Islamabad, Pakistan – Almost two weeks ago, a short video surfaced on social media showing Pakistani journalist and political commentator Imran Riaz Khan being escorted from Sialkot International Airport by a group of officials of police
The controversial 47-year-old commentator, who has more than three million followers on YouTube, has not been seen in public since and neither his family nor the police seem to know where he is.
His 32-year-old brother, Usman Riaz Khan, said that on the day the video was taken, May 11, Imran Riaz Khan was flying to Oman, after deciding to flee to Pakistan when his home in Lahore was raided. by the police the other day. .
“My brother was able to eliminate political activities in his 16-minute videos, and he always told the truth, so he was removed,” the younger brother told Al Jazeera on Tuesday.
Speaking from Lahore, Usman Riaz Khan said the family was told by Punjab police sources that his brother was taken to the police station after being arrested at the Sialkot airport.
“When we asked, the police said that we released him only that night. The police also claimed that he went with a group of unknown people, and they did not know anything about him,” Usman said, adding that his brother did not face any legal charges. against him.
However, his father claimed in an official complaint filed with the police that CCTV footage from the police station showed that his son was “kidnapped” by “four to five masked men” after being released.
In Pakistan, a prominent pro-Imran Khan commentator has “disappeared.” Imran Riaz Khan was detained by the police last week, but they say he is no longer in custody 🤨
I spoke to the Information Minister @Marriyum_A about his case and freedom of the press under the current government: pic.twitter.com/KhN4MId2wR
– Secunder Kermani (@SecKermani) May 22, 2023
Azhar Siddique, a family lawyer, criticized the arrest of Imran Riaz Khan, saying there were no existing cases against him anywhere in the country.
“Although there are no grounds to detain him, the authorities are looking for excuses to somehow slow down the process and delay it,” the lawyer told Al Jazeera on Tuesday, adding that the family would appeal.
Usman Riaz Khan said that during the court hearing on May 22, 11 days after his elder brother was arrested at the airport, the police repeatedly admitted that Imran Riaz Khan was not in their custody.
“The [Inspector General] told the court that he needs three more days to find my brother, and now the next hearing is on Thursday. My family was completely traumatized. My father is a diabetic patient and can’t even talk about it,” he said.
“Except for the eldest daughter, we have not told the rest of the three children where their father is and why he is not at home,” added Usman Riaz Khan.
Inspector General of Punjab Police Usman Anwar said on Tuesday that Imran Riaz Khan was not in police custody, declining to comment further as the case was still in court.
“He is not with us. The thing is sub-judice [before a judge]. He is not needed in any case,” he replied to Al Jazeera via phone message.
Interim Information Minister for Punjab Amir Mir also denied that Imran Riaz Khan is in police custody.
“Punjab police chief has given the answer to the court. The matter is being heard there but we don’t have any information about Imran Riaz Khan and he is not with us.
In a TV interview on Monday, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah Khan said that if it is proved that Imran Riaz Khan was kidnapped, the government will go after the culprits.
“We asked the intelligence and investigation agencies, and they said he was not with them,” he said.
Federal Minister for Information Marriyum Aurangzeb said he condemned any illegal action taken against individuals, while at the same time questioned the journalistic credentials of Imran Riaz Khan.
“Imran Riaz Khan is a spokesperson of a political party. You must make a distinction between a journalist and those who join a political party and incite violence. Do not mix them with journalists who report,” said the minister of Channel 4 News in the United Kingdom.
The Khan controversy
The YouTuber and commentator has a controversial reputation. Through his videos and statements, Imran Riaz Khan is seen to be closely aligned with former Prime Minister Imran Khan (no relation) and his political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).
The video of Imran Riaz Khan being escorted from the airport was filmed two days after the former PM was arrested on corruption charges.
Following the arrest of the ex-premier, widespread violent protests broke out across the country, leading the government to approve the establishment of military courts to try protesters involved in attacks on military installations. under a draconian army action and official secret actions. During the protests, at least 10 people died and more than 4,000 were arrested on charges of vandalism and rioting.
Before the removal of the former PM from office in April 2022, Imran Riaz Khan was an ardent supporter of the military and its actions against journalists, but his pro-military stance was reversed soon after.
Imran Riaz Khan was arrested twice by authorities in July 2022 and February 2023 on sedition charges. He was acquitted of both charges in less than a week, and the charges were later dropped.
Freedom of the press
Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the global body for media freedom, condemned the “kidnapping” of Imran Riaz Khan, and said it believed Pakistani spy agencies were involved.
“There is no point in turning a blind eye to the ‘agencies’ euphemism. It is clear that Pakistan’s military intelligence agencies abducted Imran Riaz Khan,” said Daniel Bastard, RSF’s Asia-Pacific chief, in a statement released on Tuesday.
“It is up to the civilian government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to ensure respect for the rule of law by taking the journalist to court or ordering his release. Failing this, the Pakistani authorities will be directly responsible for any damage that may occur to him.
An activist of the journalists’ and journalists’ union, Matiullah Jan, criticized the government’s inaction to recover Khan. Pointing to the reaction of Information Minister Aurangzeb, Jan, who was also arrested on a day in 2020, issued a criticism of Imran Riaz Khan.
“You criticize someone who has been missing for almost two weeks. You criticize someone who is in front of you or has the power to respond. You are a minister, and you insult someone who has disappeared just because you think he is a party worker? Is it reasonable to lose a party worker?” Jan asked Al Jazeera.
Analyst and journalist Absar Alam, who survived an assassination attempt in 2021, said illegal and unconstitutional acts would not be tolerated.
“If he has committed any crime, he will be brought to court. He may have a history of defending similar losses, mocking the suffering victims of other media personnel who have been targeted in the past. However, anyone who is forcibly disappeared, it was wrong then, and it is just as wrong now,” he told Al Jazeera.
Another senior journalist, Murtaza Solangi, told Al Jazeera that it is the state’s responsibility to find out who is responsible for Imran Riaz Khan’s disappearance regardless of why he went missing.
“I don’t know if he was taken or if he lost himself. It is the state’s job to find out. The buck stops with them. Any citizen of the country, even if he is a criminal, they should be brought to court and given due process as their right,” said Solangi.
Pakistan has a checkered record when it comes to media freedom and the safety of journalists.
Media workers have long been targeted by state authorities for their work, and many have been attacked, or fired from their jobs.
The country is ranked 150 in the 2023 World Press Freedom Index published by RSF, an improvement of seven places in the ranking from last year.
Another journalist and anchorperson, Arshad Sharif, had to flee to Pakistan last year in August after threats to his life, and was later killed in Kenya in October.