Five missing people

A short profile of the disappeared social media activists in Pakistan

By Waqar Gillani / The News on Sunday

A few weeks ago, Ahmad Waqass Goraya, temporarily settled in Holland, came to Lahore, Pakistan to attend marriage ceremony of his sister. After the ceremony he decided to stay with his mother for some more days. In the afternoon of January 4, Goraya and his cousin Abdur Rehman Cheema went to Wapda Town, Lahore, to find a house on rent for his family. They did not return home.

“We waited for them the whole day. Their phones weren’t responding. We thought the phone batteries may have died and they would soon return. By midnight, their phones were still off and so we got worried. Next morning we approached the police to lodge a case,” Liaqat Goraya, father of Waqass tells TNS.

By the second week of January, the number of disappeared social media activists promoting socialist and progressive views, has gone up to five. Two of them, Salman Haider and Samar Abbas, are from Islamabad while the other three — Goraya along with his cousin, Asim Saeed and Ahmad Raza Naseer — are from Punjab.

There is one thing common in all these missing activists. They are all social media activists, promoting progressive views and criticising Islamic extremists and the country’s establishment.

In civil society circles, such disappearances are being linked to country’s intelligence agencies. According to eye witnesses and close circuit camera footage, in two of the above abductions, double cabin vehicles with tinted glasses are said to have approached these persons and taken them away. In the case of Naseer, according to one of his relatives, the double cabin vehicles had blue (official) lights. This indicates the involvement of some official intelligence or law enforcement agency.

Salman Haider who went missing on Jan 7 is an Islamabad-based activist, poet, writer and teacher. He is also editor of the Urdu section of an online magazine, Tanqeed, known for carrying articles critical of the military operation against nationalist groups and protesting the enforced disappearances in Balochistan. His Facebook page is loaded with solidarity messages by his friends after the news of his disappearance; he is certainly the most prominent face in the movement being built against these disappearances.

Goraya was part of the web-based Rationalist Society of Pakistan for some years. He started his activism in college days. Karachi-based Samar who went missing from Islamabad last week is running Civil Progressive Alliance Pakistan (CPAP). Asim and Ahmad are also known for their social media activism. However, a relative of Naseer claims he had education till intermediate and was only a small shopkeeper.

The Facebook pages being attributed to these activists are Bhensa and Mochi. The cover photo of Mochi says, “We respect Armed Forces of Pakistan as much as they respect the Constitution of Pakistan.” Another post questions why army generals become property dealers after retirement. There is also criticism on the slow pace of military operations against terrorists.

The cover photo of Goraya’s Facebook page says “Stop cyber martial law — prevent dictatorship, promote democracy.” He came to Pakistan in November with his two-year-old son Arastoo (Urdu language pronunciation of Aristotle, Greek philosopher). “Goraya is not part of any group or organisation. He was doing his activism independently to make this society progressive and worked for rights. He never promoted hatred or extreme view,” his wife Mescha Saeed tells TNS on phone, denying that he was sponsored by anyone. “We went to Netherlands for higher studies in 2007. I have not heard from any government or police official about the abduction or progress in tracing Goraya and his cousin.”

“The state needs to change its mindset and recover these persons as soon as possible. Till now, we don’t know who did this but the style of these abductions shows involvement of the state. And if it is done by some other groups the state must take action,” says AH Nayyar, an academic who was part of the protest outside the Islamabad Press Club.

Afrasiab Khattak, former senator and ex-chairperson Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, says, “The abductions appear to be [part of]  sequence. After the reduced space on television and print media, now there is an attack on social media because there were more opposing views against the state on social media.” He adds the state needs to understand that clash of ideas always create new ideas.

“Forced disappearances have become a global phenomenon. States are trying to control freedoms. They should realise that public interest is larger than the state because the state is meant to serve the public,” says Asim Sajjad Akhtar, a prominent leftist political worker.