Pakistani journalist critic of military freed after abduction

LAHORE/ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (Reuters) - A Pakistani journalist and rights activist who openly criticized the military and its alleged meddling in politics was freed early on Wednesday, several hours after being abducted.

The journalist, Gul Bukhari, who is a dual Pakistani-British national, has been a vocal critic of Pakistan’s powerful military on social media and in her articles in the run-up to a July 25 general election.

She has also defended ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who clashed with the military before the Supreme Court forced him from office last year over an undeclared source of income.

Bukhari was on her way to record a television program late on Tuesday for the Waqt news program in the city of Lahore when her vehicle was intercepted and she was taken away by unidentified men, her husband and media colleagues said.

After her release, she said in a statement posted on Twitter by a family member that she was well, and she asked for privacy.

“I would like to express my deep gratitude and love to my friends, family, colleagues & supporters in civil society, journalism and politics across the board, for coming together in solidarity in concern for my wellbeing last night,” she said.

Rights groups have denounced the kidnappings of several social media activists over the past year as attempts to intimidate and silence critics of Pakistan’s security establishment.

Last year, five bloggers went missing for several weeks before four of them were released. All four fled abroad and at least two afterwards told media that they were tortured by a state intelligence agency during their disappearance.

The military has staunchly denied playing a role in any enforced disappearances, as has the civilian government.

The military did not respond to a request for comment on Bukhari’s case.

The British High Commission in Islamabad said in a message on Twitter it was offering Bukhari consular assistance.

“We are very concerned at reports of Gul Bukhari’s abduction last night,” it said.

Earlier, Muhammad Gulsher, a producer for the Waqt news program where Bukhari appears as a guest, told Reuters that she had been abducted when a group of pick-up trucks stopped her vehicle and men in plain clothes dragged her away while other men in “army uniforms” stood guard.

“They put a black mask on her face and took her,” he said, adding that he was basing his information on an account from Bukhari’s driver.

The abduction drew widespread outrage on social media with many activists swiftly pointing the finger at the military, calling it part of efforts to stifle dissent.

“If true, this would be a most audacious attempt to silence a known critic. Is this Pakistan or Kim’s North Korea or Sisi’s Egypt?” tweeted Syed Talat Hussain, a prominent journalist.

Media organizations have complained of growing censorship by the military establishment in the run-up to the July election.

Additional reporting and writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Leslie Adler, Robert Birsel