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 followers on YouTube, hasn’t been seen publicly since and neither his family nor police appear to know where he is.
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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, after deciding to flee Pakistan when his house in Lahore was raided by police the day before.
“My brother was able to distill political affairs in his 16-minute-long videos, and he always told the truth, that is why he was picked up,” the younger brother told Al Jazeera on Tuesday.
Speaking from Lahore, Usman Riaz Khan said that the family was told by sources with the Punjab police 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. Police also claimed that he went away with a group of unknown people, and they don’t know anything about him anymore,” Usman said, adding that his brother does not have any legal cases against him.
However, his father claimed in an official complaint filed with police that CCTV footage from the police station showed his son being “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 they don't have him in custody any more 🤨
— Secunder Kermani (@SecKermani) May 22, 2023
Azhar Siddique, a lawyer for the family, criticised Imran Riaz Khan’s arrest, saying that there are no existing charges against him anywhere in the country.
“Despite having no grounds to keep him, the authorities are finding excuses to somehow slow down the process and delay it,” the lawyer told Al Jazeera on Tuesday, adding that the family would file an appeal.
Usman Riaz Khan said that during a court hearing on May 22, 11 days after his older brother was arrested at the airport, the police repeatedly claimed that Imran Riaz Khan was not in their custody.
“The [Inspector General] told the court that he needs three more days to look for my brother, and now the next hearing is on Thursday. My family is completely traumatised. My father is a patient of diabetes and cannot even talk about this,” he said.
“Apart from the eldest daughter, we have not even told the rest of three children where their father is and why is he not home,” Usman Riaz Khan added.
Inspector General of the Punjab Police Usman Anwar said on Tuesday that Imran Riaz Khan was not in police custody, declining to comment further since the case was ongoing with the court.
“He is not with us. The matter is sub judice [before a judge]. He is not required in any case,” he responded to Al Jazeera via phone message.
Interim Information Minister for Punjab Amir Mir also denied that Imran Riaz Khan was in police custody.
“The Punjab police chief has given the response in 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 proven that Imran Riaz Khan was kidnapped, the government will go after the perpetrators.
“We have asked intelligence and investigation agencies, and they have said he is not with them,” he said.
Federal Minister for Information Marriyum Aurangzeb said she condemned any illegal action taken against individuals, while at the same time questioning Imran Riaz Khan’s journalistic credentials.
“Imran Riaz Khan is a political party spokesperson. You must draw distinction between a journalist and those who join a political party and incite violence. Don’t mix them with those journalists who report,” the minister told the United Kingdom’s Channel 4 News.
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 ex-premier’s arrest, widespread violent protests erupted across the country, leading the government to approve the establishment of military courts to try protesters involved in attacking military installations under a draconian army act and official secrets act. During the protests, at least 10 people died and more than 4,000 were arrested on charges of vandalism and rioting.
Prior to the former PM’s removal 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 reversed soon after.
Imran Riaz Khan was twice arrested by the authorities in July 2022 and February 2023 on accusations of sedition. He was released in both cases in less than a week, and the charges were subsequently dropped.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the global body for media freedom, condemned the “abduction” of Imran Riaz Khan, and said it believes Pakistan’s spy agencies are involved.
“There is no point closing one’s eyes to the ‘agencies’ euphemism. It was clearly Pakistan’s military intelligence agencies that abducted Imran Riaz Khan,” Daniel Bastard, the head of Asia-Pacific at RSF, said in a statement issued on Tuesday.
“It is up to Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s civilian government to ensure respect for the rule of law by producing the journalist in court or ordering his release. Failing this, the Pakistani authorities will be held directly responsible for any harm that may have befallen him.”
A journalists’ union activist and reporter, Matiullah Jan, slammed the government’s inaction to recover Khan. Singling out the reaction by Information Minister Aurangzeb, Jan, who was also arrested for one day in 2020, took issue with the criticism of Imran Riaz Khan.
“You are criticising a person who has been missing for almost two weeks. You criticise somebody who is at least in front of you or has the power to respond back. You are a minister, and insulting somebody who is disappeared just because you think he is a party worker? Is disappearing a party worker justified?” Jan asked Al Jazeera.
Analyst and journalist Absar Alam, who survived an assassination attempt in 2021, said that illegal and unconstitutional acts cannot be tolerated.
“If he has committed any crime, produce him before the court. He may have had a history of defending similar disappearances, mocking suffering victims of other media personnel targeted in the past. However, anybody who’s forcibly disappeared, it was wrong back then, and it is just as wrong now,” he told Al Jazeera.
Another senior journalist, Murtaza Solangi, told Al Jazeera it is the state’s responsibility to find who is responsible for Imran Riaz Khan’s disappearance regardless of why he disappeared.
“I don’t know if he was taken away or disappeared himself. It is the state’s job to find out. The buck stops with them. Any citizen of this country, even if he or she is a criminal, they should be taken to court and given due process as their right,” Solangi said.
Pakistan has a chequered record when it comes to media freedom and the safety of journalists.
Media personnel have long been targeted by state authorities for their work, and many have been attacked, or were pushed out of their jobs.
The country was ranked 150 in the 2023 World Press Freedom Index published by RSF, an improvement of seven places in rank from the year before.
Another journalist and anchorperson, Arshad Sharif, had to flee Pakistan last year in August after threats to his life, and was later killed in Kenya in October.