A broader, tougher, response is needed to deter Pakistan’s sponsorship of violent criminal acts in Europe
Mohammad Gohir Khan, the 31-year-old British national of Pakistani origin who carried out a failed attempt to murder the Netherlands-based dissident Pakistani blogger Ahmad Waqass Goraya, was on 11 March sentenced at the Kingston-upon-Thames court in the United Kingdom (UK) to life in prison. In January, a jury had reached a unanimous guilty verdict for conspiracy to murder against him. The court said that Khan must serve 13 years before becoming eligible to apply for parole. This is a welcome decision, especially for the vulnerable members of the Pakistani Diaspora living in exile in the West, as had been suggested in the EFSAS commentary of 25-12-2020 titled 'The killing of Pakistani dissidents abroad is a dangerous trend that urgently needs to be arrested'. The sentencing is also a strong message to those in the West who are willing or open to engage in violence and terrorist acts on behalf of regimes such as that in Pakistan, in exchange for handsome financial gains.
While the conviction and sentencing of Gohir Khan sent out the correct and robust signals to those involved in the West, it by itself did not address what EFSAS had recommended in the aforementioned Commentary – “The only way this can be stalled is if the countries that have graciously hosted these dissidents collectively send the message across to Pakistan that it is seriously breaching the red line, the consequences of which would be severe”. Other than a bit of bad press, to which Pakistan has become thick skinned and accustomed over the years, the only loss for it from the sentencing was the £5000-odd that its intelligence agencies had reportedly advanced Gohir Khan out of the total of £100,000 that had been promised to him.
The court proceedings and the investigations by British and Dutch agencies revealed that there was more than meets the eye in this case. The enlistment of Gohir Khan to murder Ahmad Waqass Goraya appeared to be a characteristically crude and rash operation by the Pakistani intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), to silence a vocal critic. Gohir Khan’s family ran a travel business, which faced lean times since 2019. His finances took a big hit, and he was left with over £204,000 in debt. A court, after finding that he had no means of paying back £153,000 to investors, declared Gohir bankrupt last year. He also owed £45,000 to the UK government, loaned to him as part of a COVID-19 mitigation package. The Pakistani daily Dawn reported on 12 March that during the trial the prosecution had maintained that Gohir Khan had been hired by “persons in Pakistan” to carry out the “intended killing” of Goraya. The jury was also told how Pakistan-based middleman Muzamil had contacted Khan in 2021 with an offer to pay £80,000 for the job, while telling him about his own commission of £20,000. Evidence that £5,000 had been paid into a Pakistani bank account and received through an illegal money transfer in London was shared in the court. The prosecution told the jury that Khan was “enthusiastic” about “carrying out the killing to earn the money and to carry out further attacks” in the future.
Khan first claimed not to know of the victim, but this was belied when Metropolitan Police officers discovered more than 2,000 Whatsapp messages between him and Muzammil in which Goraya’s planned killing was discussed. The Metropolitan Police said in a statement that “Officers uncovered more than 2,000 WhatsApp messages between Muhammad Gohir Khan and his co-conspirator where they discussed and agreed to the contract killing of a Rotterdam based Pakistani blogger and activist”. In court, Khan insisted that he did not plan to go ahead with the murder and simply wanted to extract money from Muzammil. The prosecution argued that he fully intended to carry out the killing and the jury agreed, convicting him of conspiracy to murder.
Secunder Kermani, writing for the BBC, described how Gohir Khan went about the business of murder. In an attempt to bypass COVID-19 travel restrictions to travel to the Netherlands in June 2021, Khan asked a contact to pretend to be his brother living there. “On arrival, however, Khan was questioned by a border official who called the ‘brother’ on the phone and asked him how old Khan was in order to verify his identity. Unable to answer, Khan’s ‘brother’ hung up, and Khan was denied entry to the country. A few days later, Khan made the trip for a second time and was finally able to reach Rotterdam. He purchased a 19-inch knife and staked out what he believed was Mr Goraya’s home. However, he soon realized the address he had been provided with was wrong. Muzzamil assured him that his ‘boss’ had received a video of Mr Goraya at the address around six months earlier, but unable to locate him Khan returned to London. On leaving Rotterdam he was questioned by a Dutch border force officer about his trip. Struggling for an answer, Khan replied that he had been ‘touristing’, leading the officer to refer him to police in Britain. They arrested him (on 23 June) and eventually found his message history with Muzzamil”.
Commander Richard Smith from the Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism Command said that “The dedication and diligence of counter-terrorism officers, Border Force colleagues and our Dutch law enforcement counterparts led to justice being served in this chilling case of conspiracy to murder. Khan fell foul of his own low cunning and artifice, and the investigation found he was willing to carry out a murder for financial gain, giving no regard for his intended victim”.
Gohir Khan’s intended victim, Waqass Goraya, is a prominent social media activist based in Rotterdam and is a vocal critic of the Pakistani military and government. He had been abducted and tortured whilst visiting Pakistan in January 2017 by members of the country’s intelligence services. He had subsequently been warned by the FBI in 2018 of threats to his life. Dutch security agencies had taken him to a secure location, and as Marcel Vink wrote in De Telegraaf, “Because of that threat, he moves from one hiding place to another. In 2017, he was kidnapped and tortured while visiting family in Pakistan. The reason would be his blog on Facebook, in which he denounces human rights violations and criticizes the Pakistani military apparatus. He was released after 24 days. Goraya then refused to shut up. It soon became clear that his life was also in danger in the Netherlands”. As Goraya described it, “In February last year, the police were at the door: my life was in acute danger. Since then I live in different places, I can’t see my parents or others from my old life. My son couldn’t go to school, I have to be careful not to be recognized in the neighborhood. I don’t even use a Dutch phone, which can be traced”. Goraya told the BBC he was convinced that it was Pakistani intelligence operatives who were ultimately behind the plot to kill him, adding that it forms part of a wider crackdown on dissenting voices both inside and outside Pakistan.
While all the security measures that the Dutch agencies have put in place to protect Goraya are laudable and have served to save his life, the whole situation does bring to the fore the astounding levels of intimidation that Pakistani intelligence agencies seem capable of bring to bear even in major European cities. Had these Pakistani agencies feared consequential retribution for the terror that they were sowing, they would never have dared contemplate ordering murders and mutilations in Europe. Goraya brought out what drove the Pakistani agencies to undertake such heinous crimes when he said, “They don’t like being called out for enforced disappearances or their torture cells. It shows their cowardice. They are scared of people talking. People who are unarmed, with nothing but a pen or keyboard. They are more scared of them than the people with guns”.
This fear of the Pakistani military establishment finds further expression in the fact that Goraya was just one of several of its critics who have been targeted in the West. UK-based author and academic Ayesha Siddiqa, a strong critic of the Pakistani military, received a letter in January 2019 from the police in Britain warning of “credible information” that her life was in danger if she travelled back to Pakistan. Siddiqa said that her own inquiries had revealed that “there was a contract on my head given to some Afghan warlords to be eliminated on return to Pakistan… if the temperature was raised I could be targeted in the UK as well”. Siddiqa also told the BBC that she believed Pakistani intelligence services were behind the threat. “I have no one else to suspect”, she asserted. At least 3 other people of Pakistani origin living in the UK have had contact with the police over the possibility of them being targeted in Britain. Elsewhere in Europe, Taha Siddiqui, a journalist who escaped an abduction attempt in Islamabad and now lives in France, has also been warned by Western intelligence agencies of threats to his life. Many believe that Pakistani agents had a hand in the death of 2 Baloch dissidents in 2021, one in Sweden and another in Canada.
Commenting on the ISI’s activities in the light of Goraya’s case, Ben van Raaij wrote on 29 January in the Dutch daily de Volkskrant that “Pakistani agents use all forms of violence with impunity, from intimidation and kidnapping to tear gas, bullets or, as here, throwing stones. Activist Ahmad Waqass Goraya has been reporting critically about human rights violations by Pakistani government services for years via social media. In particular, attention is paid to the role of the army and the intelligence services in this. They are guilty of the disappearances and liquidations of journalists and activists with impunity, in Pakistan itself but also abroad. Goraya himself said he was kidnapped and tortured during a visit to Pakistan in 2017”. Ben van Raaij also quoted Rebecca Vincent, Director of International Campaigns of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), as saying on the jury’s verdict in the Gohir Khan case that, “This is a rare step towards enforcing legal accountability for transnational crimes against journalists. Too often, journalists have to live in fear because of the constant threats from the countries from which they have fled”.
While the verdict is certainly a step in the right direction, Ayesha Siddiqa believes that “The successful trial of Gohir is just the end of a chapter, not the book. The British government must ensure safety of dissidents by demanding answers from Islamabad about uncovering Gohir Khan’s handlers”. London-based journalist Gul Bukhari, who like Goraya had been detained by the ISI in 2018, spoke along similar lines when she said, “I’m delighted the man who tried to murder Goraya had been found guilty. The men behind the attempts to kill him and other Pakistani dissidents are still at large, though, and its important countries like the United Kingdom make clear there will be consequences if they continue to operate with impunity”.
Goraya too urged the UK authorities to further investigate the case and all those involved. “It should not stop here… They have to go after the people who transferred the money, who ordered the hit”. He also had some words of advice for his adopted country. He said, “The only solution is that the Netherlands stands up and says: Pakistan, we know what you are doing and how dare you take such actions on our soil”. British police officials said that the case remained an “active investigation” and appealed for anyone with information about Muzammil to contact them. Hopefully, these ongoing investigations will make serious efforts to close in further on the powerful forces in Pakistan who actually ordered that Goraya be killed.
A strong hint of who these forces could be can be found in the obvious answer to the following lengthy question – who in Pakistan was powerful enough to organize a complex murder in a foreign land many thousand miles away through a prospective assassin based in yet another country; who could possibly have had a motive to go to such lengths; who was so vain that even a moderately popular blogger’s words many thousand miles away were unbearable enough for the writer to need to be killed; who was resourceful enough to afford to splurge the princely sum of £100,000 just to get a simple blogger killed?