Mystery Surrounds Shahbaz Taseer’s Captivity and Return

Shahbaz Taseer, the son of former Pakistan's Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, was released after five years in captivity on March 8 (L) and reunited with his family in Lahore the following day (R). Photos courtesy ISPR

By Omar R Quraishi

Shahbaz Taseer was a high-profile kidnapping victim in Pakistan — missing for almost five years after he was abducted a few hundred meters from his home in an affluent neighborhood in the city of Lahore on August 26, 2011. His case was major news in Pakistan because in January the same year, his father Salmaan Taseer, then the governor of Punjab, was assassinated by his own guard, Mumtaz Qadri, who said he committed the act because in his view Taseer had committed blasphemy by speaking publicly in favor of a Christian woman incarcerated on death row under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

Qadri was in fact finally executed for his crime on February 29, 2016, just a few days before Shahbaz Taseer managed to regain his freedom on March 8. The reporting itself in the media of how he managed to escape the clutches of his captors and become a free man after almost five years in alleged Taliban captivity has been shrouded in confusion and mystery.

Initially it was reported by the police in Balochistan province on March 8 where Taseer was recovered that it was the result of a rescue operation. That, however, turned out to be false and the country’s interior minister publicly chided the province’s police chief for misleading the government on the young Taseer’s return. Then several media outlets reported that Taseer had been abducted by militants and reportedly passed on to Uzbeks who had a base in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas. It was claimed that when the Pakistani military carried out a operation against militants in the region (and that operation is ongoing), the Uzbeks fled to Afghanistan—Zabul province across the border to be precise—and they took their captive with them. During this time it was reported in the Pakistan media that one of the demands of his captors was the release from prison of his father’s killer Mumtaz Qadri.

There they are believed to have allied with Daesh which is gradually making a foothold in Afghanistan and after that they came into conflict with the Afghan Taliban—who don’t see eye to eye with Daesh. The ensuing clash left the Afghan Taliban victorious and with Taseer now in their custody. The story continues that once they discovered his real identity they decided to release him and sent him across the border. The claim is very specific in fact—with one well known journalist who is considered an authority on the Taliban claiming that he was dropped at a dusty town outside the Balochistan capital of Quetta by Afghan Taliban who escorted him back to Pakistan through clandestine cross border routes on a motorcycle.

However, holes began to appear soon in this story as well—not least from the principal actors themselves. Taseer  seemingly took issue with a report in a leading English newspaper whose reporter cited an eyewitness who claimed to have seen a man resembling Taseer’s physical appearance being dropped at a hotel outside Quetta and then having a meal there for Rs 350. Taseer tweeted on March 14 that his first proper meal after returning from captivity was at his home in Lahore and that he never paid Rs 350 for any meal anywhere after returning. Furthermore, the Afghan Taliban also the released a statement that they had nothing to do with him or his release.

Given that Shahbaz Taseer’s kidnapping was so high profile and that he regained his freedom literally a few days after the execution of Mumtaz Qadri some questions do arise surrounding his release. He has implicitly contested the reporting of how he gained his freedom while the Afghan Taliban has disavowed any connection as well. If Pakistan’s state security and intelligence apparatus played a role in his return then that should be publicly acknowledged and lauded.

However, if that is not the case and—going by a report presented to the Interior Ministry—his return was not the result of a search and rescue operation then there is all the more reason for the public to be told how exactly he managed to regain his freedom. In the absence of a clear and coherent narrative as to what actually happened speculation and all kinds of conspiracy theories that go with this territory will continue.

Rightfully, there is the pressing argument that Taseer’s right to privacy must be respected. However, in this particular instance it is overridden by the more compelling public interest of the truth and how exactly he secured his freedom after such a long time in Taliban’s alleged captivity.

The writer is Editor, Web and Online, ARY News and tweets @omar_quraishi

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