It was late at night on 30 April and Wajid Hussain was still in his office when the phone rang. A voice on the other end, 5,000 miles away from him in Pakistan, brought news that felt like a punch to the stomach: police in the Swedish city of Uppsala confirmed that a body found in a river a week before was that of his older brother, the exiled journalist Sajid Hussain. Sajid had been missing for almost two months.
According to Uppsala police, while an autopsy has been carried out, the exact cause of Sajid’s death has yet to be determined. “Initially there was a suspicion of him being murdered,” said Karin Rosander, a spokesperson for Uppsala police. “Those suspicions have now lessened but we have nothing definite right now.”
Yet for Sajid’s family and friends, it has been a strange and unnerving case. How did this soft-spoken but fearless Pakistani journalist, who had just optimistically begun his new life in the safety of Sweden, end up dead in the murky depths of the Fyris River?
In the last phone conversation the two brothers would ever have, Sajid had been full of future plans, advice and his usual sprinkling of wisdom beyond his years. Since he had been forced to flee his home in Pakistan’s troubled Balochistan region in 2012, after his investigative journalism earned him death threats and visits from the police, Hussain had bounced miserably from Oman, to Dubai, to Uganda, separated from his family and unable to do the work he lived for.
But having arrived in Sweden in 2018, and been granted political asylum in 2019, he had finally found some peace. “He was very happy and settled and never shared anything that made us think he was afraid,” said Wajid. “I can never know what he was thinking internally but with everyone he spoke to, he shared his happiness and joy about life in Sweden. He had always wanted to do two things, journalism and literary work, and in Sweden he was finally doing both.”
Sajid had found a job as a part-time lecturer at Uppsala University and was assisting on a project to develop the world’s first digital Balochi language dictionary. He was due to start his masters in Iranian language and literature this year and three months earlier his wife had been interviewed by the Swedish embassy to start the process of joining him with their two young children.
Wajid added: “Sajid always wanted to come back to Pakistan and always hoped one day to be able to live there again. But obviously he was in a much safer position in Sweden. Well, that’s what we thought anyway.”
But at 11am on 2 March, Sajid boarded a train from Stockholm to Uppsala, to pick up the keys for a new flat he was due to move into. “Sajid was always very supportive and like an elder brother to me,” said his Stockholm flatmate Abdul Malik. Malik would also be the last person to speak to Hussain, a brief phone call at around 2pm to confirm he had got to Uppsala. After that, the line went silent.
After news of Hussain’s disappearance, the press freedom organisation Reporters Without Borders did not hold back its suspicions that his death could have been the work of the Pakistan authorities. Pakistan is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist and the threats have been known to reach beyond the country’s borders. In February, Ahmad Waqass Goraya, a Pakistani dissident blogger living in Rotterdam, was attacked outside his home by two figures allegedly from the Pakistan intelligence agency. “When you think about who could find interest in suppressing a dissident journalist, the first hypothesis leads to Pakistan’s security agencies,” said Daniel Bastard, the Asia Pacific head of Reporters Without Borders.
Even after fleeing, Hussain had continued to expose human rights abuses back in Pakistan. In 2015, concerned at what he saw as a growing intolerance of critical journalism in the region, Hussain had co-founded the Balochistan Times, an online newspaper, publishing articles about the controversial subjects of forced disappearances and human rights abuse in his home region. The website remains banned in Pakistan but the day before he disappeared, on 1 March, Hussain and co-founder Sameer Mehrab had spoken over the phone to discuss how they could expand their operations and push the boundaries of their journalism.
“We were talking about expanding our team, picking new people to work with and making plans for the future,” said Mehrab. “He was fine and behaved as he always did. He talked of focusing on his career, expanding the Balochistan Times and his hopes to pursue a PhD as well as continue his commitment to writing and journalism.”
Mehrab said that Hussain had never spoken of facing threats in Sweden. “He was a kind person, not street smart,” he added. “Even if he was being watched or followed, he would never have noticed.”
Hussain was born on 16 January 1981 into a well-known political family in Balochistan. His uncle Ghulam Mohammad Baloch was a leading figure in the Balochistan nationlist movement and was assassinated by the Pakistan military in 2009. After studying economics at Karachi University, Hussain began working as a journalist in 2007, focusing mainly on stories of enforced disappearances in Balochistan as well as exposing one of the most influential drug lords in Pakistan.
But it was his during his investigations in 2012 on a story about enforced disappearances for the news agency Reuters, at a time when the United Nations team was arriving in Pakistan to look into the issue, that Hussain began to face threats, anonymous phone calls to his home and sensed he was being followed. Plainclothes police officers turned up at his house, questioned his family and took his documents and his laptop.
Security services then turned up at the door of a hotel room where Hussain and the Reuters journalist were working, looking for him. Hussain escaped through another door and fled home, and emailed the first chapter of his draft novel to a friend with the words: “Remember! This is the rough draft. Don’t make it public at any cost. If in any case something happens to me, hand it over to my daughter, when she is grown up.” He fled to Oman a week later.
But according to those closest to him, Hussain had voiced no similar fears in the days and months before he disappeared in Uppsala on 2 March. Carina Jahani, a professor at Uppsala University who worked alongside Hussain and described him as “exceptionally intelligent and talented”, said the pair had plans to meet on 4 March. Sebastian Strid, a classmate and student of Sajid’s, described how three days before his disappearance the pair had sat for two hours after class discussing poetry and had a beer in the train station before heading back home to Stockholm.
“We talked about all sorts of things: that his family might come to Sweden soon, about the Balochi cuisine, about fun clips on YouTube,” said Strid. “He appeared to be in a good mood. He said that I had to visit his place the next weekend and we would cook something together, talk about the Balochi language and hang out. That was the last time I saw him.”
Hussain’s family have steered clear of placing the blame on anyone, but expressed frustration at what they see as the slow pace of the investigation. Finally in late March the case was shifted to the international organised crime unit. It will now be at least another couple of weeks until the final autopsy analysis result is expected, which will determine whether the prosecutor will pursue the case further.
“Sajid always pursued the truth, he never spared anyone no matter how powerful, but he never accused anyone without having evidence in hand,” said Wajid. “That is all we are asking from Swedish police. He may not be important to the Swedish government but he was very important to us, to the people of Balochistan, to the people of Pakistan.”