Islamabad, Pakistan – Nearly two weeks ago, a short video emerged on social media showing Pakistani journalist and political commentator Imran Riaz Khan being escorted out of Sialkot International Airport by a group of police officers.
The controversial 47-year-old commentator, with more than three million YouTube subscribers, has not been seen publicly since and neither his family nor the police appear to know his whereabouts.
His 32-year-old brother, Usman Riaz Khan, said that on the day the video was filmed, May 11, Imran Riaz Khan was flying to Oman, having decided to flee Pakistan when his house in Lahore was raided by the police the day before. .
“My brother was able to distill political stuff into his 16-minute videos, and he always told the truth, which is why he was arrested,” the younger brother told Al Jazeera on Tuesday.
Speaking from Lahore, Usman Riaz Khan said the family had been informed by Punjab police sources that his brother had been taken to the police station after being arrested at Sialkot airport.
“When we inquired, the police said we released him that night only. The police also claimed that he left with a group of strangers and they no longer knew anything about him,” Usman said, adding that his brother had no court case against him.
However, his father claimed in a formal complaint to police that CCTV footage from the police station showed his son was ‘kidnapped’ by ‘four to five masked men’ after he was released.
In Pakistan, a prominent pro-Imran Khan commentator has “disappeared”. Imran Riaz Khan was arrested by police last week, but they say they no longer have him in custody 🤨
I spoke to the Minister of Information @Mariyum_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 lawyer for the family, criticized Imran Riaz Khan’s arrest, saying no charges have been brought against him in the country.
“Although they have no reason to keep him, the authorities find 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 a court hearing on May 22, 11 days after his older brother was arrested at the airport, police repeatedly claimed that Imran Riaz Khan was not under their control. guard.
“THE [Inspector General] told the court he needed three more days to look for my brother, and now the next hearing will be on Thursday. My family is completely traumatized. My dad is a diabetic patient and can’t even talk about it,” he said.
“Apart from the eldest daughter, we haven’t even told the rest of the three children where their father is and why he is not at home,” Usman Riaz Khan added.
Punjab Police Inspector General Usman Anwar said on Tuesday that Imran Riaz Khan was not in custody, declining to comment further as the case was pending in court.
“He’s not with us. The problem is sub justice [before a judge]. It is by no means required,” he replied to Al Jazeera by phone message.
Acting Punjab Information Minister Amir Mir also denied that Imran Riaz Khan had been detained by the police.
“The Punjab Police Chief gave the answer in court. The case is being heard there but we have no information on Imran Riaz Khan and he is not with us.
In a television interview on Monday, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah Khan said that if it is proven that Imran Riaz Khan was abducted, the government will prosecute the perpetrators.
“We asked intelligence and investigative agencies, and they said he was not with them,” he said.
Federal Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb said she condemns any unlawful action taken against individuals, while questioning Imran Riaz Khan’s journalistic credentials.
“Imran Riaz Khan is the spokesperson for a political party. You have to distinguish between a journalist and those who join a political party and incite violence. Don’t mix them up with these reporters who are reporting,” the minister told Channel 4 News in the UK.
The Khan controversy
The YouTuber and commentator has a controversial reputation. Through his videos and statements, Imran Riaz Khan is perceived to be closely linked to 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 prime minister was arrested for corruption.
Following the former prime minister’s arrest, widespread violent protests erupted across the country, leading the government to approve the establishment of military tribunals to try protesters involved in the attack on military installations under a draconian army law and an official secrets law. During the protests, at least 10 people died and more than 4,000 were arrested for vandalism and rioting.
Before the departure of the former Prime Minister of office in April 2022Imran Riaz Khan was a strong 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 for sedition. He was released in both cases within a week, and the charges were later dropped.
freedom of the press
Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the global media freedom body, condemned the “kidnapping” of Imran Riaz Khan and said it believed Pakistani spy agencies were involved.
“There is no need to turn a blind eye to the euphemism ‘agencies’. It was clearly the Pakistani military intelligence agencies who abducted Imran Riaz Khan,” Daniel Bastard, Asia-Pacific manager at RSF, said in a statement released on Tuesday.
“It is up to the civilian government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to uphold the rule of law by bringing the journalist to justice or ordering his release. Failing this, the Pakistani authorities will be held directly responsible for any harm that may have been inflicted on him.
Labor activist journalist and reporter, Matiullah Jan, criticized the government’s inaction to get Khan back. Highlighting the reaction of Information Minister Aurangzeb, Jan, who was also arrested for a day in 2020, took issue with Imran Riaz Khan’s criticism.
“You are criticizing a person who has been missing for almost two weeks. You criticize someone who is at least in front of you or has the power to respond. You are a minister and insult someone who disappeared simply because you think he is a party employee? Is the disappearance of a party worker justified? Jan asked Al Jazeera.
Analyst and journalist Absar Alam, who survived an assassination attempt in 2021, said illegal and unconstitutional acts cannot be tolerated.
“If he has committed a crime, bring him to court. He may have had a habit of defending similar disappearances, mocking the suffering victims of other targeted media personnel in the past. However, whoever forcibly disappeared, that was wrong then, and it’s 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, whatever the reason for his disappearance.
“I don’t know if he was taken away or if he himself disappeared. It’s up to the state to find out. The responsibility stops with them. Every citizen of this country, even if they are a criminal, must be brought to justice and given due process as their right,” Solangi said.
Pakistan has a checkered record on media freedom and safety of journalists.
Media personnel have long been targeted by state authorities for their work, and many have been attacked or forced out of their jobs.
The country was ranked 150 in the 2023 World Press Freedom Index published by RSF, an improvement of seven places from the previous year.
Another journalist and presenter, Arshad Sharifhad to flee Pakistan last year in August after being threatened with death, and was later killed in Kenya in October.
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