A Pakistani blogger who went missing earlier this year has applied for asylum in Britain after alleging he was tortured by a “state intelligence agency” during his disappearance.
Aasim Saeed was one of a group of five liberal social media activists who were abducted in Pakistan in January 2017 before being released after several weeks. The Pakistani military has repeatedly denied any involvement in the case.
Mr Saeed told the BBC that prior to his abduction he had been involved in running a Facebook page critical of Pakistan’s military establishment, called Mochi, “because since the inception of Pakistan they’ve always been ruling us directly or indirectly”.
Pakistan has been ruled by the military for nearly half of its 70 years.
Mr Saeed was working in Singapore but visiting Pakistan for his brother’s wedding in January 2017 when he says a number of men in plain clothes arrived at his house and ordered him into a car.
“‘Do you know why you’ve been picked up?’ they asked. I said, ‘I have no idea’. Then he started to slap me. They said, ‘Let’s talk about Mochi’.”
Mr Saeed told the BBC he had been ordered to hand over the passwords to his email accounts and mobile phone before being taken to a secret detention facility where he was held alongside men he believed to be “religious terrorists.”
The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reported that 728 people were forcibly “disappeared” in 2016. Pakistan’s intelligence services have been accused of “disappearing” social and ethnic nationalist activists, as well as those accused of links to militant groups, instead of producing them in court.
Authorities in Pakistan have often said the security services are unfairly blamed for disappearances and that the number of missing people is inflated.
Few first-hand accounts have ever emerged of what happens to those in detention. Mr Saeed alleges he was beaten with a leather strap.
“I don’t remember what happened, I fell down and someone was holding my neck in his feet, and the other guy kept beating and beating and beating.”
He describes his arms and back being left “shades of purple, blue and back”.
At another detention facility which he believes to be near the capital Islamabad, Mr Saeed says he was made to undergo polygraph tests whilst being repeatedly questioned about links to the Indian intelligence service, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).
“Have you ever been associated with RAW? Who is your handler? Have you ever received money from RAW?”
He denies any links to any foreign intelligence services and says interrogators also analysed his Facebook posts and questioned him about why he was “critical of the army”.
In May 2017 Human Rights Watch raised concerns that the Pakistani government was “clamping down on internet dissent at the expense of fundamental rights”.
Protests were held across cities in Pakistan by other liberal activists calling for the release of Mr Saeed and the other “missing bloggers”, as they came to be known. Mr Saeed, though, says he believed while in detention that he would be killed, because normally “missing persons don’t go home”.
Whilst pressure was building on the Pakistani authorities to provide information about the whereabouts of the bloggers, a counter-campaign was begun by right-wing religious clerics and TV anchors accusing them of having committed blasphemy.
Blasphemy is legally punishable by death in Pakistan and a number of those accused of it have been murdered by lynch mobs.
Mr Saeed returned home after several weeks in detention. He told the BBC it was only then that he realised he had been accused of blasphemy. He denies any involvement in writing blasphemous material.
One of the other missing bloggers has alleged the blasphemy allegations were an attempt “to shut us down – to threaten our families – to build pressure on us”.
Mr Saeed returned to Singapore shortly after being released and arrived in the UK in September to visit friends. He told the BBC he had then decided to apply for asylum as the terms of his employment visa in Singapore meant he had no guarantee he would be allowed to keep living there if he ever lost his job, and his life would be in danger if he returned to Pakistan.
Nonetheless, Mr Saeed told the BBC he did not regret his activism, as “people have to stand up”.