Pakistani exiles living in London who have criticized the country’s powerful military have been warned that their lives are in danger, raising new concerns about authoritarian regimes targeting foreign dissidents in the UK.
It is understood that British security sources are concerned that Pakistan, a strong ally of the United Kingdom, especially in intelligence matters, may be prepared to attack people on British soil.
The Observer New warnings have been reported from other intelligence services across Europe to Pakistani dissidents, including rights activists from the Pakistani province of Baluchistan, journalists and members of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, a group representing ethnic Pashtuns.
Last month, a man from East London was charged with conspiring with other strangers to assassinate an exiled Pakistani blogger and political activist, Ahmad Waqass Goraya, in the Netherlands.
Muhammad Gohir Khan, 31, of Forest Gate, east London, appeared at the Old Bailey after being arrested at St Pancras Station in London from the Netherlands.
Mark Lyall Grant, a former UK High Commissioner in Pakistan and once the UK’s top diplomat to the UN, said that if Pakistani military figures had threatened exiles in the UK, the British government would take it very seriously. .
“If there is illegal pressure, particularly on journalists in the UK, then I would expect law enforcement agencies and the British government to pick up on that and give an appropriate legal and / or diplomatic response.”
Lyall Grant, also a former UK national security adviser, added that any evidence would not be ignored that officers from Pakistan’s Interservice Intelligence (ISI), the army’s security arm, were intimidating people in the UK. “If British citizens or UK residents acting legally are being harassed or threatened by the ISI, or anyone else, the British government would certainly take an interest. “
He said the development reflected a broader trend in authoritarian states like Rwanda, Tanzania and the Philippines, among others, which became emboldened enough to begin silencing critics.
Since Imran Khan came to power in Pakistan in 2018 with the backing of the military, civil rights groups there have documented an erosion of press freedom with increased violent attacks on journalists. The concern now is that Pakistan appears to be shifting from suppressing criticism within its borders to targeting critics abroad.
Ayesha Siddiqa, a London-based Pakistani political scientist and commentator, said she had received a “life threatening” notice, known as a warning from Osman, from the metropolitan police. “The Met’s counterterrorism command said there was credible information about a threat to my life. It is a matter of life and death, ”he said.
Officers have even asked her husband if anyone had offered him money to ask his wife to return to Pakistan. “It’s as serious as that,” Siddiqa added.
Gul Bukhari, a British-Pakistani YouTuber and columnist who has openly criticized the army, fled to the UK after being abducted by security forces in Lahore in 2018. “I feel threatened in London,” she said.
Bukhari, who wore a security alarm bracelet last year, was advised by the Met not to share her home address with anyone.
Siddiqa is one of the others to have received security guidance from the UK police.
Fears among Pakistan’s exile community have risen since the mysterious deaths of two Pakistani dissidents last year. Journalist Sajid Hussain, known for covering human rights violations in Baluchistan, disappeared in March 2020 in Uppsala, Sweden, before being found dead in a river two months later.
Hussain’s friend Karima Baloch, who campaigned for an independent Balochistan, was found dead in a lake in Toronto, Canada, seven months later. Although the Swedish and Canadian authorities ruled out foul play, other activists are not convinced.
Baloch’s husband, Hammal Haider, a British resident, says he doesn’t feel safe in Europe. “Anyone who criticizes the Pakistani military is a potential target,” he said. “The authorities in Europe must take these threats seriously.”
Compounding the situation is the suggestion, according to Siddiqa, that the Pakistani community in the UK is “heavily infiltrated” by army loyalists.
Last year, a leaked Pakistani government memorandum accused several Pakistani journalists based in Europe and the United States of producing “anti-state content” for foreign media under pseudonyms. He named a journalist from a minority community living in exile in Western Europe. Talking with him Observer On condition of anonymity, the journalist said he was also the subject of a warning notice from the intelligence branch of the Pakistan army. He said authorities in his adopted country had confirmed a threat to his life.
“During the last six to eight months, I have not done any proper journalism because I have been threatened at a serious level that I had to take a step back,” said the exiled journalist.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) expresses concern about the surveillance of exiled Pakistani journalists. “We know of a series of cases that have not been made public. It is widely understood that these kinds of threats can only come from Pakistan’s military or intelligence services, ”said CPJ’s Steven Butler.
Exiled in Paris, prominent Pakistani journalist Taha Siddiqui, who escaped kidnapping in Islamabad in 2018, said his family and his partner’s family had been repeatedly harassed in Pakistan.
“They have had multiple visits from people who identify as ISI,” he said. “They told my father that he shouldn’t think I’m safe just because I live in France.” His wife, photojournalist Sara Farid, added: “It feels like there is no safe place or country for dissidents. Whenever I can’t get through to Taha on his phone, my first thought is how it used to be in Pakistan: he got caught. “
In neighboring Germany, Abdullah Abbas, information secretary for the Balochistan Human Rights Council, said the deaths of Baloch and Hussain led him to keep his head down. “It has revived my old fears of being disappeared or killed, even in Europe.” He said he is afraid to walk alone in Berlin.
Also in Germany, Aurang Zeb Khan Zalmay, an exiled editor of the Pashtun Times, an online portal that highlights human rights abuses in the tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan, said he was under surveillance by intelligence officials. “Many of my friends are not even willing to take a selfie with me and post it online for fear of being observed or questioned when they return to Pakistan,” he said.
Khan’s appearance at the Old Bailey last month precedes a guilty plea hearing on October 29, with a trial tentatively scheduled for next January.
A statement from the Pakistani government said: “As a responsible state, Pakistan respects the norms and principles of international law and abides by the legal and diplomatic frameworks that govern interstate interaction, including in community affairs. There is no doubt that no threat is made to any citizen of any state, including Pakistan’s own citizens living anywhere under any pretext. The unfounded accusations appear to be part of the rather blatant ongoing disinformation campaign against Pakistan to smear the country and its state institutions. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism