Pakistan’s intelligence service accused of kidnap and torture in crackdown on dissenting voices.
Walking to the barber’s one evening, Shafiq Ahmed began to suspect he was being followed. The 37-year-old lawyer and social media activist in Pakistan worried he was about to be abducted.
A few seconds later, a group of men grabbed him and forced him into the backseat of a waiting car.
The kidnapping in December 2019, in the eastern city of Okara, was captured on CCTV. Mr Ahmed can be seen desperately trying to fight back, while his attackers appear to threaten bystanders against intervening.
After Mr Ahmed was bundled in the car, no-one would hear from him for weeks.
He believes that the men who abducted him worked for Pakistan’s intelligence services. Mr Ahmed was a forthright critic of the government led by Prime Minister Imran Khan, as well as of the country’s powerful military, which many allege plays a controlling role in politics from behind the scenes.
Mr Ahmed’s disappearance and torture appear to be part of a wider crackdown in the country on dissenting voices, designed to suppress allegations that Pakistan’s military is interfering in the political system and helped manipulate the 2018 elections in Mr Khan’s favour – allegations the military and Mr Khan deny.
Speaking from the hospital room where he was recovering, Mr Ahmed told the BBC what happened after he disappeared from the frame on the CCTV footage.
“They put handcuffs on and blindfolded me,” he said. He was then taken to an unknown location. “They dragged me out of the car and threw me into a room and started torturing me. They didn’t ask me anything, they just stripped me naked … and began beating me continuously with leather belts and wooden sticks, on my back and the soles of my feet.”
The beatings lasted for five to six days in small, windowless cell, Mr Ahmed said. He didn’t think he would survive. “They told me, ‘We will throw your body into the river.'” Video filmed by Mr Ahmed of his injuries after his release shows extensive bruising on his body.
Since then, the crackdown appears to have only intensified. Last week, a journalist was tied up and beaten at gunpoint by men identifying themselves as members of Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI. Last month, a commentator was shot and injured while walking in a park. Pakistan is currently ranked 145 out of 180 countries on a Press Freedom Index compiled by the charity Reporter’s Without Borders. Neither the army nor the government responded to requests to comment from the BBC about allegations intelligence officers have targeted journalists and activists although the ISI has publicly denied involvement in last week’s assault.
According to Mr Ahmed, during his interrogation the men holding him asked: “Who is really behind the posts you put up on Facebook and Twitter?”
“I told them, ‘No-one is telling me to write them. I have my own independent beliefs about the importance of civilian rule.’ But they weren’t prepared to listen to me.”
He said he was also asked about who was “funding” him; and what his links were to other liberal activists and the Pashtun Protection Movement, which has held large demonstrations accusing the military of human rights abuses.
It sounded to Mr Ahmed like his interrogators had printed copies of his social media posts. “I was blindfolded, but could hear pages turning as they said, ‘What have you written here about the military spokesman? You’ve said this or that about the army chief and Prime Minister – why are you criticising them?'”
Mr Ahmed had been targeted before in a similar fashion. In April 2019, he was formally accused of uploading “defamatory posts against Agencies of Pakistan”, but the court case against him stalled. Then in June he was abducted, beaten, and warned to stop his social media activity before being dumped by a road around 50km away from his home in the early hours of the morning, he said.
Prior to letting him go, he said, his abductors shot a video of him while he was naked, forcing him to declare: “I won’t criticise anyone on social media again.” He alleges that they threatened to make the video viral and then kill him if he resumed his activism. When he did just that, he was detained again in December, this time for two weeks.
Others have apparently also been targeted for their online activity. The journalist Asad Ali Toor began posting videos on YouTube to bypass the largely unofficial censorship on what local TV channels can broadcast. Most “live” TV political talk shows in Pakistan are in fact transmitted with a slight delay, allowing producers to mute guests who stray too far in their criticism. In one programme last year, a commentator was even muted while criticising the lack of press freedom in the country.
A legal notice was filed against Mr Toor for using “derogatory language” about the army. The case was dismissed in court in November, but last Tuesday three men barged into his apartment in Islamabad, Mr Toor told the BBC.
After tying him up, one of the men began hammering violently on his elbows with a pistol, Mr Toor said. When the BBC visited his home, there were bloodstains on the floor of his bedroom. Mr Toor said the men forced him chant, “Long Live the ISI, Long Live the Pakistani Army.” CCTV later captured him staggering out of the apartment and collapsing. Police are investigating the case. The ISI has denied involvement, describing the allegations as a “conspiracy”.
When the BBC approached Pakistan’s Information Minister Fawad Chaudry to ask about the alleged attacks on journalists and activists, he said he would only agree to an interview if the BBC also devoted a programme to Pakistan’s “great success in war against Covid,” dismissing media coverage of the issue as being agenda driven.
Press freedom has long been a problem in Pakistan, but the situation appears to be deteriorating under Prime Minister Imran Khan. He has dismissed allegations of attacks on the Pakistani press as a “joke” and claimed he faces “unprecedented criticism” from the media.
Some government figures have condemned individual incidents, but the same officials have also frequently attempted to downplay abductions and assaults, suggesting the intelligence services are not to blame. In an interview with the BBC’s Hardtalk programme, Information Minister Mr Chaudry claimed that there was a “history” of people “using” the name of the intelligence agencies in order to get asylum abroad.
Despite CCTV evidence, no culprits have been identified in a host of previous incidents. In April, a prominent commentator survived a shooting by an unknown gunman, and last year an established journalist, Matiullah Jan, was abducted for a number of hours by unidentified men. Many in Pakistan bitterly joke that “everyone knows” who such “unknown” figures really are. Leading TV anchor Hamid Mir, shot twice in 2014, told the BBC, “We are losing our freedom very fast”. After making a fiery speech at a protest last week, criticising the military and calling for an end to attacks on journalists, Mr Mir was taken off air.
Opposition politicians do regularly appear on Pakistani TV. But a leading media analyst, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told the BBC he believed they were permitted in order to retain a superficial appearance of democratic values, but that clear “red lines” existed that must not be crossed.
Among those red lines, undoubtedly the most sensitive is criticism of the army, which has ruled Pakistan directly for nearly half of its existence, and is widely believed to continue to play a key role in politics.
When Gulalai Ismail, an award-winning women’s activist, joined the Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM), which strongly criticised the military’s record on human rights, she was accused of “anti-state” remarks. She has alleged that intelligence agents tortured people close to her in an effort to track her down and arrest her.
In fear of her life, Ms Gulalai fled the country in 2019, seeking asylum in the US. But her elderly parents remain in Pakistan. Despite being well known for their liberal and progressive views, they have been charged with providing support for deadly terrorist attacks by extremist groups. Ms Ismail described the court case as an example of “collective punishment”. The aim, she said, was to demonstrate “that if parents are to raise a daughter who will speak truth to power … then this will be the fate. Not just the daughter will suffer but the parents will also suffer”.
The increasing pressure on those who criticise the government has coincided with a push by Pakistani officials to improve the country’s troubled relations with its external neighbours. That includes a role in helping persuade the Afghan Taliban to reach a negotiated settlement, and jailing a number of anti-India militant figures. Some, like Ms Gulalai, worry that those developments, coupled with the global aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, will lead western countries to largely “turn a blind eye” to domestic human rights abuses by the state.
Shafiq Ahmed, the lawyer and social media activist, said he was being hounded by intelligence agents to such an extent that clients no longer approach him for work and neighbours in his hometown are afraid of being associated with him. But he vowed to continue speaking out. “How long can I just sit here silently?” he said.