The most prominent of the four is Salman Haider, a university professor known for making outspoken comments about enforced disappearances in Balochistan. He disappeared in the capital, Islamabad, on 6 January.
Waqas Goraya, a frequent critic of the government and religious extremists in his blog posts, and Asim Saeed were reported missing by their families near the northeastern city of Lahore on 4 January, while Ahmed Raza Naseer, a polio victim, was abducted from his family’s shop in Sheikhupura, a town near Lahore, on 7 January, his brother said. Both Saeed and Naseer were known for their liberal views.
Haider’s wife received a text from Haider’s phone on the evening of 6 January saying he was abandoning his car on the Islamabad expressway, but it has not been possible to verify whether it was Haider himself who sent the text.
“This series of disappearances is shocking and extremely worrying on several counts,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “We cannot ignore the similarities or the fact that they have all taken place in towns near Lahore or the capital. Nothing can be affirmed with certainty, but the possibility of accidental disappearances cannot be taken seriously either.
“If they were abducted, who were the perpetrators and what was their motive? Were they radical armed groups or members of the armed forces? No scenario should be ruled out. The police and judicial authorities must thoroughly examine all possibilities that could lead to the four bloggers being recovered safe and sound. Failure will be seen as giant step backwards for democracy in Pakistan.”
The interior ministry said during the weekend that Haider’s disappearance would be investigated but it has not mentioned the other disappearances.
Hundreds of people have taken part in demonstrations in Pakistani cities in the past few days to condemn the disappearances of the four online activists and to call for their immediate and safe return. Calls for protests are being organized under the #RecoverAllActivists hashtag.
Civil society activists and journalists who cover sensitive political and social issues in Pakistan are subject to constant harassment and persecution by both the security forces and armed extremist groups.
Pakistan is ranked 147th out of 180 countries inRSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index.