ISLAMABAD: The plight of missing academic Salman Haider and three other missing activists was highlighted on the floor of the Senate on Tuesday when Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan briefed the house on the measures being taken to recover the four abducted men.
“This government is not in the business of disappearing people and we will not tolerate such disappearances while we are in power,” the minister told the Senate on Tuesday.
“The trend of people going ‘missing’ was witnessed between 2002 and 2008. If it was not the government’s policy, the government would definitely look the other way,” he said.
“I apologise to my colleagues who were a part of that setup,” he said, in a thinly veiled reference to the Gen Pervez Musharraf regime, adding that at the time, government policy was made elsewhere.
“Now, it is made in these halls,” he said, referring to Parliament House.
The minister told the house that of the four missing men, one individual was abducted from Islamabad and three from Lahore. He said that it was unfortunate that the Safe City CCTV network was limited to Islamabad, which had made it difficult to continue the search for Salman Haider’s abductors after they drove towards Rawalpindi, via Airport Road.
“I am in touch with senior intelligence officials. We have been working overtime for the last 48 hours to unmask the elements behind this incident and we want that Professor Salman Haider should be safely reunited with his family. The government will pursue those behind this heinous crime; the first objective is to secure his safe release.”
He said the investigation was proceeding in the right direction and would be taken to its logical conclusion.
Talking about the abductions from Lahore, he said that there was no obvious link between the three incidents. “One occurred on the 4th and the other abduction occurred on the 6th,” he said, adding that although a total of three men were missing, two of them had been abducted together.
The strange aspect of one these abductions, he said, was that following the kidnapping, the person who was taken sent a message to his family, saying that some friends of his would come to collect his laptop.
“Then, two men in plainclothes wearing caps – possibly accompanied by a driver – came to the door and the family, without verifying their identity, handed over the laptop to them.”
“The Punjab government is also pursuing these cases on a priority basis. We assure this house that we will take the investigation to its logical conclusion. However, our first priority will be ensuring the safe return of these abductees,” he concluded.
Meanwhile on Tuesday, a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) was constituted to probe Salman Haider’s disappearance. The team, which will be headed by SP Mohammad Ilyas, includes SP Rural Mustafa Tanveer and a deputy superintendent of police.
An official told Dawn the JIT was examining the footage from the Safe City Project’s cameras. So far, investigators have found that an SUV was chasing Mr Haider’s vehicle.
The victim’s call data records have also been sought. “So far, we have no leads, but there are some clues on which police is working,” the officer added.
Civil society protest
Also on Tuesday, a large number of people from all walks of life gathered in front of the National Press Club and protested the disappearance of the Mr Haider and three other men who have gone missing from Punjab.
Addressing the gathering, PPP Senator Farhatullah Babar said that the in past, people used to be “disappeared” from Balochistan and Fata, but now people were being kidnapped from Islamabad, which is a warning for all civil society activists and politicians that they should be vigilant.
He said the Senate chairman has taken notice of the incident and the Human Rights Committee of the upper house has called a meeting on Jan 16 to discuss the issue.
Awami National Party (ANP) leader Afrasiab Khattak said that the struggle for the recovery of all missing persons would continue as long as the problem was not solved.
“Now, the time has come for efforts to stop these kidnappings. If there are allegations against someone, they should be prosecuted,” he said.
PPP Senator Taj Haider said that the protest should not be limited to the recovery of Salman Haider and other missing activists and bloggers, adding that efforts should be made to stem the practice of disappearing people.
He said that strict action should be taken against groups that are involved in kidnapping, be they state or non-state actors.
“Given the billions of rupees spent on security cameras and other security apparatus, it should not be difficult to trace the whereabouts of the disappeared people,” said educationist Pervez Hoodbhoy. He stressed that if the activists had been kidnapped by anti-social elements, then the state’s failure to recover them was glaring.
Activist Farzana Bari said it was unfortunate that the establishment never took action against those who spoke in favour of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but measures were to stop those who speak for the rights of people.
“Do we want to live in a society where people have to fear for their lives every time they write a tweet or a Facebook post?” she asked, rhetorically.
Tuesday saw a continued outpouring of sympathy and indignation over the disappearance of the four from the international community. In separate statements, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International both condemned the abductions and called on the government to immediately ensure their recovery.
“Since the beginning of January activists Salman Haider, Waqas Goraya, Asim Saeed, and Ahmed Raza Naseer have gone missing… [they] are known for their social media activism and for expressing their views on human rights issues and state policies. An investigation into one of the cases has been ordered by the Ministry of Interior, but the fate or whereabouts of the activists has so far not been disclosed,” the Amnesty statement said.
“The Pakistani government has an immediate obligation to locate the four missing human rights activists and act to ensure their safety,” said HRW Asia Director Brad Adams. “The nature of these apparent abductions puts the Nawaz Sharif government on notice that it can either be part of the solution or it will be held responsible for its role in the problem.”