Where have they vanished?

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

MANY would remember Argentina’s ‘dirty war’ in the late seventies when thousands of people who challenged the government’s ideology ‘disappeared’ without a trace. Augusto Pinochet’s Chile set a similar record when dissidents were picked up by security forces never to be heard of again.

Is Pakistan following suit? According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), nearly 600 people are reported to have disappeared in the last two years, of which 170 cases have been verified.

This phenomenon started in the wake of 9/11 when Pakistan was deemed to be the breeding ground for terror and was under pressure to catch “terrorists” and “earn bounties totaling millions of dollars” as admitted by President Musharraf. What was initially a carefully planned operation under the law of the land has grown into a no-holds-barred adventure in which the police, the intelligence bodies and the military agencies pick up people on the slightest suspicion without observing the legal processes. It is difficult to imagine the agony it causes the family of the disappeared. They have no idea if the missing person is dead or alive, and if alive, in what condition.

After suffering in silence for years — there are people such as Dr Aafia Siddiqui (wanted by the FBI) and her three young children who vanished from Karachi in 2003 and are still unheard of — the affected families are now sufficient in number to raise their voice in protest. In October they demonstrated before parliament house in Islamabad and received much media publicity. HRCP and Amnesty International have also joined them in their struggle. As a result the Supreme Court took suo motu notice of this problem and called on the government to trace the whereabouts of the 41 cases whose names had been put up before it. This ghastly phenomenon simply reflects on the mindset of the powers that be who consider themselves above the law. They have not yet produced a detailed report on the 41 detained people, as directed by the chief justice of Pakistan.

Who are these unfortunate people? Even if one were to presume that they are criminals of the worst kind, does it mean that they have lost their right to be tried under the law and be given the legal protection that is their due? Is it fair to torture their families by leaving them in a state of suspense about the fate of their missing ones?

That is precisely what is happening today as people disappear and are not accounted for, even when the courts ask the government to produce them under habeas corpus petitions. In order to evade the long arm of law the police have been found to be running private detention centres in hired premises away from the thanas so that they fall beyond the purview of the courts’ inspection teams. The army’s intelligence agencies have even had the guts to inform the courts that they are not answerable to them.

Are these people who fall prey to the arbitrary despotism of the police and the dreaded “agencies” really that dangerous to be whisked off without proper warrants? Asma Jahangir, the chairperson of the HRCP, says there are five categories of people who are picked up by the agencies. First, there are journalists who are taken away to intimidate them and their families. The idea is to silence them and stop them from reporting on issues the government feels sensitive about. Fifty journalists have received this treatment in the last two years. A few months ago one newspaper reporter was detained for several weeks in Waziristan by the agencies and then found murdered.

Secondly, there are Baloch nationalists who have been detained to punish them for their anti-establishment views. With the government working to suppress the Baloch demand for autonomy and a greater say in their own affairs, the nationalists are not popular with the establishment.

Thirdly, there are Sindhis from the extremist Jeay Sindh Mahaz and their likes who threaten the government’s tenuous hold on the province. At times they are picked up secretly to stop them being troublesome.

Fourthly, many people have been arrested on the suspicion of being terrorists or having links with Al Qaeda.

Finally, there are the unfortunate ones who are taken into custody by the police or the intelligence agencies to settle old scores.

The growing scale of this problem is horrifying. Even more horrifying is the fact that the political parties and parliamentarians have not raised a hue and cry about forced and involuntary disappearances. This has given the government a free hand to act as it pleases. This is not at all good for the image of the country which was elected earlier this year to the UN’s Human Rights Council. It is this body that has recently adopted the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances and called on the General Assembly to adopt it too and open it to signature and ratification.

Even before the Convention becomes international law, the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances that was set up in 1980 has been seeking to assist “families in determining the fate and whereabouts of their relatives who, having disappeared, are placed outside the protection of the law”. Its modus operandi is to establish a channel of communication between the families and the governments concerned. The idea is to clarify the whereabouts of disappeared persons — whether dead or alive. But the WGEID only considers well documented cases.

Before Pakistan is put in the dock internationally, the government would do well to acknowledge the problem and do something about it. The judiciary, as it is already doing, and the various departments concerned could make a beginning by publicising the names of the missing people and bring pressure to bear on the police and the intelligence agencies to release information about the missing person and regularise his detention, if it is needed, through a court of law.

Asma Jehangir had promised to post the names of the people who have disappeared on the HRCP’s website. This should prove to be an effective approach for publicising the names of the victims and to generate pressure on the government to disclose their whereabouts.