A BBC report
A Pakistani blogger Asim Saeed who went missing mysteriously earlier this year and returned home several weeks later has alleged that he was tortured while in detention, a BBC report said on Wednesday. Asim Saeed was one of the five activists who disappeared in early January from different cities in Pakistan. The other four include academic Salman Haider, bloggers Waqas Goraya and Ahmed Raza Naseer, and Samar Abbas, head of an anti-extremism activist group in Karachi.
Saeed, who currently lives and works in Singapore, has now applied for asylum in Britain, fearing his life would be in danger if he had to return to Pakistan. Prior to his disappearance, Saeed managed Mochi, a Facebook page which was known for carrying posts critical of the Pakistani military. “Since the inception of Pakistan, they’ve always been ruling us directly or indirectly,” he said.
Sharing details of his disappearance with the BBC, Saeed said that he was visiting Pakistan for his brother’s wedding when some men in plain clothes arrived at his residence and took him away in a car. “‘Do you know why you’ve been picked up?’ they asked. I said, ‘I have no idea’. Then he started to slap me. They said, ‘Let’s talk about Mochi’,” Saeed said.
Saeed alleged he was asked to divulge passwords for his email accounts and mobile phone, and was later taken to a ‘secret detention facility’. At the facility, he said, he was detained with men who he believed were “religious terrorists”.
During the detention, Saeed said he was beaten with a leather strap, which left his arms and back in shades of purple, blue and back. “I don’t remember what happened, I fell down and someone was holding my neck in his feet, and the other guy kept beating and beating and beating,” he said.
Saeed and his cousin Waqas Goraya, an anthropologist, had gone missing in Lahore’s Wapda Town on January 4. Goraya, too, had claimed in March while talking to BBC that he had been tortured during detention. The disappearances of activists had triggered protests nationwide and on social media. No group had claimed responsibility for the abductions.
Human Rights Watch and other rights groups had said that near simultaneous disappearances of the activists raised concerns of government involvement, which officials and intelligence sources had denied at the time. A security source had denied intelligence services were involved in the disappearances.
Aasim Saeed was one of a group of five liberal social media activists who were abducted in Pakistan in January 2017 before being released after several weeks. The Pakistani military has repeatedly denied any involvement in the case.
Mr Saeed told the BBC that prior to his abduction he had been involved in running a Facebook page critical of Pakistan’s military establishment, called Mochi, “because since the inception of Pakistan they’ve always been ruling us directly or indirectly”. Pakistan has been ruled by the military for nearly half of its 70 years. Mr Saeed was working in Singapore but visiting Pakistan for his brother’s wedding in January 2017 when he says a number of men in plain clothes arrived at his house and ordered him into a car. “‘Do you know why you’ve been picked up?’ they asked. I said, ‘I have no idea’. Then he started to slap me. They said, ‘Let’s talk about Mochi’.”
Mr Saeed told the BBC he had been ordered to hand over the passwords to his email accounts and mobile phone before being taken to a secret detention facility where he was held alongside men he believed to be “religious terrorists.”
The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reported that 728 people were forcibly “disappeared” in 2016. Pakistan’s intelligence services have been accused of “disappearing” social and ethnic nationalist activists, as well as those accused of links to militant groups, instead of producing them in court.
Authorities in Pakistan have often said the security services are unfairly blamed for disappearances and that the number of missing people is inflated. Few first-hand accounts have ever emerged of what happens to those in detention. Mr Saeed alleges he was beaten with a leather strap. “I don’t remember what happened, I fell down and someone was holding my neck in his feet, and the other guy kept beating and beating and beating.”
He describes his arms and back being left “shades of purple, blue and back” At another detention facility which he believes to be near the capital Islamabad, Mr Saeed says he was made to undergo polygraph tests whilst being repeatedly questioned about links to the Indian intelligence service, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). “Have you ever been associated with RAW? Who is your handler? Have you ever received money from RAW?”
He denies any links to any foreign intelligence services and says interrogators also analysed his Facebook posts and questioned him about why he was “critical of the army”.
In May 2017 Human Rights Watch raised concerns that the Pakistani government was clamping down on internet dissent at the expense of fundamental rights. Protests were held across cities in Pakistan by other liberal activists calling for the release of Mr Saeed and the other “missing bloggers”, as they came to be known. Mr Saeed, though, says he believed while in detention that he would be killed, because normally “missing persons don’t go home”.
Whilst pressure was building on the Pakistani authorities to provide information about the whereabouts of the bloggers, a counter-campaign was begun by right-wing religious clerics and TV anchors accusing them of having committed blasphemy. Blasphemy is legally punishable by death in Pakistan and a number of those accused of it have been murdered by lynch mobs.
Mr Saeed returned home after several weeks in detention. He told the BBC it was only then that he realised he had been accused of blasphemy. He denies any involvement in writing blasphemous material.
One of the other missing bloggers has alleged the blasphemy allegations were an attempt “to shut us down – to threaten our families – to build pressure on us”.
Mr Saeed returned to Singapore shortly after being released and arrived in the UK in September to visit friends. He told the BBC he had then decided to apply for asylum as the terms of his employment visa in Singapore meant he had no guarantee he would be allowed to keep living there if he ever lost his job, and his life would be in danger if he returned to Pakistan. Nonetheless, Mr Saeed told the BBC he did not regret his activism, as “people have to stand up”.
Earlier, the liberal Pakistani activist Waqas Goraya who went missing earlier this year said in March that a “government institution” with links to the military held him and tortured him. Waqass Goraya, one of five activists who disappeared in early January, told the BBC he was tortured “for pleasure”. The activists were freed after several weeks – but until now none of them has said who was behind their mistreatment.
Pakistan’s army has previously denied any involvement in the case. There were vocal protests seeking their release. Pakistan is one of the the world’s most dangerous countries for reporters and human rights activists, and critics of the powerful military have been detained, beaten or killed.
Waqass Goraya – who now lives in the Netherlands – told the BBC he had been tortured “beyond limits”. He described being punched, slapped and forced into stress positions during the three weeks he was held. He worried he would never be released. “We knew it was over… We will die under torture,” he told the BBC. He also spoke at a side event at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva about his experiences. Mr Goraya believes he was detained because he ran a satirical Facebook page critical of the influence of the Pakistani military in the country’s political system. The page has also criticised military policy in Pakistan’s restive Balochistan province. Mr Goraya strongly denies breaking any laws. “I hadn’t done anything criminal – otherwise I would’ve been in a court not in illegal detention,” he told the BBC.
At a press conference in January, a spokesman for Pakistan’s powerful military said it had had nothing to do with the disappearance of the bloggers. Pakistan’s interior minister had previously said the government did not tolerate “enforced disappearances”.
After Waqass Goraya and the other activists disappeared, a campaign demanding their release sprang up around the hashtag #recoverallactivists. But a counter-campaign both online – and backed by a number of TV anchors – accusing them of blasphemy also began.
Blasphemy is an emotive issue in Pakistan – and can legally be punishable by death. Mr Goraya says the allegations of blasphemy are false, and that alleged blasphemous postings have been fabricated. Following a court petition by an Islamist leader, on 8 March legal proceedings were begun calling for the prosecution of those behind a number of social media pages allegedly run by the missing activists. Mr Goraya believes the blasphemy allegations are an attempt “to shut us down – to threaten our families – to build pressure on us”.
Mr Goraya says he believes that by speaking to the UN, he can help build pressure in Pakistan to pass a bill currently before parliament that would force the security services to provide information on a “missing person” in their detention within three days of a request. He also wants accountability for what happened to him. “The government should investigate it. We have evidence – strong evidence – it will directly lead to the persons responsible.” Mr Goraya still has nerve damage in his hands and feet, as well as problems with his hearing – but says he is determined to continue activist work. “They are still picking people, more and more people are being harmed – our friends, our colleagues – so how can we stop? Someone has to stand up,” he added in an interview given to BBC in March.