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The Dangerous Five
  • The activist Salman Haider
    The activist Salman Haider
The year 2017 started with a crackdown on secular dissenting voices on Pakistan’s cyber space. Five of the on-line activists have gone missing so far. While one can’t say with certainty about who has abducted them, the prima facie information suggests the ‘operation’ might be a part of the phenomenon of ‘enforced disappearances’ – a euphemism used for the illegal detention by the state’s security agencies.
At least in two of these recent cases, the abductees were picked up from the neighborhoods they lived in. A group of uniformed and non-uniformed people visited them, told them to answer few questions, took them aside for talking and then put them in the vehicles and sped away. At least in two cases, the vehicles used were with Govt number plates. In all the cases, the cell phones of the abductees remained working for quite some time before being switched off. In case of Salman Haider, the missing activist who teaches at Fatima Jinnah University Islamabad, the cell phone was used to communicate with his wife after he was picked up. No extremist, terrorist or sectarian group has so far claimed the responsibility of these disappearances.
None of these activists, save Salman Haider, was personally known to me. The pages being attributed to them, however, used to appear on my timeline by way of ‘Share’ or ‘Retweet” buttons of Facebook and Twitter. Some of the memes and quotes by these pages, used to be shared on various WhatsApp groups. So, one was familiar with the content of these pages, but there exists no evidence that these pages were indeed managed by the five missing activists.
What is so wrong about these pages? Mainly one thing, that runs common to all of them: they were against the policies of the military establishment and the politics of the right wing political parties. All of them used to aggressively post against the narrative propagated by the militant groups especially those considered to be favorites of the state of Pakistan.
Whom did these pages annoy? We can have a look on some recent posts by these pages. The header of a page ‘Mochi’ says: I respect Pakistan Army, just the way it respects Pakistan’s constitution and law. On January 1, it posted a video taken from the TV coverage of the recent MQM rally in which people were heard raising pro-Altaf Hussain slogans. The page gave the caption (in Urdu): It is difficult rather impossible to put off this candle on gunpoint. Altaf Hussain is the new target of military establishment after his explosive speech on August 22, 2016. He raised anti-Pakistan slogans during that speech. On the same day, this page posted an Urdu poem welcoming the New Year. The poem called for bringing substantive change in the days instead of the change in dates, changing people’s conditions rather than celebrating just the change of number from 2016 to 2017. A day earlier, the page had posted on December 31, 2016: ‘Good-bye 2016 & Happy New Year. May this New Year bring all the comforts for every Pakistani and civilian supremacy in Pakistan. Amen’.
The post on other allegedly problematic pages, i.e., Bhensa etc. have disappeared after a tweet from this account whereby some group called Pakistan Cyber Force had ‘taken over the page’ and that the account was ‘now set for patriotic posts’. The tweet stayed for a while. All the tweets since then have been deleted.
In addition to some prominent ‘defence analysts’ who kept defending the disappearance of these activists and trivializing such disappearances in the name of national interest, the above-mentioned accounts kept claiming that the ‘action’ was taken by state agencies. For example, Mr. Zaid Hamid tweeted on Jan 11, “These people have openly declared war against Pak & Pak army. Why complain then when FIA or ISI tracks you down?? This rat is in Kuwait...”. The tweet can be seen here:
On another account with the name ‘Bhensa Slayer’, this tweet appeared on January 9: “The state doesn't pick you up unless you are engaged in activities which are contrary to the states interests.”
After declaring attributing this action to the state, he claimed to have busted the anonymity of the Bhensa account. See following tweet: “I blew the cover of Bhensa and I'll be proud of it till my dying day. If you liberals are so good, why do you lose so God damn always?”
He went on and tweeted on January 12: “These red rats would keep getting a lesson until I’m alive”. and asked for support in his tweet same day: “If you want to support me, keep an eye on the politicians backing them and send me useful data”.
Repeatedly declaring the pages allegedly belonging to the missing activists, as blasphemous, he started targeting everyone who was protesting these enforced disappearances. The tweet on January 12, for example: “Public Information | PPP politician @ShahNafisa (Nafisa Shah) is actively supporting of the infamous Islamophobic cyber gang named Bhensa. RT”.
Quoting a tweet of mine wherein I was condemning the propaganda against the missing activists, he said before blocking me: “This bitch [SIC"> is one of the prime defenders of the Bhensa corporation. They are all networked.” Thereby invoking public rage against the protesters especially the politicians, and putting their lives in danger. Objective? To silence all the voices that were demanding the least a state can ensure: sticking to the laws and constitution.
Intriguingly, this account had tweeted on January 1 (when no blogger was yet reported to have been picked up): “I hereby declare a honory [SIC"> royal medal for the valiant kingsmen [SIC"> of the FIA for picking up a few treacherous bloggers who insulted the King.”
Not surprisingly, the pages like ‘Pakistan Elite Cyber Force’, ‘DefencePk’, a number of twitter and Facebook accounts with dubious names (Bhensa Slayer etc), and people like Mr. Zaid Zaman Hamid (the one who was accused few years ago by one of his former employees to be on the payroll of ISI) had started rebutting publicly everyone who protested the missings, and attacking the missing activists with all kinds of accusations including being Islamophobes, blasphemous and working against the interest of the country at the behest of foreign powers.
Mr. Hamid, for the record, is the same person who himself was accused of blasphemy decades ago for declaring himself a ‘Khalifa’ of a self pronounced ‘Prophet’. He was, after serving in jail for some time, released and since then leading busy on-line life with TV appearances and talks specially arranged for security forces personnel. In 2015, the former Chief of Army Staff, General Raheel Sharif was reported to have prohibited his contact with any institution or officer of Pakistan Army. Mr. Hamid led this time in almost seclusion, especially after his brief detention by the Saudi establishment on the reported charges of being an Iranian spy. Immediately after the retirement of Gen Sharif, Mr. Hamid has surfaced on alternate media, aggressively defending the defence institutions once again.
Going by the positions taken by the defence analysts on TV, if the state agencies are not responsible for these disappearances, how about busting the anonymity of all these dubious accounts and arresting their administrators for making false accusations against the security agencies? Or better yet, against these accusers who are putting many lives in danger by accusing them of blasphemy and Islamophobia? Guess the state agencies are not much moved when its proxies on alternate media attack the dissenters.
Enforced missings are rapidly becoming a new normal in Pakistan, especially since 2002. The phenomenon was seen excessively used by the state agencies in curbing ‘separatist’ movement in Balochistan as well as in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. But this unannounced crack down on the dissenting voices on alternate media is a new phenomenon with ‘irritants’ getting disappeared in Punjab and Islamabad. First case of enforced disappearance from Punjab – that too of a woman – came up when a journalist Zeenat Shehzadi was picked up from Lahore. Zeenat was very actively reporting on the case of Hamid Ansari, the young Indian citizen who is currently in the custody of security institutions facing a trial in military court. She went missing in August 2015. In early 2016, her brother committed suicide for not being able to cope with the stress of his missing sister.
In September 2016, while speaking at the Interactive Dialogue with the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances during 33rd Regular Session of the UN Human Rights Council, Mr. Matt Pollard, the Senior Legal Advisor of International Commission of Jurists had stated, “The Government has not brought perpetrators to account in even a single case of enforced disappearance. Rather than effective measures to prevent the practice or to strengthen existing accountability mechanisms, recent legislation actually facilitates enforced disappearances”.
Among the various observations of UN’s Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances after its country visit of 2012, an important recommendation was to, “ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and to recognize the competence of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances to consider individual and inter-State complaints, pursuant to articles 31 and 32 of the Convention”.
The response of the Government of Pakistan on this observation was: “Pakistan is party to seven core human rights treaties. The Government is focused on implementation of its obligations, which arise from these treaties, which it has ratified during the last decade. The Government of Pakistan remains committed to addressing the issue of enforced disappearances as an obligation to its people. The decision to ratify the Convention on Enforced Disappearances remains under consideration”.
The matter remains ‘under consideration despite Government’s promises since 2008. In its September 2016 Follow-up Report, the Working Group goes on: “Pakistan has failed to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance despite its commitments to do so since 2008, nor have any steps been taken in this direction. No steps have been taken to allow individual and inter-state complaints to be heard by the Committee either. There is no law in Pakistan that makes enforced disappearance criminal under national law.”
Now, if the state of Pakistan is not involved in these illegal, unconstitutional disappearances, why it is resisting the criminalization of enforced disappearances? Why the Convention on Enforced Disappearances is not being ratified? Perhaps the parliament of Pakistan needs to take cognizance of the matter and treat it urgently.
Moreover, if five bloggers can shake the ‘national interest’ and pull down the security of the entire country – which is defended by world’s ‘number one intelligence agency’ – our state perhaps need to invest some effort to bringing the budget-eating institutions entrusted with country’s defence, to account.
Marvi Sirmed is an Islamabad based analyst and writes on counter-terrorism related issues.