The last time Shahnaz Sajid spoke to her husband, Sajid Hussain, the couple discussed how Sajid and their two children would soon join the Pakistani journalist in Sweden.
Nearly a month later, Sajid is waiting for news of Hussain, who was reported missing on March 3, a day after they spoke.
Hussain, 39, had fled Pakistan in 2012 after receiving death threats for his reporting on forced disappearances, drug traffickers, and accusations of human rights violations by Pakistan’s powerful military. The editor-in-chief of the Pakistani news website Baluchistan Times was granted political asylum in Sweden last year.
News of Hussain’s disappearance from Uppsala, Sweden, which became public March 28, sent shock through Pakistan’s journalism community and brought the risks, even in exile, into focus.
A Pakistani blogger in the Netherlands was attacked in February, and others have been warned by European authorities to be vigilant.
In a statement on Hussain’s disappearance, the French media watchdog Reporters Without Borders pointed out that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had previously harassed journalists in exile.
"Considering the recent attacks and harassment against other Pakistani journalists in Europe, we cannot ignore the possibility that [Hussain’s] disappearance is related to his work," Erik Halkjaer, president of RSF’s Swedish chapter, said in a statement.
Who's behind it?
Daniel Bastard, the head of the media organization’s Asia-Pacific desk, said it appeared to be a forced disappearance.
"And if you ask yourself who would have an interest in silencing a dissident journalist, the first response would have to be the Pakistani intelligence services," Bastard said in a statement.
Pakistan’s military media wing, the Inter-Services Public Relations, declined to comment and referred VOA to the government.
Firdous Ashiq Awan, special assistant to the prime minister on information and broadcasting, told VOA, “How can our intelligence agencies pick someone up or harass someone who’s living in a different country? This is only to malign our intelligence agencies.”
Hussain rose to prominence as a reporter in Pakistan’s restive Balochistan province, where he wrote for the English-language Daily Times and The News.
He continued to work while in exile, running the Baluchistan Times, which broke the news of its missing editor-in-chief.
Threats across borders
Pakistan has incrementally crept up indexes listing it as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. A 2018 report by the U.S.-based Committee to Project Journalists found that Pakistan’s military intimidated the media into silence and allegedly instigated attacks on journalists.
Journalists in exile say they remain at risk, even after fleeing.
Ahmed Waqas Goraya, a blogger who went into exile in 2007, was attacked outside his home in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, in February. He said the attack left him feeling unsafe.
“I was on call with my father while standing at my own door [when] someone attacked me, punching me in the face,” the blogger told VOA. “I ran immediately toward the main street to distance myself in case he was armed. There I saw a second guy who was filming the incident.”
Goraya, who said his attackers spoke Urdu, reported the incident to police. He told VOA he was aware of similar attacks on Pakistani journalists in France and Germany.
“It worries me that they found my house and attacked me at my doorstep,” Goraya said. “I think the attack was designed to demonstrate to me that they can attack me regardless of my location. If they wanted, they could have stabbed me just as well. So the threat is real, and the next time it won’t be a punch.”
Tortured 'for pleasure'
Goraya, who has written about allegations that the military was involved in the political system and was behind human rights abuses in Balochistan, said he was targeted before.
While visiting Lahore in 2017, he told VOA, a "government institution" with links to the military held him and tortured him “for pleasure.” In an earlier interview with the BBC about the same incident, he described being beaten and forced into stress positions while detained for three weeks.
Reporters Without Borders has reported that the ISI was pressuring at least two other Pakistani journalists in Europe by intimidating family members still in Pakistan.
The media watchdog said it had obtained information that a list of Pakistani dissidents in other countries was being circulated within the ISI.
Taha Siddiqui, a Pakistani journalist in self-imposed exile in Paris, told VOA that American intelligence officials told him he was named on the list.
“Since the ISI and the Pakistan army has been able to silence its vocal critics within the country, now they are expanding their focus and internationalizing their targeting campaign to come after those who are living in exile,” Siddiqui said.
The journalist, who said he narrowly escaped a kidnap attempt in Islamabad in 2018, told VOA that French authorities had advised him to be vigilant in Paris.
Siddiqui said he believes that the Pakistani military is following the Saudi, Chinese and Russian playbook to target dissidents abroad.
Time of uncertainty
Hussain’s disappearance has renewed fears for other Pakistani journalists in exile, although his wife, Sajid, expressed faith in democracy and Sweden, the country that took her husband in.
“Sweden is a great country with a tradition of democratic values. I’m sure they are quite perturbed at how a journalist went missing like this,” she told VOA. “We believe a country like Sweden won’t leave us in such uncertainty for long. We are sure they will find an answer soon.”
Swedish authorities have assured the family they will conduct a rigorous investigation.