When her husband didn’t call as expected one night last August, Syeda knew something was wrong.
Syed Fawad Ali Shah, a Pakistani journalist living in exile in Malaysia, never missed their daily call. But despite Syeda’s efforts to find answers, it has been five months since she's heard from her husband.
Syeda’s pleas for answers from Malaysian and Pakistani authorities have largely been met with silence. “This is mental torture,” she told VOA, asking that we use only her first name.
The last time Syeda saw her husband was in the spring of 2022, when she was able to visit him in Malaysia. The last time she heard his voice was during a phone call on August 22.
The first inkling of her husband’s fate came on January 4, when Malaysian Home Affairs Minister Saifuddin Nasution Ismail acknowledged at a press conference that Shah had been deported to Pakistan in August, at the request of the Pakistan High Commission in Kuala Lumpur.
Malaysia said Pakistani authorities contended that Shah was a police officer who was the subject of disciplinary proceedings.
Syeda, a business professor who lives and works in Pakistan, said her husband has never worked for the police.
But even with Malaysia saying the journalist had been deported, questions remain. The most obvious is: Where is Shah?
Pakistani officials have told Syeda her husband is not in the country. But media rights analysts believe Islamabad is holding him.
Attempts by VOA to seek comment from Pakistani and Malaysian officials and embassies were not successful.
A spokesperson for Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry told VOA’s Urdu Service in a Thursday briefing that deportations are “finalized after consultations between governments through specific channels under certain legal provisions.”
The spokesperson directed VOA’s other questions about the case to the Ministry of Information. VOA contacted the information minister via a messaging app but did not receive a response by the time of publication.
Efforts to seek comment from Pakistan’s Interior Ministry and Federal Investigation Agency were also unsuccessful.
VOA also reached out to Malaysia’s home affairs and immigration ministries, and the Pakistan High Commission, but as of publication had not received a response.
For years, Shah reported critically on Pakistan, including the country’s powerful military and intelligence agencies.
Writing for the Pakistani daily The Nation, he produced a series of investigative stories about enforced disappearances and probable links between Taliban groups and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), a Pakistani intelligence agency.
Then in January 2011, the ISI abducted Shah and tortured him for months in a cellar, media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said.
At that time, said Daniel Bastard, head of the Asia-Pacific desk at RSF, intelligence agencies would hold reporters for months, “just to intimidate the whole community of journalists in Pakistan.”
Shortly after Shah was released, he fled to Malaysia and applied for refugee status.
Despite the distance, Pakistan’s intelligence agencies made efforts to forcibly repatriate him, even contacting Interpol on multiple occasions, according to RSF. Interpol refused.
In December 2019, a letter stamped “ISI” was sent to his Malaysian home, the news website Free Malaysia Today reported. He had one “last opportunity” to go to an agency in Kuala Lumpur to get an emergency passport, the letter said. “If you refuse to do so then we will make a horrific example of you,” it said.
Syeda shared a screenshot of an email her husband wrote to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in 2021. In it, he wrote, "I am always afraid that I will be deported to Pakistan secretly or dramatically without informing to the UNHCR Malaysia."
Analysts who spoke with VOA believe the Malaysian government likely deported Shah in error, saying the country did not have much to gain from the move.
There should be paperwork documenting Shah’s deportation, including when and how he left the country, according to Waytha Moorthy Ponnusamy, a Malaysian lawyer Syeda hired to investigate her husband’s case. But that paperwork doesn’t appear to exist, he said.
“Someone is hiding something,” Ponnusamy told VOA. “That’s the reason why we are trying to get to the bottom of it.”
Ponnusamy is among those who believe Shah was deported through an error. Still, he blames a select few Malaysian and Pakistani officials for what happened.
Syeda traveled to Malaysia in mid-December. She had wanted to travel earlier, but she was pregnant. Eventually, she said, the stress and anxiety caused by her husband’s disappearance became too much, leading to a miscarriage in October.
After arriving in Kuala Lumpur, Syeda worked with Ponnusamy to push Malaysia to reveal more information, but with no success.
Since the deportation, elections in November 2022 brought a change of power to Malaysia. Even though the officials are new, the government’s indifference is not, according to Predeep Nambiar, a journalist at Free Malaysia Today who is helping Syeda.
“The apathy — that really, frankly, pisses me off,” he told VOA. “It’s very opaque.”
In a country that ranks low on press freedom indexes, that has little freedom of information, that has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, and that does not respect the principle of non-refoulement, the Malaysian government’s indifference in this case is not surprising, Nambiar said.
Shah’s disappearance underscores the lengths Islamabad will go to to muzzle its critics, analysts told VOA, as well as the dangers dissidents face, even when thousands of miles away.
Authoritarian governments have long blurred borders to “silence dissent,” according to Yana Gorokhovskaia, who researches transnational repression at Freedom House.
“There’s a whole universe in which governments cooperate to target people, or at least facilitate the targeting of people,” she told VOA.
Shah’s disappearance followed several other cases in which Pakistani exiles have been harassed and sometimes even killed.
It’s a pattern that Taha Siddiqui is acutely aware of. After barely escaping a 2018 kidnapping attempt in Islamabad, the reporter fled to France.
He still receives intimidating phone calls and messages from Pakistani officials, he said, and people affiliated with the embassy surveilled him, even checking up on him at the bar he runs in Paris. He said an American intelligence agency told him a few years ago that he was on a Pakistani “kill list.”
Pakistan’s Paris embassy did not respond to an email requesting comment.
Pakistani intelligence agencies have also harassed his family members, Siddiqui said. “They told my mother that Taha thinks that he’s safe in Paris, but no one is safe anywhere.”
He added that the disappearance of Shah has made him nervous for his own safety.
Since advocating for her husband in Malaysia, Syeda said she has received intimidating messages and calls telling her to return to Pakistan. Fearful that she would be disappeared, Syeda applied to extend her visa. The request was denied.
“It is very risky for me, but I have no other option,” she told VOA hours before she left the country. “My life is at risk but still I am going.”
A day after arriving in northern Pakistan, she told VOA that two men who said they were with ISI came to her home and instructed her to keep quiet.
“Don’t make your life difficult,” they told her, adding that her husband was not in Pakistan.
“I am worried,” she told VOA. “Please pray for me.”
VOA’s Urdu Service contributed to this report.