A peaceful demonstration was organized by the civil society earlier this Thursday near Karachi’s Arts Council to protest against enforced disappearances and censorship of social media activists who were campaigning against the rise in human rights violations and extremism in the country. It was met with a fierce clash at the hands of the local police and hardline extremists.

Social media activists and bloggers Salman Haider, Ahmed Waqas Goraya, Aasim Saeed, Ahmed Raza Naseer and Samar Abbas, have been missing for the past two weeks after being mysteriously abducted by unknown assailants from different cities of Punjab.

More than a 100 protesters, representing diverse spectrum of the civil rights society such as women, students and minority rights activists, including groups such as Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), National Trade Union Federation (NTUF), National Students Federation and  Tehrik-e-Niswan, assembled to demonstrate and march ahead to the Karachi Press Club, calling for an end to enforced disappearances by unknown abductors and failure of the state/intelligence to recover missing blogger and political activists. 

Civil activists holding banners against enforced disappearances and chanting slogans in support of missing activists like Salman Haider - NSF

But as they were about to start marching for the Press Club, civil society activists came face to face with a counter rally headed by Mufti Asif Saeed Qadri of Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY), who were protesting against the supporters of the missing bloggers, hurling stones at the peaceful protesters and threatening the missing bloggers with the blasphemy law.

Progressive activists such as Mohammad Jibran Nasir and Sheema Kirmani, who are actively protesting against the abductions of missing activists have also come under fire from the likes of conservative hardline TV anchors and journalists such as Aamir Liaquat Hussain and Orya Maqbool Jan who are publicly accusing the missing bloggers of committing blasphemy and anyone supporting them as an atheist (Mulahad) and apostate (Murtad) of Islam.

Jibran described the attacks on protestors as “beyond embarrassing and gross violation of basic human rights which needs to be addressed urgently by the state”. He further added that “Religion has been weaponized in the past and is still being used by people with vested political interests at the cost which is paid with thousands of innocent lives lost. Lives of our fellow countrymen, women and children are being brutally lost at the hands of such extremist groups, but despite all this suffering we still refuse as a nation to learn and deliberately continue to pursue the policies of violence against our own people”.

Policemen in riot gear holding protesters on both side from going into a confrontation - NSF

Police in a bid to control emotions on both sides, aggressively pushed the rights protesters injuring women and students alike who were already being pelted with stones by the hardliners. Natasha, a feminist activist representing one of the groups which organized the protest, went on to share her first hand experience.

According to her, "There were initially 40 hardliners representing the counter group which soon reached to around 80-100 people. We were already at odds with the police who came in with riot gear and were pushing and manhandling our women and men to not hold the rally. We were left with no option but to retreat at a nearby building as the extremists grew in force and our state assigned protectors were failing to protect us from such a violent assault”

Policeman holds back a Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah supporter, who is chanting slogans against the civil society - Reuters

National Students Federation’s (NSF) student organizer Muzammal Afzal, who was active at the forefront of the protests said, “It is evident that the state is failing to ensure safe recovery of missing bloggers and other political activists. What we witnessed on the day of protest was the hopelessness and failure of state authorities, as protestors were attacked for raising their voice for basic human rights by religious militia.”

“Police force failed to stop them from approaching and attacking the protestors who were peacefully gathered to exercise their rights to protest against abductions and voice concerns over other human rights abuses. Failure to protect us points out the ugly face of the state establishment, which is suppressing dissent even at the cost of human lives. However, no matter what the odds are we will keep on striving for the safe recovery of all missing persons and bloggers.” further added Afzal.

Student activists protest against the forced disappearances of social activist e.g Salman Haider - NSF