By Asad Gokal
Since September, when UAE locked a deal for normalizing relations with Israel, alarm bells began to ring louder for the Pakistani Shia diaspora residing in the country.
In UAE members of a conspicuous religious minority, the Shia, are mostly employed in professions that pay them enough to run families settled here in Pakistan. In the past few weeks a series of unwarranted abductions, by the security personnel of the host country, created a stir of despair for the concerned families.
I reached out to interview a few of the families about the abductees, some of the Shia men had been deported while others remain caged in the abyss of an unknown. These are their stories:
Ali’s mysterious kidnapping
“The last I spoke to my son was on 15th October when he landed at Dubai airport, it’s been 40 days and my ears long to hear his voice again”, recalled Ahmed Ruhani, an old man living in Parachinar.
Ali Ruhani, the father of two, used to look after his father’s travel agency business in Parachinar. The travel restrictions imposed during lockdown resulted in monetary losses for the agency. The pandemic brought business to a halt and the shop was shut down. Ali flew to UAE so he could scout for opportunities to earn for the family.
Lack of economic opportunities due to COVID-19 resulted in a lot of Pakistanis losing their jobs and facing a high level of economic crisis. In addition to that, religious discrimination, hostile environment and constant fear of life faced by Shia Muslims in the country made it even more difficult for them to feed their families. A few of them looked out to other countries in hope of a better living.
The same night when Ali landed in Dubai, he was picked up from his apartment by the armed forces of UAE, as narrated by his neighbours, and moved to an unknown location. It has been over a month and his family continue to search for his whereabouts. His cousin, Ali Adnan, who had been living in Dubai for two years and took Ali from the airport to his flat was also abducted the same night.
“His aged mother often wakes up in the middle of the night shouting his name. Every day, she runs to the mosque barefoot to pray for the quick return of Ali”, described Ahmed who fears for her health which has been swiftly deteriorating.
Deportees describe the ordeal and the agony
Like Ali, many other Shia men have been abducted by the security forces too. No arrest warrants were shown at the time of the arrest nor are any charges filed against them. Some of them have been deported back to Pakistan after being kept in an unknown location for weeks. Those who were deported described the place to be a big suffocated, smelly hall with no beds where hundreds of Pakistanis are kept. Some of them were subjected to serious physical assault while others were kept in handcuffs and chains. Common emotional torture faced by all of them was rigorous questions on their religious beliefs and national values.
Each of them was called in a separate room where they were interrogated regarding their pilgrimage trips to Iran and Iraq and were asked why do Shias abuse the companions of the Holy Prophet and recite Ziyarat e Ashura. Others were asked why do Pakistani Shias burn the flag of Israel and are unwilling to recognize Israel.
“I haven’t left any door unlocked. From approaching the Minister of Human Rights to Minister of Overseas Pakistanis to Foreign Minister to sending my acquaintances living in UAE to the Pakistan Embassy but did not receive any satisfactory response”, shared Ahmed.
The deportees, most of them from Parachinar, shared that they were then blindfolded when they were taken out from that place and transferred to Abu Dhabi jail a couple of days before they were taken to the airport. The blindfolds from their eyes were removed when they were seated in the aeroplane full of detainees. They landed in Pakistan in the same clothes they were abducted in weeks ago with the keys of their vehicles in their pockets. No chance was given to them to collect their valuable belongings from their house before being deported.
“When we did not receive the mandatory Friday morning call from Mubashir, we knew something was wrong”, recalled Faqeer Hussain, father of Mubashir Hasan whose whereabouts are unknown for over a month.
Mubashir Hasan, 42, was another resident of Parachinar living in Dubai since the last 18 years where he had set up his own transport company. It had become a ritual that every Friday morning, he would call his parents back home after the morning prayers. When Faqeer Hussain did not receive any call on 16th October, Friday, and found Mubashir’s phone to be switched off, he called his nephew who also lives in Dubai near Mubashir’s residence.
When his nephew reached his flat he found it locked from the outside after which he immediately rushed to Mubashir’s workplace. What he saw there left him in utter shock. The Special Police of Dhabi was present at his workplace in huge numbers and between them was Mubashir, being forced to take out some important documents. When his nephew tried to question, he was threatened not to say any word. Minutes later, Mubashir, holding a few documents were forced to sit in the Special Police Vehicle. No traces of him have been found since then.
More than six weeks have passed since Mubashir’s abduction. Every Friday, his children of age 10, 7 and 2.5, longingly wait for the mobile phone to ring once more so that they may tell him how much they have missed him.
“It gets extremely tough for me to handle his three children at the same time as his mother who’s in extreme stress and pain. I am a diabetic and hypertension patient. The only thought that gives me patience is that Shias have been facing persecution since 1400 years and we have always emerged victorious”, said Faqeer as he sobbed while remembering his sons.
Though the exact number of abducted people are not confirmed due to numerous families being scared of coming forward, those who were detained say the number is above two hundred at least. As twitter started trending #MissingShiasUAE, a few families have confessed regarding the abduction of their beloved ones too. Narjis Zehra, a Karachi resident, in her tweet shared the details of her father’s abduction, who had been working in UAE since the last 40 years. She also made public a letter to the human rights organizations in which she sought justice for her father. Similar tweets and letters started surfacing soon on social media.
In response to the Twitter campaign, the Pakistan embassy released a letter warning the Pakistanis living in UAE to avoid publishing on social media.
The UAE is home to approximately 1.5 million Pakistanis, many of whom are low-wage workers living in crowded housing and are now out of work and stranded due to the coronavirus crisis.
The ordeal of Pakistani Shias living in UAE began since the time UAE signed the normalization deal with Israel. Since Pakistan has not yet recognized the state of Israel, its citizens are being subjected to abductions and torture as a show of punishment. Moreover, since Shias are generally considered to be supporters of Iran, a harsh and strict anti-Israel country, the Pakistani Shias are facing more heat than others.
In recent developments, UAE has suspended issuing visas to Pakistan along with 12 other Muslim countries, all of which have not yet recognized Israel. With UAE welcoming India and Israel in the region, the situation has become quite alarming and uncertain for Pakistanis working in UAE.
Such blatant human rights violation by the UAE security agencies has sent thrills down the Pakistanis especially the Shia Muslims earning in UAE. The families of the abducted ones pray for the safe return of their loved ones through the situation for religious minorities back here is not any less hostile.