- Journalist Imran Riaz Khan has been missing since May 11 after being picked up by masked men
- Lahore High Court has held several hearings on the matter
- A working group formed between key authorities, Imran Riaz Khan's family and representatives has made no headway
- Imran Riaz Khan's lawyer says after a month and a half, they have received unofficial communication on the journalist
Journalist turned blogger Imran Riaz Khan is safe and in good condition. This has been informally conveyed to his legal counsel Mian Ali Ashfaq by the 'authorities'. The lawyer claims that the journalist's recovery is now a matter of days or weeks away.
However, Ashfaq believes a lot will depend on what is agreed on the terms for his release
What has happened?
Journalist turned YouTube Vlogger Imran Riaz Khan, who had in recent months increasingly adopted a pro-Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) stance, was arrested on May 10.
The arrest came a day after riots on May 9 when scores of PTI supporters ransacked several public and military installations across the country over the detention of party chairman Imran Khan.
He mysteriously vanished on May 11 after he was granted bail by the court. Imran's brother Usman Riaz Khan had told the media that his brother had decided to flee the country to Oman and was intercepted before he could do so.
His legal team, however, immediately filed a petition before the Lahore High Court (LHC) about his detention from the Sialkot Airport by the Punjab police.
A short video also emerged on social media showing Imran being escorted from the airport.
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Officially, law enforcement agencies have told the courts that he is not currently in their custody.
But he has yet to be recovered and produced before the court.
Sequence of events from the arrest on May 10
On May 10, the police, along with some masked men, raided Imran Riaz Khan's residence in Lahore.
According to Ashfaq, the IG Punjab had informed the LHC that the police were only assisting a sister agency that primarily carried out the raid.
Imran Riaz was arrested at the Sialkot Airport.
The Sialkot police registered an FIR accusing the 47-year-old of inciting people and creating a law and order situation in Dhanay Wali — located on the outskirts of Sialkot.
Imran's legal team immediately filed a petition in LHC.
In the course of hearings, Punjab Police Inspector General (IG) and Punjab Prisons IG told the court that they released Imran Riaz Khan the night he was arrested and that they no longer knew of his whereabouts.
Imran's lawyer, however, produced videos of places where Imran Riaz Khan was detained.
This shook the Punjab Police.
Ashfaq claims after producing the video of Imran Riaz Khan being taken to the detention centre -- the Sialkot Jail; he demanded that the authorities produce videos from the Sialkot Jail to confirm his release.
Punjab Prison IG produced a closed circuit television (CCTV) video of the Sialkot Jail, which showed Imran Riaz Khan being released. But it showed that four to five masked men then bundled Imran Riaz Khan into a waiting black Vigo.
Imran Riaz Khan's legal team, however, challenged the Prison IG over the authenticity of the video, given it did not carry a date or time stamp.
Moreover, he contended that it was a violation of the jail manual to release a prisoner in the middle of the night.
According to the jail manual, a prisoner can neither be entered nor released after sunset.
"How could the jail authorities release him in the middle of the night?" Ashfaq argued, "We showed the resemblance of masked men who were waiting outside the Sialkot prison and those who raided Imran Riaz Khan's house [in Lahore]."
"By May 16, we produced tangible and concrete evidence to establish our case, after which the court ordered an in-chamber hearing because the law enforcement officials wanted to share some important information in private," Ashfaq detailed.
During this meeting, Ashfaq said, the provincial prisons chief produced another video showing 13-14 masked men, who had arrived on three Vigo vehicles, waiting outside Sialkot Jail.
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"We asked where is the entry and exit video and where is the video footage of his cell in the jail where he was kept," Ashfaq recalled asking the prisons chief.
"We believe it (the video of his capture and release) was an afterthought, and they had recreated his release footage after we raised the question," claims Ashfaq.
After initial hearings, the LHC ordered to set up a working group to resolve the matter. The working group was to comprise representatives from the Punjab Police, the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD), the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Intelligence Bureau (IB) -- basically a whos who of civil and military intelligence and security services in the country.
Since being constituted, the working group has held three meetings. The meetings have been attended by Imran's father, his counsel and officials from the four departments.
Officially, the working group has made no progress in tracing the whereabouts of the missing journalist.
Unofficially, however, it is a completely different story.
Imran's counsel has been conveyed by the authorities that the 47-year-old is safe.
More than that, the authorities have suggested their desire to resolve the matter soon.
The family of the missing journalist, however, suggests they will not be satisfied until the authorities officially confirm his safety and well-being.
Meetings of the Working Group
After the court ordered to form a working group, Ashfaq said participants of the investigation team or working group shared their notes and discussed their angles of investigating the disappearance.
The working group is midway to find any conclusive evidence on the whereabouts of Imran Riaz Khan, he suggested.
The reason for the slow progress of the working group is that four different law enforcement agencies are working together, and obviously, they cannot share each and every finding with each other, Ashfaq said.
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"Officially, we have no confirmation about the well-being of Imran Riaz Khan. I have informed the court about the progress of the working group and told them that the IGP and his entire team have given us hope that he will be recovered soon. Imran Riaz Khan's father has informed the court that we will be satisfied only when his son will be recovered," he commented.
Unofficial meetings with the authorities
Ashfaq said that outside the official meetings of the working group, they had held at least two unofficial meetings on the matter.
"We held two more meetings with authorities, and they assured us he is alright and in good condition. These meetings took place with the full mandate, and they showed a willingness to resolve the matter as soon as possible. The authorities have requested to ask the court for 10-15 more days to resolve the matter," informed Imran's lawyer.
Imran Riaz Khan's father, who is part of the working group, hasn't attended any of the unofficial meetings with the authorities where the assurances about Imran's safety were given. Those meetings were only attended by Ashfaq and his partner Shahzeb Masood.
What could happen to Imran Riaz Khan?
Imran Riaz Khan's counsel Mian Ali Ashfaq has eluded to the possibility of five scenarios with Imran Riaz Khan. All of these scenarios, however, would ultimately see the return to light for the journalist.
There are five possible scenarios in Imran Riaz Khan's case:
1- They do not release him immediately, and they keep him detained for some time still,
2- They release him in the upcoming days with no charge,
3- They opt to prosecute him legally -- ostensibly by implicating him in another case
4- Assure his family of his well-being by arranging a meeting with him or any other means to demonstrate his well-being,
5- Chalk out a possible middle way out — releasing him after taking an undertaking or some other guarantee.
Asked about how credible he believes are the assurances provided, Ashfaq says immediately after his arrest, they activated their network to keep track of the journalist.
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"The day Imran Riaz was arrested, we deputed our close friends and well-wishers all over the place, including police stations, courts, and district jails, so that we could keep an eye on him and trace his whereabouts," Ashfaq claimed.
"We made videos of all his movements and even the place where he was taken," he said.
Based on this information, the lawyer said, they had established their case and "received informal assurance about his safety and well-being."
Terms of undertaking
Imran Riaz Khan's lawyer said there are certain non-negotiables in any deal for the journalist's release.
"If they want an undertaking that Imran Riaz Khan would quit journalism, that is not possible."
However, Ashfaq said that they were ready to give an undertaking that he would continue his practices by following all journalistic principles and norms.
Ashfaq claimed that this was a victory, adding that for the first time in the month and a half that Imran Riaz Khan has been missing, the authorities have expressed their willingness to resolve the matter.
"Within a month, we have succeeded in learning about his well-being and now the intention of resolving the matter. You have to understand the Imran Riaz Khan case has a bitter history. Therefore, the required time for his recovery will be more than in normal cases," he said, speculating that it could still take another ten to 15 days to fully resolve the matter.