing around the same time. Waqas Goraya and Asim Saeed went missing on January 4 while Ahmed Raza Naseer disappeared on January 7.
These activists were authoritative voices on state policy and were concerned about human rights issues. Their criticism, however, was their downfall, since they are believed to have been abducted by the state.
In the past, Religious groups accused the missing activists of blasphemy. As a result, their families are concerned about their safety.
Protest held in Karachi
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, civil society members, the National Trade Union Federation and political activists held protests in Karachi to raise their voices and demand that the government take active measures to recover the missing people.
The protestors had planned to march from the Art Council to the Karachi Press Club. However, the police forced them to stay at the Art Council because the religious group Tehreek labaik Ya Rasool had already occupied the area near the press club to demonstrate their power.
The police held the protestors in the area between the Art Council and the press club, which is a four-five minute distance. There was a prolonged debate between the police and the activists, who wanted to move further but were being restricted. The activists raised slogans about state policies, while the religious group was sloganeering against the abducted people.
The police were forcibly stopping activists but did not obstruct the religious group at the press club. As a result, some religious men walked to the Art Council to respond to the protesters. The first group of people who came abused them and then other people joined them to abuse and physically assault the protestors.
Moreover, the police misbehaved with the protestors while obstructing them and tried to deter them so that they wouldn’t go to the press club.
Naghma Shaikh, a political activist who led the rally and chanted slogans about the role of the state, said that they couldn’t believe how religious parties decided overnight to hold a counter-protest when they had planned their protest five days prior. Furthermore, Shaikh added, that it showed that there were many people who did not want voices raised in support of the missing people.
“The missing persons issue is not religious – it is a matter of human rights. Whatever happened at the rally between the religious group and us, some people wanted to make it secular vs religious group, but indeed it is not a religious issue. Religion gives us freedom of expression, so why did the religious group stop us? Some people do not want to see voices raised for missing people but we will not remain silent. We will raise our voices for missing people across Pakistan,” said Raiz Ahmed, an activist from Karachi.
Asad Iqbal Butt of the Pakistan human rights commission expressed concern over the actions of the religious group. “We understand who has given them free hand to attack us,” he said, “When we were assured that the religious group would remain at Karachi Press Club, we activists stayed at the Art Council – so how did people freely walk from the press club to the Art Council and attack us? It means, the religious mindset does not want to see voices raised for human rights in society.”
“We will never compromise the freedom of expression,” said Sheema Karmani, classical dancer and activist.
Veengas is Karachi-based journalist.