A nationally known journalist in Pakistan who disappeared nearly five months ago after being taken into police custody has returned home, his lawyer and police said Monday.
Imran Riaz Khan, often called Imran Riaz, was detained by police at the airport in his native Sialkot city in the central Punjab province on May 11 as he tried to flee the country over fears of his arrest. At the time, authorities accused him of inciting people to violence through his reporting.
In a video message released just before his arrest, Riaz had stated that he was leaving the country because the "space to speak is shrinking" in Pakistan and he was "being forced into silence."
The Sialkot police early Monday announced on X (formerly Twitter) that the 47-year-old journalist "has been safely recovered" and "he is now with his family." The police did not share any other details, nor did they explain from where he was recovered.
Riaz's lawyer later confirmed the journalist's reunion with his family and posted a picture of him on X.
"It took a lot of time due to the countless challenges" and "a weak judiciary," the lawyer, Mian Ashfaq Ali, wrote in the local Urdu language.
Ali declined to comment on Riaz’s physical well-being or what he may have experienced while in captivity, saying it was too early to discuss the matter.
"I don't want to overburden him or add to the traumatic situation he is going through,” Ali told VOA Urdu by phone.
“He has lost 22 kilograms. He needs time to stabilize mentally and physically,” he added. “At this point, his well-being, recovery, and restoration of his old status are more supreme than anything.”
Pakistan's caretaker government has not immediately commented on Riaz's release or the circumstances leading to his disappearance.
The journalist was arrested amid a nationwide crackdown on former Prime Minister Imran Khan's supporters after they allegedly vandalized military properties in different parts of Pakistan during anti-government protests in May.
Riaz was conducting talk shows on the mainstream Pakistani BOL television channel and for his over three million YouTube subscribers until he went missing. He has more than five million followers on X.
The journalist's family had immediately approached a high court in the provincial capital of Lahore, alleging that police had abducted him. But the police told the court days later that Riaz was freed within 24 hours and not in their custody, strengthening widespread suspicions that the powerful military was behind his abduction.
The military has not commented on the allegations since Riaz went missing.
After repeated hearings into the case, the judge issued a "final warning” last week to the police to locate and produce the missing journalist before the court by Tuesday.
"The release of @ImranRiazKhan is such a positive sign!" said lawyer Khadija Siddiqi, a human rights activist, on X. "Latest modus operandi of brazenly silencing voices of dissent seems to have failed miserably! Citizens of Pakistan must not be antagonized by our own state!"
Pakistani security agencies have long been accused of intimidating and harassing journalists critical of the military for its involvement in politics.
Riaz was a vocal supporter of former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and the military. However, after Khan was removed from power in a parliamentary no-confidence motion in April 2022, the journalist started criticizing the military that the deposed prime minister alleged was behind his ouster.
Last week, authorities in the capital, Islamabad, arrested a television anchor, Khalid Jamil, after he posted comments on X that were critical of the military. Jamil faces charges of spreading false information about state institutions on social media.
Global press freedom advocacy groups list Pakistan among the countries declared unsafe for journalists.
The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists says that at least 97 media workers and journalists have been killed, primarily for their work in the country since 1992. However, investigations into these cases have not led to any convictions.
Khan's opposition party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI, hailed Raiz's release in a prepared statement, saying he was "one of many names who are suffering from enforced disappearances in Pakistan."
It referred to hundreds of PTI supporters arrested since May and reiterated party demands to free all political prisoners from "illegal incarceration."
"These are innocent people who are either members & supporters of Pakistan's largest & only federal party, PTI…, or people who have raised their voices against the unprecedented fascism, utter lawlessness, suspension of constitution & dismantling of democracy in the country," the statement claimed.
Khan was convicted of corruption charges and sentenced to three years in prison last month. A federal court later suspended the sentence, but authorities refused to release him, saying he is being tried in another case under the country’s so-called Official Secrets Act for leaking state information to the public for political gain.
The former prime minister rejects any wrongdoing, saying the military is behind scores of lawsuits brought against him since his ouster in a bid to block his return to power in next elections, charges government officials deny.