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Journalist and columnist Matiullah Jan is seen during an interview with Reuters, at his office in Islamabad, Pakistan, on March 13, 2019.

AKHTAR SOOMRO/Reuters

A prominent Pakistani journalist known for his hard-hitting criticism of the country’s powerful institutions, including its military, is missing, human rights groups and a family member said Tuesday.

At least 10 heavily armed men in three vehicles intercepted Matiullah Jan soon after he arrived Tuesday to pick up his wife from a school where she was teaching in the capital Islamabad, his younger brother Shahid Akbar Abbasi told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

The kidnapping occurred around 11 a.m. local time and police were pouring over closed-circuit television footage looking for clues to his kidnapping, said Abbasi.

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He did not want to identify by name those he believed to be behind his brother’s abduction but indicated he thought the country’s powerful intelligence and security agencies were behind the kidnapping.

“I believe those who are wielding power they are the people who took him,” Abbasi said.

In a tweet, the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan demanded “the government immediately ensure the safe recovery of journalist” Matiullah Jan.

Information Minister Shibli Faraz would only confirm Jan had been kidnapped. The AP contacted the military’s public relations department but they declined comment.

In 2018 Jan was l abeled “antistate” by the military for his criticism of the judiciary and army.

An outspoken critic, Jan has called a crackdown on the country’s media outlets “a systematic attempt by the military and its intelligence agency to assert control with a facade of a democratically elected government.”

Journalist and human rights groups have been sharp critics of the military and Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government for what they say is a heavy handed crackdown on free speech and independent journalism.

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Media houses and television news channels have been warned against covering events critical of the military, particularly the activities of a Pashtun rights group known as the Pashtun Tahafuz (Protection) Movement, that accuses the military of abuses in the tribal regions.

Protesters favouring the movement have been arrested, columnists who supported their right to protest have had their columns pulled from publication and journalists groups, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, have repeatedly warned against heavy handed censorship of the media by the security agencies.

Shakil-ur-Rahman, owner of the Jang Group, one of Pakistan’s largest media houses, was a strident critic of the government. He is in custody charged under the auspices of the country’s National Accountability Bureau, which investigates charges of corruption. Rights groups have questioned whether the allegations against Rahman were politically motivated. Rahman’s media group has been called out by the government and military for its criticism.

Jan was active on social media and had recently been charged with contempt of court for a tweet critical of the judiciary and was to appear in court within the next week.

The Austrian-based International Press Institute (IPI) joined the chorus of calls for Jan’s freedom.

“We fear that Matiullah Jan’s life is in danger, and immediate steps must be taken to locate him and ensure his release from his apparent kidnappers,” IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said in a statement. “Given the history of violence against journalists in Pakistan, the authorities cannot delay in seeking to protect Jan’s safety.”

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