From Advocate to Victim: Arsalan Khan's Tale of Enforced Disappearance in Pakistan

From Advocate to Victim: Arsalan Khan's Tale of Enforced Disappearance in Pakistan
Anyone who the state has picked up has lived two lives. Their life before being picked up and their life after being abducted.

Karachi-based social media activist Arsalan Khan was detained and then released a year ago to the day by law enforcers.

Arsalan spoke exclusively with Naya Daur, detailing that he was quite sensitive to the subject of enforced disappearances and used his social media platform to raise the issue. What he did not consider was that all the missing persons he spoke about often would one day come to include him as well.

What happened over the next 24 hours, Arsalan said, changed his life.

"It is one thing to know about what a certain experience is like, but it is entirely different to suffer it yourself."

Having suffered for a day, he said that he could understand what the families and loved ones of those who have been disappeared by the state go through. He added that every Pakistani citizen enjoyed the inviolable constitutional right to be presented in court and defend the charges against them.

"If anyone has committed a crime, only a court can decide [whether they are guilty or innocent]," he said, adding that instead of tormenting their families by denying them access to basic information about their whereabouts and condition.

While some may argue he spent just 24 hours in custody, it was enough to afflict him with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and scarred him for life.
"To hell with your abidance of the law; you write against the state and spew nonsense"

What happened to Arsalan?

On the night he was arrested in Karachi, Arsalan says he attempted to ask his would-be captors to treat him for the law-abiding citizen that he is.

In response, all he got was a verbal volley of abuse and some more shoving.

"To hell with your abidance of the law; you write against the state and spew nonsense," came the sharp reply.

From writing to treason

Arsalan told Naya Daur that he was primarily a writer and consulted for several major media organizations.

He conceded to consulting for some political parties as well. However, he denied having formally joined any particular political party.

"Even today, you will not find any criminal record or FIR registered against me in any police station," he said.

READ MORE: Bad Character To Treason: Pakistani Journalists Battle For Their Reputations

While he was jobless before consulting for political parties, he even lost those contracts after his run-in with the state institutions.

"Many of my friends have even stopped picking up my calls," he lamented.

Picked up

On the night he was picked, Arsalan said that a white SUV (like a Prado) pulled up, and armed men, both uniformed and in plain clothes, 'raided' his home.

They bundled him into the vehicle and drove away. During the 30-minute journey to an undisclosed location, Arsalan said that he was subjected to physical torture.

Arsalan said that his hands and feet were shackled when they arrived at the unknown location of his detention.

Arsalan said that he got an extended respite from the brutality of physical torture for three to four hours, during which time his captors bombarded him with questions.

At this point, Arsalan chose to self-sensor what happened next lest he overshadow the stories of others abducted by the state.
During the 30-minute journey to an undisclosed location, Arsalan said that he was subjected to physical torture

What does state torture feel like

Of the several other hours he spent in custody, Arsalan said that he was tortured.

Reluctantly, he shared that this included being stripped naked.

Arsalan, whose Twitter handle is named after the Russian automatic rifle AK-47 (popularized in the Afghan war), was made to sit at the end of a barrel of a loaded weapon. It would be ironic if not for the severe abuse of human rights.

The social media activist said his captors recorded the entire humiliating and degrading incident on video. Leverage, perhaps for some other time.

"During this time, I was beaten to the point that my big toe suffered a hairline fracture."

READ MORE: Custodial Torture Act: The Good, Bad & The Paradoxical

Arsalan asked what could be a worse example of the violation of law and the Constitution than this.

During questioning, Arsalan said that his captors showed him some of the messages he had posted on the public social media platform Twitter.

His connections with various key individuals were asked about. Arsalan said that he was also accused of being in touch with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-London faction -- the faction that was more aligned with MQM supremo Altaf Hussain, with whom most of the party disassociated itself in 2016 to form MQM Pakistan.
"I was called a traitor, whereas I believe that treason is akin to betraying my mother, my father and grandfather"

Arsalan said that he denied all accusations.

"All humans have political inclinations. I, too, had my point of view, and the Constitution and law gave me the right to have that view."

Arsalan maintained that until June 24, 2022, he had not posted any tweet that could be considered as against state institutions or would bring them into disrepute.

"I wrote a lot, but I never crossed the established red lines," he said.

"I was called a traitor, whereas I believe that treason is akin to betraying my mother, my father and grandfather," he said, adding, "What would I tell them if I betray the state?"

In this context, Arsalan said that his grandfather had migrated from the Indian mainland to Dhaka at the time of Partition. And when Dhaka fell, his father and mother decided to move to what was then West Pakistan, even though they would have had a relatively comfortable life in the new state given his father's job in the police force.

Arsalan claimed that his father sacrificed the promise of a better life for living in Pakistan.

"Before June 24, 2022, I was a common citizen. But after June 25, 2022, I became someone who took funding from a terrorist organization."

He added that while a court of law could exonerate him from the unfounded allegations levelled against him by state institutions, he would always remain an accused in the eyes of the public.

The only solution to this was to tell his tale in the media.
"Before June 24, 2022, I was a common citizen. But after June 25, 2022, I became someone who took funding from a terrorist organization"

Join the alternates

Detailing his interrogation, Arsalan said that some of his tweets critical of the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) were read back to them.

"One tweet they read back to me was the one in which I had included that image of Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) Leader Ali Wazir in which he was sitting on the floor outside Jinnah Hospital from exhaustion, hands still handcuffed. In the tweet, he criticized the PPP for hypocrisy that in their government, such treatment was being meted out to a politician.


PTM, Ali Wazir, arrested, Jinnah Hospital


He was repeatedly asked why he was writing about the electoral boycott in Karachi in June 2022 when the MQM founder Altaf Hussain had announced the boycott.

"They asked me why I only want to work for MQM-London. Why don't you work for MQM-Pakistan or the Pak Sarzameen Party?"


Muttahida Qaumi Movement London, MQM Supremo Altaf Hussain, Twitter


I was pressured to admit I had received funding from a proscribed terrorist organization. I had never taken funds from any terror outfit, so how could I admit to that?"

Raising a voice for missing persons

Arsalan said he was then asked why he raised his voice for the missing persons.

"I asked them what is the reality of the issue of missing persons?"

Arsalan said he was told that people are picked up because they have done something that led to such an action.

Upon returning home, Arsalan said that many people told him his tragedy could form the basis for applying for asylum or political sanctuary in other countries. But after discussing it with my family, he decided not to leave his country.

"I don't think those who took political sanctuary did something wrong, but I believe it is a misstep for me. I grew up here, where my father chose to live and where my late mother is buried; why should I leave that city or country?"

Not just institutions, Sindh govt also responsible

Arsalan said that first, he wants to ask the Sindh government, dominated by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), why such a tragedy befell him.

"I live just a kilometre from Bilawal House," he said, adding that he often casts questioning glances at PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah and wants to know why he was abducted during their government.

Moreover, Arsalan expressed bitterness over how, when his wife went to the Boat Basin police station to lodge a case, she was told off by the officials there that they could not register a case for Arsalan's abduction and that she could go and tell the media.

READ MORE: The Women Fighting Enforced Disappearances in Pakistan

He pointed out that his wife pays her taxes and gives tax revenue to the Sindh government monthly in the electricity and water bills. Hence it was their responsibility to get her justice.

"I am surprised that my wife was kicked out of the same police station which also covers the Bilawal House in its jurisdiction, but the party which claims to champion democracy did not even react to this incident."

When asked why he holds responsible the Sindh government instead of the authorities who picked him up and subjected him to custodial torture, Arsalan said that paramilitary Rangers had been deployed in the province under Article 245 of the Constitution to facilitate local law enforcement to maintain peace.

Hence, he said that any deputed security force is answerable to the chief executive of the province, the chief minister.

Moreover, this institution takes action in light of directives issued by the provincial government.

"Was the raid on the house of a man suspected of taking funding from a terror outfit located just a kilometre away from Bilawal House conducted without the approval of the provincial chief executive?"

If this is the case, it is far more concerning as it raises questions on the eligibility and credibility of the provincial chief executive and the Sindh government.

Arsalan said that government officials are transferred all the time; this is why there is a global trend of questioning public representatives.

"That is why I exercise my democratic, legal, and constitutional right to question the Sindh government."

Being released

As he was being released, Arsalan narrated that his captors asked him what he would tell the public and the media.

To this, Arsalan told them that he would be taking a vow of silence if the institution did not say anything about it. On this, he was provided assurances.

However, when he was released, the institution issued an official communique where he was again accused of having ties with a banned outfit.

Arsalan added that as he was being taken blindfolded to his release destination, one of the officials -- who he felt could be an officer due to the way he spoke -- told him to avoid using the MQM supremo's name as he is currently on the 'banned' list.

"To this, I responded that I write about the individual, democratic and political freedom of all politicians from Nawaz Sharif, Maryam Nawaz, Asif Ali Zardari, and Bilawal Bhutto to Imran Khan and Manzoor Pashteen, but I am not linked to any political party, not even the MQM. Just as I raise my voice for all political parties, I raise my voice for Altaf Hussain."

Here, it is worth mentioning that incidents of enforced disappearances and illegal arrests and detentions are increasing across the country.

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) had pledged to legislate on this matter before coming into power, and a bill was also presented in the assembly. However, according to former federal human rights minister Shireen Mazari, this bill itself went missing.

I am not linked to any political party, not even the MQM"

It should be noted that while amending this bill, a clause was included stating that if someone falsely accuses a person of being disappeared by the state, they could face up to five years in prison and a fine of Rs100,000.

During the tenure of the PTI government, the then-opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) had assured the families of missing persons that if they came into power, these issues would be resolved. However, even after spending a year in power, enforced disappearances continue.