As per a report published in The Guardian, Pakistanis living in exile in the United Kingdom who have criticised Pakistan’s military have a threat to their lives. British security agencies have raised fresh concerns that the authoritarian regime is possibly planning to attack dissidents in the UK. Pakistan is believed to be a strong ally of the UK, specifically on intelligence issues.
Some of the prominent names that have been warned by the security agencies include rights activists from Balochistan, journalists, groups representing ethnic Pashtuns and members of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement.
Reportedly, in the month of June, agencies charged a man from east London along with others unknown in the Netherlands for conspiracy to murder Ahmad Waqass Goraya, Pakistani blogger and Political activist. The conspirator was identified as 31-years-old Muhammad Gohir Khan, resident of Forest Gate, east London.
Mark Lyall Grant, the former UK high commissioner to Pakistan, recently said that the British government would take the matter seriously if the Pakistani military has threatened persons from Pakistan in exile. He said, “If there is illegal pressure, in particular on journalists in the UK, then I would expect the law enforcement agencies and the British government to take notice of that and to make an appropriate legal and/or diplomatic response.”
Grant further said the British security agencies would not ignore evidence of intimidation on the behest of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). “If British nationals or residents in the UK acting lawfully are being harassed or threatened by the ISI, or anyone else, then the British government would certainly take an interest,” he said.
The situation deteriorated after Imran Khan came to power
Reports suggest that since Imran Khan came to power in 2018 with military backing, there has been a notable decline in press freedom combined with the increase in violent attacks on journalists. Experts believe the Islamic republic, popular for suppressing dissent at its soil, is pacing towards targeting critics outsides its borders.
In March 2020, Journalist Sajid Hussain, best known for covering Human Rights violations in Balochistan, disappeared in Uppsala, Sweden. Two months later, he was found dead in a river. Karima Baloch, Hussain’s friend, was an activist best known for her campaigns for an independent Balochistan. Seven months after Hussain was found dead, her body was found in a lake in Toronto, Canada. Though the investigating agencies in Sweden and Canada rules out foul play in both cases, other activists are not convinced of the outcome.
Ordeals of journalists and activists in exile
Hammal Haidar, the husband of Karima Baloch, is a British resident. In a statement, he said he no longer feel safe in Europe. “Anyone critical of the Pakistan army is a potential target. The authorities in Europe must take these threats seriously,” he said.
Ayesha Siddiqa is a political scientist and commentator from Pakistan who is now based in London. She has received an Osman warning or “threat to life” notice from the Metropolitan Police. In a statement, she said, “The Met’s counter-terrorism command said that there was credible information of a threat to my life. It’s a life and death matter.” The situation is so grim that the officers even asked her husband if someone has approached him to offer money to get his wife to return to Pakistan.
Gul Bukhari is a Pakistan Youtuber and Columnist. She is an open critic of the military and had to flee the country to the UK after being abducted by the security forces in 2018 while living in Lahore. The UK Police have advised her not to share her personal details, including the address, with anyone. She said, “I feel threatened in London.”
Taha Siddiqui is a well-known Pakistani journalist. He escaped abduction in 2018 in Islamabad. Currently, he is living in Paris. In a statement, he said, “They have had multiple visits by people identifying as being from the ISI. They told my father that I should not think I am safe just because I live in France.” Sara Farid, Siddiqui’s wife and photojournalist said, “It feels there is no place or country safe for dissidents. Whenever I cannot reach Taha on his phone, the first thought is like it used to be in Pakistan – they got him.”
Abdullah Abbas, Information Secretary, Human Rights Council of Balochistan, is exiled in Germany. He said he has to keep his head down, keeping in mind the recent deaths of Baloch and Hussain. “It has revived my old fears of being disappeared or killed, even in Europe,” he said while adding that he cannot take a walk alone in Berlin out of fear.
Aurang Zeb Khan Zalmay, editor, Pashtun Times, is exiled in Germany. Pashtun Times is an online portal that highlights human rights abuses in tribal areas of north-western Pakistan. He said, “Many of my friends are even unwilling to take a selfie with me and post it online out of fear of being watched or interrogated upon their return to Pakistan.”
In 2020, a memo of the Pakistani government got leaked in which they had accused several journalists of Pakistani descent, based out of the US and Europe, of publishing anti-Pakistan content in foreign media under pseudo-names. A journalist was quoted by Observer saying, “For the past six to eight months, I haven’t done any proper journalism because I have been threatened to a serious level that I had to step back.” The journalist in exile had allegedly received a warning notice from the intelligence agency of Pakistan’s army.
Pakistan government denies allegations
In a statement, the government of Pakistan denied the allegations. It said, “As a responsible state, Pakistan respects norms and principles of international law, and abides by legal and diplomatic frameworks that govern inter-state interaction including on community matters. There is no question of any threat being made to any national of any state, including Pakistan’s own nationals living anywhere on any pretext whatsoever. The unsubstantiated allegations appear to be part of the rather blatant on-going misinformation campaign against Pakistan to malign the country and its state institutions.”