A third Pakistani activist who went missing earlier this month is safe, his family told AFP on Sunday, a day after two of the other disappeared men were confirmed secure.
The activist, named only as Asim by his family for safety reasons, was among five who went missing more than two weeks ago, sparking fears of a government crackdown and resulting in protests. “Asim contacted us by phone on Sunday morning and told us that he is well,” a relative requesting anonymity told AFP, saying the family had been receiving threats.
On Saturday, academic Salman Haider and another blogger whose family asked not to be named were reported safe by their families.
Two others remain unaccounted for.
The five men—who campaigned for human rights and religious freedom—went missing from various cities between Jan. 4 and 7, triggering nationwide protests. No group has claimed responsibility. But Human Rights Watch and other rights groups said their near simultaneous disappearances raised concerns of government involvement, which officials and intelligence sources have denied.
“These abductions bear all the hallmarks of the modus operandi of the Pakistan state,” said Saroop Ijaz, representative of Human Rights Watch in Pakistan. “The release, again which is coordinated. The onus lies on the state to either come clear about what has happened or to hold the perpetrators accountable,” Ijaz said.
The returned activists have not yet recounted what happened to them or where they have been the past few weeks.
Pakistan has had a history of enforced disappearances over the past decade, but this has mainly been confined to conflict zones near the Afghanistan border or to Balochistan province where separatists are battling for independence. A virulent social media campaign painting the missing as blasphemers triggered a flood of threats despite denials from their worried families, with observers saying the claims could place them in danger.
The charge, which can carry the death penalty, is hugely sensitive in Muslim Pakistan, where even unproven allegations have stirred mob lynchings and murder. Rights groups say Pakistani activists and journalists often find themselves caught between the country’s security establishment and militant groups including the Taliban.
Pakistan is routinely ranked among the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists, and reporting critical of security policies controlled by the military is considered a major red flag, with reporters at times detained, beaten and even killed.