Pakistani intelligence accused of torture in crackdown on dissent

By Secunder Kermani

BBC News, Islamabad

Walking to the barber's one evening, Shafiq Ahmed began to suspect he was being followed. The 37-year-old lawyer and social media activist in Pakistan worried he was about to be abducted.

A few seconds later, a group of men grabbed him and forced him into the backseat of a waiting car.

The kidnapping in December 2019, in the eastern city of Okara, was captured on CCTV. Mr Ahmed can be seen desperately trying to fight back, while his attackers appear to threaten bystanders against intervening.

After Mr Ahmed was bundled in the car, no-one would hear from him for weeks.

He believes that the men who abducted him worked for Pakistan's intelligence services. Mr Ahmed was a forthright critic of the government led by Prime Minister Imran Khan, as well as of the country's powerful military, which many allege plays a controlling role in politics from behind the scenes.

Mr Ahmed's disappearance and torture appear to be part of a wider crackdown in the country on dissenting voices, designed to suppress allegations that Pakistan's military is interfering in the political system and helped manipulate the 2018 elections in Mr Khan's favour - allegations the military and Mr Khan deny.

Speaking from the hospital room where he was recovering, Mr Ahmed told the BBC what happened after he disappeared from the frame on the CCTV footage.

"They put handcuffs on and blindfolded me," he said. He was then taken to an unknown location. "They dragged me out of the car and threw me into a room and started torturing me. They didn't ask me anything, they just stripped me naked … and began beating me continuously with leather belts and wooden sticks, on my back and the soles of my feet."

The beatings lasted for five to six days in small, windowless cell, Mr Ahmed said. He didn't think he would survive. "They told me, 'We will throw your body into the river.'" Video filmed by Mr Ahmed of his injuries after his release shows extensive bruising on his body.

Since then, the crackdown appears to have only intensified. Last week, a journalist was tied up and beaten at gunpoint by men identifying themselves as members of Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI. In April, a commentator was shot and injured while walking in a park. Pakistan is currently ranked 145 out of 180 countries on a Press Freedom Index compiled by the charity Reporter's Without Borders. Neither the army nor the government responded to requests to comment from the BBC about allegations intelligence officers have targeted journalists and activists although the ISI has publicly denied involvement in last week's assault.

According to Mr Ahmed, during his interrogation the men holding him asked: "Who is really behind the posts you put up on Facebook and Twitter?"

"I told them, 'No-one is telling me to write them. I have my own independent beliefs about the importance of civilian rule.' But they weren't prepared to listen to me."

He said he was also asked about who was "funding" him; and what his links were to other liberal activists and the Pashtun Protection Movement, which has held large demonstrations accusing the military of human rights abuses.

It sounded to Mr Ahmed like his interrogators had printed copies of his social media posts. "I was blindfolded, but could hear pages turning as they said, 'What have you written here about the military spokesman? You've said this or that about the army chief and Prime Minister - why are you criticising them?'"

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Mr Ahmed had been targeted before in a similar fashion. In April 2019, he was formally accused of uploading "defamatory posts against Agencies of Pakistan", but the court case against him stalled. Then in June he was abducted, beaten, and warned to stop his social media activity before being dumped by a road around 50km away from his home in the early hours of the morning, he said.

Prior to letting him go, he said, his abductors shot a video of him while he was naked, forcing him to declare: "I won't criticise anyone on social media again." He alleges that they threatened to make the video viral and then kill him if he resumed his activism. When he did just that, he was detained again in December, this time for two weeks.

Pressing mute on dissent

Others have apparently also been targeted for their online activity. The journalist Asad Ali Toor began posting videos on YouTube to bypass the largely unofficial censorship on what local TV channels can broadcast. Most "live" TV political talk shows in Pakistan are in fact transmitted with a slight delay, allowing producers to mute guests who stray too far in their criticism. In one programme last year, a commentator was even muted while criticising the lack of press freedom in the country.