The families of the missing secular activists await the return of their loved ones. In the past few days, the civil society has held several demonstrations against the "forced disappearance" of the activists, demanding the government to recover at least four bloggers, writers, social media activists and human rights workers.
It is unclear who "abducted" these people. Some rights groups blame the security agencies whereas some accuse the militant groups for the disappearances. The government denies the military's role in it, and there has not been any statement from any Islamist organization in this regard either. Authorities have ordered an investigation into possible kidnappings, but have not yet located the missing persons.
Renowned rights activist and university professor Salman Haider disappeared from the capital Islamabad on January 6, according to his relatives and human rights organizations. At least three other secular activists - Waqas Goraya, Asim Saeed and Ahmed Raza - are also missing. While all these people work in different fields, they all have one thing in common: their consistent and sharp criticism of Pakistan's security establishment and conservative groups.
The blasphemy issue
On Monday, January 16, the missing persons' case took a new turn when a resident of the capital Islamabad filed a complaint with the police accusing the missing activists of committing blasphemy.
Blasphemy is a sensitive topic in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, where around 97 percent of its 180 million inhabitants are Muslim. Rights advocates have long been demanding reform of the controversial blasphemy laws, which were introduced by the Islamic military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s. Activists have said the laws have little to do with blasphemy and are often used to settle petty disputes and personal vendettas.
"I have filed a complaint against these bloggers, requesting the authorities to book them under the blasphemy law," Mohammad Tahir, the complainant, told Sattar Khan, DW's Islamabad correspondent.
Tahir's lawyer Asad Tariq told DW the reason behind registering a blasphemy complaint against the missing activists was to "inform the public and the bloggers' supporters about what kind of anti-Islam material these activists were posting on social media."
For the past few days, Pakistan's conservative sections have been sharing images and quotes from a number of secular Facebook pages that they claim were administered by the missing activists like Haider and Goraya. Although there is no proof that these people were running those pages, the South Asian country's anti-liberal TV commentators are criticizing them for engaging in "anti-national" and "anti-religious" activities.
A 'new trend'
"There has been a propaganda campaign against these bloggers on certain social media websites. Those who spoke in favor of the missing writers were also criticized. I have informed the Supreme Court about this organized campaign," Jibran Nasir, a social activist, told DW.
Some experts say that even if the missing activists were recovered now, their lives would be in huge danger following the blasphemy accusations.
Asad Butt, the vice chairman of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), says the blasphemy complaint has been filed by those who support the Islamization of the country. "It is their way of threatening the people. That is why we have been demanding that the government amends the blasphemy law," Butt told DW.
The "missing persons" phenomenon is not new in Pakistan. Thousands of people have disappeared over the past few years, but most of them are connected with an ongoing separatist movement in the western Baluchistan province or the Islamist insurgency in the northwestern tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. In both places, the army claims it is operating against "miscreants" and "terrorists" that are working against the state. Rights groups also accuse the paramilitary forces of illegally picking up political activists from the southern city of Karachi.
Local rights groups have the details of at least 8,000 people they say have disappeared over the past 12 years without a trace.
But the disappearance of secular writers and activists is a relatively new "trend" in the majority Muslim South Asian nation. Rights groups have been alarmed by it, saying it is a big threat to free speech in the country.
"Forced disappearances are not a new phenomenon in Pakistan. In the past, it was mostly restricted to the kidnappings of people from Baluchistan and the southern Sindh province, but now we see a nationwide situation," Farzana Bari, a prominent social activist in Islamabad, told DW.
Liberalism versus orthodoxy
Rights groups find the "trend" alarming for freedom of expression in the country.
"The civil society needs more unity now to protect the freedom of speech in the country. In the age of social media, independent thinkers have a platform to voice their concerns against certain actions of the government, and it is their right," Nahyan Mirza, an Islamabad-based development professional, told DW.
"Pakistani society, unfortunately, is being controlled to a large extent by the rightwing. These groups will never tolerate social, cultural and intellectual change that poses a challenge to their power. But I am hopeful the change will come soon," Mirza added.
The activists' disappearance is not only condemned in Pakistan but across the world, especially among the Pakistani diaspora.
Asim Ali Shah, a leftist member of the London-based Faiz Cultural Foundation, doesn't directly accuse the government for the kidnappings, but rather views the issue as a failure of the state to protect the country's intellectuals.
"The government's National Action Plan to eradicate terrorism has been a total failure. We see the extremist literature that promotes hatred, sectarianism and intolerance is in circulation all across the country. Yet the state only cracks down on progressive bloggers, peaceful writers and political activists," Shah told DW.
But there are also people in Pakistan who say the liberal sections only protest when one of their "comrades" disappears, and that they never raise their voices against the military operations in the tribal areas that, according to them, have killed thousands of innocent people. They argue that many people with no links to the Taliban or any other militant group have disappeared in those areas, yet the civil society is silent about them.
"The missing persons belonging to the Islamist camp have never been an issue for the Pakistani liberals. They were happy when former military dictator Pervez Musharraf acted unlawfully against Islamic clerics and activists," Naufil Shahrukh, an analyst at the Islamabad-based Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), told DW.
"The US drone killings in the northwestern tribal region, and the kidnappings and extrajudicial killings of anti-Musharraf people never bothered the secular groups. The case of Pakistani neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui, who is imprisoned in the US, is just one example of this hypocrisy," Shahrukh underlined.
Additional reporting by Sattar Khan, DW's Islamabad correspondent.