Monday, March 30, 2020
By Kiyya Baloch
Sajid Hussain, who escaped Balochistan province in 2012 and was living in self-imposed exile, went missing on March 2.Fears are growing for a Pakistani journalist who, having escaped the South Asian country for safety reasons in 2012, has gone missing in Sweden where he was living in self-imposed exile.
Rights groups are concerned about the disappearance of Sajid Hussain, 39, could be related to his reporting.
Hussain's family, however, said they did not want to accuse anyone, adding they hoped the Swedish authorities will provide them with answers. On Friday, the Balochistan Times, an online magazine published by Hussain, announced that he went missing from Uppsala, a city near Stockholm, on March 2. In the magazine, Hussain reported on alleged human rights abuses in Pakistan's restive Balochistan province, where he hails from. For more than a decade, political and armed groups in Pakistan's largest province in the southwest, home to more than 12 million people, have been waging a separatist movement.
His wife Shahnaz Baloch, who lives in Balochistan, told Al Jazeera they were in contact on the day he went missing.
"I don't know how he went missing or where he is right now. We need the Swedish police to help us locate my husband. They initially said that it was normal in Sweden for someone to go in isolation. We are concerned about his safety and wellbeing. It is very unusual for a journalist like Hussain to go somewhere without informing us."
Hussain's friends registered him as missing on March 5 with Swedish police, who have since carried out several searches for him.
"Initially, police refused to register the case saying it is normal in Sweden for someone to go in isolation. We insisted that it was not normal for us. Then they registered the case," Taj Baloch, a friend of Hussain's, said from Stockholm.
Jenny Johansson, case officer at Missing People (Sverige), an NGO that works with the Swedish police to find missing people, told Al Jazeera the group was in regular contact with the police to find Hussain.
"We don't have a clue so far. We only know his last location and we are working from that angle in close collaboration with the police," she said. "Because of his background and his job, this case is pretty unique." By the time of publishing, Swedish police had not responded to Al Jazeera's request for comment.
The Pakistani embassy in Stockholm refused to respond to Al Jazeera's request for comment.
'Might be work-related'
Erik Halkjaer, president of the Swedish chapter of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), urged Swedish police to continue to investigate Hussain's disappearance, which he also said could have been due to his work.
"At this point, we can't ignore the possibility that his disappearance might be work related," he said.
In recent months, several Pakistani activists and bloggers living in Europe have claimed to have been targeted for speaking up against human rights violations in Pakistan.
An RSF report last month said a Rotterdam-based Pakistani blogger, allegedly a victim of kidnapping and torture while in Pakistan three years ago, was attacked and threatened by two people believed to be Pakistani intelligence agents.
In an email to Al Jazeera, Daniel Bastard, the Asia Pacific head of RSF, said Hussain could be a victim of enforced disappearance, given the circumstances of his case and testimony by his family and colleagues."When you think about who could find interest in suppressing a dissident journalist, the first hypothesis leads to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence," he said, referring to the country's main intelligence agency, the ISI."We also know that two other Pakistanis based in Europe have been the victims of pressure upon their family back home in the past two months. And we know that a list of possible targets among Pakistan dissidents abroad is circulating," said Bastard. "The fact that Sajid Hussain was writing about human rights and the situation in restive Balochistan makes him a potential priority target."
Hussain left Pakistan in 2012 after his house in Quetta was broken into. The unidentified perpetrators stole his laptop and some notes, while he was out working on a story.
He then moved to Oman, and later the United Arab Emirates and Uganda in self-imposed exile before arriving in Sweden in September 2017 as a refugee. His wife was expected to join him there this year.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) suspects that a Pakistani journalist who has been missing for a month in Sweden was abducted "at the behest" of an intelligence agency in Pakistan.
Sajid Hussain, the editor of the Balochistan Times news website, went missing in the Swedish city of Uppsala on March 2, according to the website, which covered human right violations and other aspects of the situation in the southwestern Pakistani region.
"Considering the recent attacks and harassment against other Pakistani journalists in Europe, we cannot ignore the possibility that his disappearance is related to his work," Erik Halkjaer, the president of RSF's Swedish section, said in a statement on March 30.
Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, said that "everything indicates that this is an enforced disappearance," adding, "And if you ask yourself who would have an interest in silencing a dissident journalist, the first response would have to be the Pakistani intelligence services."
The Balochistan Times "often crossed the 'red lines' imposed by the military establishment in Islamabad," according to the Paris-based media-freedom watchdog.
Meanwhile, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also urged Swedish police to step up efforts to find Hussain
"The disappearance of a journalist who focused on one of Pakistan's most sensitive issues -- human rights in Balochistan -- and who escaped Pakistan because of threats he received, is especially concerning," said Steven Butler, CPJ's Asia program coordinator.
Hussain fled Pakistan in 2012 after receiving threats related to his reporting, and lived in exile in several countries before seeking asylum in Sweden in 2017, according to news reports.
No one has heard from Hussain since he boarded a train in Stockholm on March 2 to go to Uppsala, 70 kilometers north of the Swedish capital, to collect the keys to his new apartment and leave some personal effects there, RSF said.
It quoted local police as saying that Hussain, who has political-refugee status in Sweden, did alight from the train in Uppsala 45 minutes after it left Stockholm.
Pakistan's southwestern province of Balochistan has been plagued by sectarian violence, Islamist militant attacks, and a separatist insurgency that has led to thousands of casualties since 2004.
Successive Pakistani governments and the powerful military have been accused for years of censoring the media.
The country is ranked 142nd out of 180 countries in RSF's 2019 World Press Freedom Index.
The consequences of letting the disease spread further would be devastating. And Pakistan’s initial coronavirus response is already exposing concerning political patterns — including the powerful army asserting competence over the civilian government— that will persist beyond the pandemic.
AN INFLUX OF CASES FROM IRAN
Before Pakistan had any cases of the virus, it made the decision to not allow 800 Pakistani students stranded in Wuhan, China to return to the country. Pakistan’s government did not want to risk them returning and spreading the disease at home, and it also hoped that the move signaled support for China at a time when it was embarrassed in front of the world. (Pakistan and China are steadfast allies; Pakistan is the flagship location for Beijing’s One Belt One Road.)
The country’s first coronavirus case, a returning pilgrim from Iran, was diagnosed on February 26 in Karachi. He was quickly isolated and his contacts traced. As of March 12, two weeks ago, Pakistan only had 21 confirmed cases of the virus. On March 13, the government announced a number of aggressive steps, including closing the country’s western border (with Iran and Afghanistan), shutting down all public and private educational institutions, and canceling the Pakistan Day parade set for March 23. A National Coordination Committee was set up to deal with the coronavirus on a federal level, and the National Disaster Management Authority was tapped to implement the response.
At the same time, the state prevailed on the Tablighi Jamaat, a pan-Islamic body that holds an annual religious gathering outside Lahore, to pack up and go home. It may have been too late: More than 150,000 people were gathered there until March 12, and a number of them were later diagnosed with coronavirus — some of them were diagnosed after they returned to Islamabad, and two Palestinian men who returned to Gaza became the first known coronavirus positive cases there.
In the days after these steps were announced on March 13, the problem of returning pilgrims from Iran ballooned. All returnees were “quarantined” together in reportedly squalid conditions at a camp in Taftan after crossing the border into Pakistan in remote Baluchistan. There was no testing, and those with symptoms were not isolated. Instead of containing the virus to those who had it, it spread to others at the camp, and people at the camp were also allowed to leave to shop at markets in the town. After two weeks, they were “returned” to their provinces. It is unclear what precautions were taken as they traveled, but they were tested by the provincial governments once they arrived, and those who tested positive were re-quarantined at centers created in those provinces. Thousands of returnees remain in quarantine centers across the country; a number of them have reportedly attempted escape. Nearly 600 returnees in total have tested positive.