Pakistani blogger Ahmad Waqass Goraya fled his homeland after he was threatened, kidnapped, and tortured by authorities.
But even in Europe, where he has lived in self-imposed exile for over a decade, Goraya fears for his life.
In February, he was physically assaulted by two men outside his home in the Dutch city of Rotterdam, where he lives with his family. Since then, he has received online death threats.
“I always feel in danger of being attacked or becoming the victim of a sinister campaign,” Goraya told RFE/RL by phone from the Netherlands. “You always feel that someone is waiting for you on the corner of a street.”
The liberal blogger is not alone.
In Europe, there has been a recent spate of attacks and harassment of Pakistani journalists, bloggers, and activists known for openly criticizing authorities back home.
Many have blamed the powerful Pakistani Army and its notorious intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), accusing those institutions of attempting to crush dissent. The military has an oversized role in the domestic and foreign affairs of the South Asian country of around 220 million.
Criticism of the army has long been seen as a red line for the media, with journalists and bloggers inside Pakistan complaining of intimidation tactics including kidnappings, beatings, and even killings if they cross that line.
Pakistan’s unprecedented crackdown on the press has forced prominent reporters to seek refuge abroad. But even in self-imposed exile, many face retribution.
The latest case is exiled Pakistani journalist Sajid Hussain, who has been missing in Sweden since March 2. The disappearance of the reporter, who ran an online newspaper in exile, has been linked by a free-media watchdog to his reporting on human rights abuses committed by the Pakistani military.
Hussain, 39, fled into exile in 2012 after reporting on human rights abuses in the southwestern province of Balochistan, which has been plagued by sectarian violence, Islamist militant attacks, and a separatist insurgency that has led to thousands of casualties since 2004.
He fled Pakistan after police searched his residence, taking his computer and questioning family members, and intelligence agents visited his associates. Hussain first moved to the United Arab Emirates and then to Oman and Uganda before settling in Sweden.
He had continued to run an online newspaper, the Balochistan Times, from abroad. He covered alleged abuses in Balochistan by the Pakistani Army, including enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings of political activists and suspected separatists, arbitrary arrests, and torture.
Hussain’s family has called on Swedish authorities to investigate the case and find Hussain, who went missing in the Swedish city of Uppsala.
Wajid Baloch, Hussain’s brother, who lives in Pakistan, told RFE/RL that it was “too early for us to point fingers at anyone right now” because “we don’t have any evidence.”
“This is up to the Swedish authorities to find out who kidnapped Sajid,” Baloch said, adding that his brother had received death threats while working in Pakistan.
Hussain is from a prominent political family in Balochistan.
His uncle, Ghulam Mohammad Baloch, was killed in 2011 while leading a nationalist movement.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the Paris-based media-freedom watchdog, suspects that Hussain was abducted “at the behest” of the ISI.
“Considering the recent attacks and harassment against other Pakistani journalists in Europe, we cannot ignore the possibility that his disappearance is related to his work,” Erik Halkjaer, the president of RSF’s Swedish section, said in a statement on March 30.
Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, said that “everything indicates that this is an enforced disappearance,” adding, “And if you ask yourself who would have an interest in silencing a dissident journalist, the first response would have to be the Pakistani intelligence services.”
The Balochistan Times “often crossed the ‘red lines’ imposed by the military establishment in Islamabad,” according to RSF.
No one has heard from Hussain since he boarded a train in Stockholm on March 2 bound for Uppsala, some 70 kilometers north of the Swedish capital.
RSF said that, according to confidential information it had obtained, Pakistan’s ISI keeps a list of exiled reporters.
‘Fear Is Their Tactic’
Goraya is one of those believed to be on the list.
In January 2017, Goraya was abducted while visiting Pakistan. He was among five social media activists and bloggers who disappeared that month in separate incidents across Pakistan.
Released after several weeks, Goraya returned to the Netherlands. He said he had been detained in Pakistan by a government institution with links to the military and tortured “beyond limits.”
The Pakistani military reportedly denied its involvement.
Goraya said he was held because he ran a satirical Facebook page critical of the Pakistani military’s stranglehold over politics in the country. Pakistan has been ruled by the army for nearly half of its statehood.
The Facebook page has also criticized the army’s alleged human rights abuses in Balochistan.
The military establishment “wants to control the online space,” said Goraya. “And when they cannot control it, they resort to such tactics. Fear is their tactic. You attack one person and everyone becomes afraid.”
‘Government’s Extreme Insecurity’
Steven Butler, the Asia program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), told RFE/RL that the recent attacks on Pakistani journalists and rights activists in Europe show that the exile community is “not safe,” adding that the incidents are “worrisome.”
“Certainly, Pakistani intelligence would be unhappy about the activities of these individuals,” he said, although he added that there was “no evidence of who precisely is behind the attacks.”
Another Pakistani dissident who has been targeted is Gul Bukhari, a Pakistani-British journalist and rights activist who lives in the United Kingdom.
She has been a vocal critic of Pakistan’s military on social media, accusing it of meddling in politics.
Bukhari was abducted in June 2018 from a military cantonment in the eastern city of Lahore and held for several hours by unknown men before being freed. The Pakistani Army denied involvement in the abduction, which occurred one day after the military warned that it was monitoring citizens who criticized the state.
In February, Pakistani authorities demanded that Bukhari appear in Pakistan for questioning or authorities would file terrorism charges against her. Bukhari, who left Pakistan in December 2018, said she did not plan to return to her homeland.
Bukhari said she was told by journalists in London that Pakistani authorities were trying to discover her address in Britain, which she has kept secret. She said she feared she could be attacked.
“Pakistani authorities should stop threatening Gul Bukhari and other journalists and critics for speaking out, whether at home or abroad,” Butler said. “Threatening to charge a journalist with terrorism and to confiscate her property over social media posts or published articles is absurd, and only reveals the government’s extreme insecurity.”
Pakistan is one of the world’s most-dangerous countries for reporters.
The military, intelligence community, and military-affiliated political groups have been suspected in the killings of 22 reporters in the past decade.
In May, the distribution of Pakistan’s oldest newspaper, Dawn, was disrupted across most of the country, shortly after it published a controversial interview with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
The attacks and harassment of exiled Pakistani journalists come as the Pakistani press finds itself under unprecedented pressure from authorities.
In the past three years, dozens of prominent reporters have been fired or have left after being threatened; the nation’s most popular television channel, Geo TV, has been forced off the air intermittently; officials have disrupted the distribution of Dawn, Pakistan’s oldest English-language newspaper; and leading columnists have complained that media outlets are increasingly rejecting stories critical of the army and intelligence agencies.
In March, human rights and media-freedom watchdogs urged Pakistan to release from pretrial detention the owner and editor in chief of the country’s biggest independent media group.
Mir Shakilur Rehman of the Jang group of newspapers and TV stations was arrested in Lahore on March 12 by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) in connection with allegations of tax evasion in a real-estate purchase 34 years ago.
The Jang group, which has criticized the government and NAB activities, rejected the allegations against Rehman and described his arrest as “an attack on the freedom of expression.”
Pakistan is ranked 142nd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index, three places lower than it was in 2018.