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Are Pakistani dissidents safe in Europe?

COMMENT 183 – Are Pakistani dissidents safe in Europe?

By Siegfried O. Wolf.
ISSN NUMBER: 2406-5617

Siegfried O. Wolf
Dr. Siegfried O. Wolf, Director of Research at SADF (Coordinator: Democracy Research Programme); he was educated at the Institute of Political Science (IPW) and South Asia Institute (SAI), both Heidelberg University. Additionally he is member (affiliated researcher) of the SAI as well as a former research fellow at IPW and Centre de Sciences Humaines (New Delhi, India).

On March 2, Sajid Hussain Baloch, a journalist openly critical of Pakistan (Tanner, 2020, May 2), went missing in Sweden (Khan, 2020, April 4). His body was found on April 23 in the Fyris River, outside the university city of Uppsala[1](Mukhopadhyay, 2020, May 2). Sajid, who escaped from Pakistan in 2012, was living in Swedish self-exile after asylum was granted to him (AFP, 2020, May 1). However, he did not give in to the persecution and harassment by Pakistan’s state agencies and continued to report on human rights violations, drug trafficking, enforced disappearances, the plight of the suppressed Pashtun people and particularly on the separatist conflict in Baluchistan and other troubled areas[2].

During the time of this writing, the exact circumstances of his death remain unclear. However, according to reports by international media, there is the possibility that the ‘influential’ (Hayat, 2020, April 4) journalist and writer had been abducted ‘at the behest of a Pakistani intelligence agency’ (BBC, 2020, May 1; Khan, 2020, April 7; Mukhopadhyay, 2020, May 2). Daniel Bastard, the head of the Asia-Pacific desk of the Paris-based press freedom charity Reporters Without Borders (RSF), is considering a link between the disappearance (and subsequent death) of Sajid and the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence ([ISI]; RSF, March 30, 2020) the country’s premier intelligence agency. According to the RSF, ‘at least two other Pakistani journalists with refugee status in European Union countries are currently being pressured by the ISI by means of intimidation of family members still in Pakistan’ (RSF, March 30, 2020). In order to substantiate the suspicion of a potential ISI involvement on the death of Sajid, RSF stresses that the organisation obtains ‘confidential information’ about ‘a list of Pakistani dissidents who are now refugees in other countries [and which] is currently circulated within the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the most powerful of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies’. That this list is a kind of ‘hit- and target list’ is more explicitly pointed out in other cases reported by the RSF. Here it is interesting to mention the case of another Pakistani journalist and blogger, Ahmad Waqass Goraya, who lives in self-imposed exile in the Netherlands. This case was also documented by ‘Reporters without Borders’. Goraya was attacked and threatened outside his Rotterdam home. RSF (2020, May 5) states that this ‘violent act of intimidation’ ‘was clearly instigated by a Pakistani state agency’. The way in which the attack was conducted ‘fits the modus operandi of Pakistani spy agencies’[3]. Due to sharing critical views on ‘influence of the Pakistani military in the country’s political system’ as well as ‘military policy in Pakistan’s restive Baluchistan province’, Mr Goraya was one of several activists[4] who ‘disappeared’ in early January 2017 in Pakistan (BBC, 2017, March 9). Goraya claims to have been illegally detained and tortured by a ‘government institution with links to the military’ (BBC, 2017, March 9) which is the indirect description of the ISI. As such, Bastard highlighted that ‘everything indicates that this [the missing of Sajid] is an enforced disappearance’ (RSF, March 30, 2020) and that there are ‘good reasons’ not to rule out that Sajid was the victim of a crime (RSF, 2020, May 5).

Besides the cases of Sajid Hussain Baloch and Ahmad Waqass Goraya, there are numerous other instances of Pakistani journalists in exile and/or working in the European Union (EU) who have faced harassment due to critical reporting on Pakistan. In consequence, we observe an increasing level of ‘self-censorship’ by Pakistani journalists in Europe – all of whom follow the official military narratives on how to report on Pakistan. A remarkable example regards the covering of issues related to the civilian government(s) in Islamabad. Here, the increasingly authoritarian style of governance by Prime Minister Imran Khan or the potential involvement of his predecessor Nawaz Sharif in corruption and state capture is well documented by Western, especially European media. However, the increasing killing of political dissidents, especially when they belong to the Baloch or Pashtun communities, are hardly reported. Notoriously absent are the underlying causalities and the fact that the assassinations were conducted either directly by state security actors or by their Islamist proxies. The killing of Arif Wazir, a leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM; a peaceful protest movement) serves as a point of reference (ANI, 2020, May 8).

However, the increasing number of incidents since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic affecting Pakistani journalists and social and political activists both in Pakistan and in Europe is alarming. Ryszard Czarnecki, a Member of the European Parliament (MEP), states that: ‘On one hand, the world at large is baffled with the coronavirus pandemic and has been adopting coordinative and cooperative approach to deal with it, while on the other hand the Pakistani administration especially its infamous spy agency ISI is making full use of the world’s COVID-19 distraction to kill political dissidents including leaders of the Baloch and Pashtun movement’.[5]

Having this in mind, one should highlight another, most likely related phenomenon: It appears that Pakistan might be encouraged by its ‘quasi-ally’ China – who stepped-up its international influence operations massively so as to silence critics on its Belt and Road Initiative/BRI (Wolf, 2019) combined with an increasingly assertive public diplomacy approach. Moreover, Beijing has been offering for decades diplomatic protection to Pakistan and its state-support for cross-border terrorist activities and Jihadism (Wolf, 2017). As such, the newly assertive and combative style of Chinese diplomacy, also described as ‘shotgun diplomacy’ or ‘Wolf Warrior Diplomacy’ (Wolf, 2020, May 5; April 28; April 22), might encourage Pakistani ‘pro-state-elements’ abroad to act against journalists and other liberal, independent thinkers perceived as anti-national by the Pakistani authorities.

To conclude, by observing the growing number of incidents against Pakistani dissidents on European soil, one needs to wonder whether the EU is still a safe place for them.





Concern about Pakistani dissident journalist’s disappearance in Sweden. (2020, March 30) Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Four Pakistani bloggers missing – all possibilities must be considered. (2017, January 12). Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

MEPs, activists lambast Pakistan for silencing dissidents amid Covid-19 outbreak. (2020, May 8). Asian News International (ANI).

Missing Pakistani journalist’s body found in Sweden. (5 May 2020) Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Pakistani blogger in forced exile attacked, threatened outside his Rotterdam home. (2020, February 6). Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Sajid Hussain: Swedish police find body of missing Pakistani journalist. (2020, May 1). BBC.

AFP (2020, May 1). Missing Baloch journalist Sajid Hussain found dead in Sweden. Agence France-Presse (AFP), Dawn.

Hayat, N. (2020, April 4). Now Sajid, Who’s Next? Balochistan Affairs.

Jalil, X. (2020, March 30). Baloch journalist goes missing in Sweden. Dawn

Khan, S. (2020, April 7). Sajid Baloch: Fears grow for Pakistani journalist missing in Sweden. Deutsche Welle.

Mukhopadhyay, A. (2020, May 2). Sajid Hussain Baloch: Missing Pakistani journalist found dead in Sweden.

Tanner, J. (2020, May 2). Body in Swedish river was missing Pakistani journalist. The Washington Post.

Wolf, S.O. (2020, May 5). Corona crisis: How ‘Hot’ is our conflict with China? SADF Comment, No. 182. (part of the column ‘On the Asian Century, Pax Sinica & Beyond’/XI). Brussels: South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF).

Wolf, S. O. (2020, April 28). Coronavirus: Why Beijing’s ‘Wolf Warrior Diplomacy’ will fail. SADF Comment, No. 181. (part of the column ‘On the Asian Century, Pax Sinica & Beyond’/X). Brussels: South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF).

Wolf, S. O. (2020, April 22). Coronavirus: Beijing’s public diplomacy and influence campaigns. SADF Comment, No. 179. Brussels: South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF).

Wolf, S. O. (2019). The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor of the Belt and Road Initiative. Concept, Context and Assessment. Cham: Springer.

Wolf, S. O. (2017). Pakistan and state-sponsored terrorism in South Asia. In P. Casaca & S. O. Wolf (Eds.), Terrorism revisited. Islamism, political violence and state-sponsorship (pp. 109–155). Heidelberg: Springer.

[1] According to the Swedish public broadcaster (SVT) Sajid Hussain had been registered since January at Uppsala University, the Nordic region’s oldest university, studying Arabic language and acting as a lecturer (Tanner, 2020, May 2).

[2] During his time in exile, Sajid founded the online magazine Baluchistan Times in 2015 and worked as its chief editor. The site is not accessible in Pakistan. (Hayat, 2020, April 4; Tanner, 2020, May 2).

[3] According to the victim Mr Goraya: ‘I was on the phone when a man appeared and began punching me in the face while I saw another man with him filming the attack’ (Ahmad Waqass Goraya quoted in RSF, 2020, February 6). The RSF reports continues by stating that: ‘Speaking in Urdu with a Pashtun accent, the man hitting Goraya threatened to kill him and told him he knew exactly where he and his family live’ (RSF, 2020, February 6).

[4] For example, Salman Haider, a university professor known for making outspoken comments about enforced disappearances in Baluchistan (RSF, 2017, January 12).

[5] The statement was made by Ryszard Czarnecki MEP during a webinar organised by the Brussels-based think tank ARCHumankind on Friday, May 8, 2020 (Youtube: See also ANI (2020, May 8).


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