A British-Pakistani activist known for her criticism of Pakistan’s military was briefly abducted by unknown men in Lahore late on Tuesday, her family said, prompting fears she had been forcibly disappeared.
Gul Bukhari, 52, was detained for several hours by unknown men one day after the military held a press conference warning that it is monitoring social media accounts of citizens who criticize Pakistan, amid a growing crackdown on free speech in the country.
Bukhari was on her way to a TV news station in Lahore where she was due to appear as an analyst on a late night show when she was stopped, her husband Ali Nadir told AFP. “She left around 10:40 p.m. for Waqt News but was apparently picked up on the way. It seems to be plainclothes people but we don’t have any more info,” he said in a WhatsApp message.
He later confirmed that she had been freed, but could not immediately provide further details.
Sources at Waqt News said the kidnapping had taken place inside the city’s cantonment neighborhood.
The British High Commission in Islamabad said Wednesday that it was aware of the reported incident and was “reaching out with consular assistance.”
“We are very concerned at reports of Gul Bukhari’s abduction last night,” the High Commission said in a statement posted on Twitter.
News of her abduction caused a furor on social media. Maryam Nawaz Sharif, daughter of ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif, said it was “extremely disturbing” and the “worst kind of oppression.”
“I hope better sense prevails and she returns unharmed. This is simply not acceptable,” she tweeted before Bukhari returned home.
“Dissenters are not a threat. Healthy societies allow critical voices to foster/retain a pluralist culture,” tweeted newspaper editor and analyst Raza Rumi. The Committee to Protect Journalists said it was “alarmed” by the report of her abduction. “Pakistani journalists have seen enough tragedy,” the watchdog tweeted.
Pakistan has had a history of enforced disappearances over the past decade, mainly confined to conflict zones near the Afghanistan border or to the restive Balochistan province. However, in recent years, a growing number of such abductions have taken place brazenly in major urban centers such as Karachi, Lahore and even the capital Islamabad. They have also increasingly targeted activists and journalists. The military routinely denies being involved.
Some of those who have been released in the past have described being tortured, though many remain reluctant to name their abductors. Others remain missing, like activist Raza Khan who disappeared in December 2017.
On Monday, the military held a wide-ranging press conference in which it pushed back against criticism. “We have the capability to monitor social media as to who is doing what,” military spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor said. He also briefly flashed an image on screen showing what appeared to be Twitter handles and names, including of at least one prominent journalist, but refused to elaborate further.