Three of the five bloggers detained in January by Pakistan’s security agencies for writing against religious extremism and security operations in Balochistan and the tribal areas have left the country because of threats to their lives.
Waqas Goraya, Ahmed Raza Naseer and Asim Saeed are believed to have left the country in the past week after receiving threats following allegations of blasphemy against them.
Salman Haider, the most prominent of the detained bloggers, is in hiding in Pakistan as he is banned from travelling abroad while an investigation is underway against him. The whereabouts of the fifth blogger, Samar Abbas, remain a mystery.
The families of the rights activists who “disappeared” during January 4-7 held a news conference in Islamabad last month and said online smear campaigns were being conducted against their loved ones. These campaigns labelled the activists as blasphemers, an offence punishable by death in Pakistan.
The campaign was spearheaded by TV personality Aamir Liaquat Husain, who made the allegations on his show on BOL channel, which is seen to be closely linked to the Pakistan Army, particularly the ISI.
This week, the Supreme Court banned Husain’s programme but observers said the damage had already been done.
“The lesson learnt here is that whoever is critical of the army can end up being accused of blasphemy, after which their lives are in immediate danger,” said analyst Abid Husayn. In Pakistan, merely being accused of blasphemy is enough for someone to be murdered, he added.
“In most instances, the accused are killed by some enraged member of the public even before the case is heard in court.”
In February, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) received a complaint against the five rights activists for allegedly committing blasphemy on social media. The FIA later clarified it had not registered a case and was evaluating the complaint.
Hafiz Ahtasham Ahmed filed the complaint seeking action against the activists for allegedly spreading blasphemous content, which is illegal under the controversial blasphemy laws and the Anti-Terrorism Act.
Haider had been working on minority rights, particularly in Balochistan, where he has been critical of enforced disappearances. He participated in rallies and protests against the detention of nationalists and separatists. In 2016, there were more than 400 abductions and enforced disappearances of Baloch civilians by security forces.
Goraya and Saeed were co-administrators of a Facebook page, Mochi and Group: Citizens for Secular Democracy, where they campaigned for rights and religious freedom. Their blog featured reports of rights violations by security forces and religious extremists. The Facebook page is no longer accessible.
Naseer was the administrator of another Facebook page, since shut down, that also reported on rights violations by security forces.
Abbas is president of the Civil Progressive Alliance Pakistan (CPAP), a rights group based in Karachi that campaigns for religious freedom. Its blog reports on rights violations by security forces and extremists and Abbas also worked with several internet forums that report on the oppression of ethnic and religious minorities.
Observers describe the smear campaign against the activists as part of a trend of conservative groups lobbying the government to register more such cases. One Facebook page, which has 400,000 likes, also accused the activists of receiving funding from Indian intelligence agencies but offered no proof.
In August 2016, the Pakistan government introduced a cybercrime law which activists say is being used to hamper digital freedom of expression. Under the law, the government is able to censor online content, criminalise internet user activity and access users’ data without judicial review.