Pakistan’s intimidation of its citizens abroad

Repressive regimes tend to use violence, intimidation and technology to silence dissent abroad. A report published by Freedom House on February 04, 2021, argues that “transnational repression” has become more common. It found that 31 states had physically attacked their citizens living in other countries since 2014.Millions have been intimidated by harassment, digital surveillance and smear campaigns. Common tactics include withholding travel documents, denying consular services and threatening relatives back home.

Pakistan is one such country that has gone beyond its territory to harass and intimidate its citizens settled abroad. In January 2021, Pakistan Telecommunication Authorities (PTA), in order to shut down the website, threatened a group of Ahmadiyyas in the US with jail penalties up to ten years under Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law. Pakistan authorities reminded them that their relatives too back home can be charged with blasphemy punishable by death. American attorney Brett Williamson, who is representing, slammed PTA’s action as “a malicious attempt to chill free speech and expression”. On January 14, 2021, House Foreign Affairs Committee Gregory Meeks stated that it is “very concerning to see Pakistan using attempts to apply its controversial cybercrime laws-used to stifle expression within Pakistan-to repress Americans’ freedom of speech and worship well outside of Pakistan’s own borders”. 

Another victim of Pakistan Establishment’s harassment is Iqbal Zafar. On March 09, 2021, Iqbal Zafar, a Pakistan national residing in Spain, tried to immolate himself in front Pakistan’s Consulate in Barcelona. He was fed up of the atrocities inflicted on him and on his family by Pakistan authorities. He alleged that his family was attacked and tortured by Pakistani authorities in his native place and his act was an act of protest against the atrocities perpetuated by the state against its own citizens.After the incident became public, Consular General of Pakistan in Barcelona, in order to do damage control, issued a press briefing portraying Iqbal Zafar as mentally disturbed and having long term criminal background. The incident highlights the oppression perpetuated by the Pak authorities on its own citizens and depicts the grim reality inside the country.

In another case of ill-treatment, it is learnt that Pakistan’s Embassy in Japan hasbeen harassing Pakistan national Rana Abid Hussain for using derogatory language against Embassy’s officials and Pakistan’s state institutions on social media. Rana Abid Hussain is the President of Pakistan-Japan Business Council and the Embassy has supposedly implicated him in a fake case of forging shipping documents.

Significantly, in the year 2020, two noted Pakistani dissidents Karima Baloch and Sajid Hussain Baloch were found dead in mysterious circumstances. Karima Baloch, a dissident Pakistani human rights activist living in exile in Canada was found dead in Toronto in December 2020. She had been advocating for the rights of people of Balochistan and raising the ongoing issue of enforced disappearances. Her husband Hammal Haider had said thatfoul play could not be ruled out in her death. Karima Baloch had left Pakistan after her home was raided several times and her uncle was killed. She was threatened to leave activism and political activities.

In April 2020, Sajid Hussain Baloch, a journalist who wrote about human rights violations in Balochistan, was found dead in a river in Sweden. He had sought asylum in Sweden after threats to his life in Pakistan. Gulalai Ismail, a Pakistani human rights activist in exile in the US, demanded that the Pakistan Embassy in Sweden should be investigated for their involvement in abduction and murder of exiled Baloch activist Sajid Hussain Baloch. She further claimed that there had been an increasing trend of threats and attacks on the exiled activists facilitated through embassies.

Extraterritorial repression is not new for Pakistan, what is new is the ease with which Pakistan authorities are now able to snoop on its diaspora. Technology has made it even easier for them to oppress from a distance. The internet and social-media networks which at first connected and empowered citizens are now being used by Pakistan Establishment to trap them and go after them. The host countries must take the responsibility of protecting human rights of citizens of other countries to prevent such rogue states from getting away with harassing its citizens abroad.

Fabien Baussart
Fabien Baussart
President of CPFA (Center of Political and Foreign Affairs)