The horrible phenomenon of enforced disappearances in Pakistan has been in public debate for more than 25 years and there is hardly any aspect of the matter that has not been discussed threadbare and from different points of view. If the demand for an end to enforced disappearances, criminalisation of the practice punishment of the perpetrators and payment of compensation to victim families has been made from various national and international forums, there have also been suggestions, though from a tiny minority, for giving the security forces powers to detain indefinitely dangerous criminals who in many cases are victims of enforced disappearance (ED).
In the present article, we will not go into the whole gamut of issues in debate and deal with only three questions: 1) Is enforced disappearance in Pakistan a post-9/11 practice or what is the nexus between 9/11 and ED?; 2) To what categories — terrorists, persons suspected of links with terrorists, political dissidents, and holders of ‘undesirable’ views on socio-cultural-linguistic issues — do the victims generally belong?; and 3) What can be done to root out the practice of ED?
The impression that Pakistan had no ED problem prior to September 11, 2001 is not correct. The country has a long history of persons being detained for months on end, without any charge and without information to family/lawyer, and ultimately killed in encounter with the police or freed after extorting ransom. Many of these persons met the international definition of victims of ED.
During the 1991-92 operations in Karachi and other Sindh cities, MQM alleged the disappearance of 28 of its workers. The complaint led to an inquiry by a Senate committee in 1996 that was able to trace only two of the ‘missing persons’; one was in a jail and the other one was lucky to be out of prison on bail.
The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (UNWGEID) has been transmitting to the government of Pakistan complaints regarding ED since 1985. Between 1985 and 2000, the group transmitted to the Pakistan government 93 cases of ED, the highest figure in any year being 46 in 1995. Thus, there is no doubt that Pakistan’s ED problem was wholly an indigenous enterprise till the 9/11 attack on New York’s World Trade Centre Towers.
However, 9/11 did have an immense impact on the ED phenomenon. The framing of draconian laws, curtailment of the due process and reckless derogation of human rights in North America and Europe emboldened Pakistan’s security apparatus to follow suit and detain for long periods persons they suspected to be terrorists or their facilitators or contacts.
Laws were amended or new ones made to extend the period of detention without trial and the victims of ED held incommunicado. The internment centres set up in and along the tribal belt for detaining suspects were apparently inspired by the Guantanamo Bay prison complex. Created under the Actions in Aid of Civil Power Regulation, these centres are supposed to hold detainees till they are tried on specific charges.
How many people have been held at these centres and for how long are details that are not in public knowledge. If a person has been detained for months and years, without trial and there is no knowing as to when his trial will begin, it is nobody’s business to ask questions.
The impact of 9/11 can also be seen in the erosion of due process in the administration of criminal justice in cases that could not be put in the category of terrorism. The creation of special and military courts and extensive resort to death penalty can be traced to the trend to justify extralegal acts as steps necessary to protect national security.
Now, who are the victims of enforced disappearance?
When the first disappearances were reported from areas other than Sindh, the authorities maintained that the persons reported missing had gone away voluntarily, most probably to join the jihad in Afghanistan. In some cases, at least this explanation was valid but after 9/11 involuntary disappearance could not be denied.
In 2002, Dr Afia Siddiqi, a notable scientist, disappeared. The fact that she was handed over to the American forces in Afghanistan was admitted by the Pakistani authorities. But this was before the policy of denying everything was adopted. Saifullah Piracha disappeared in 2004 and there was no news about his whereabouts till a letter from him was received from the Bagram military base.
What started worrying human rights organisations in 2004 and 2005 was the realisation that while some enforced disappearances were reported from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which could be linked to the Taliban activities, a sharp increase in ED had been reported from Balochistan, where a jihad enthusiast was rarely found. Although KP (NWFP then) soon surpassed Balochistan by reporting a larger number of disappearances, the latter province was a close second in cases that came up before any forum.
The three-member Commission for Enquiry into Enforced Disappearances (CEED) — the commission of retired superior court judges — that held hearings for eight months in 2010 received 203 fresh complaints of ED. Out of them, 65 were from KP and 62 from Balochistan. The commission left 138 cases pending — 55 from KP and 47 from Balochistan. While the KP situation is a bit confusing because a large number of people from that province have been rounded up for links with the Taliban, there is no such confusion about Balochistan.
That there was no link between the Afghan jihad and ED in Balochistan was apparent from the very beginning. The situation in that province deteriorated when mutilated corpses of quite a few missing persons were found lying at odd places. Most of the victims could not be described as terrorists and even if they were their extralegal execution was not justified. Many of them were political dissidents or members of nationalist student organisations. A random check of the list of the missing persons from Balochistan reveals the following victims:
Dr. Deen Muhammad — Balochistan National Movement (BNM), Zakir Majeed Baloch — Baloch Students Organisation (Azad), Abdul Ghaffar — Baloch Students Organisation (Mengal), Zahid Baloch — Baloch Students Organisation (Azad), Shabir Baloch — Baloch Students Organisation (Azad), Mi Kabeer Reki — Pakistan Muslim League-N, Aslam Shoaz Baloch — Baloch Students Organisation (Azad), Ghulam Fareed — Baloch Students Organisation (Azad), Saadullah Baloch — Balochistan National Party (Mengal), Mushtaq Ahmed Rodeni — Balochistan National Party (Mengal), and Abdul Kabeer Baloch — Balocistan National Party (Mengal).
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It did not take Sindh long to start reporting disappearances in significant numbers. There, too, the list of the disappeared included political dissidents and social/cultural activists, such as the following:
Abdul Wahid Arisar — leader of Jeaay Sindh Movement and author of more than 20 books, Dr. Ghanshiam Parkash — activist of Sindh Taraqi Pasand Party, Asif Baladi — nationalist activist, writer and journalist, Raja Dahir Bhanbhro s/o Abdul Haq Bhanbhro — author of more than 20 books on language and history, Muzaffar Bhutto — activist and writer who disappeared twice and was finally found killed, Ustad Rahmoon — 75 years-old, teacher and writer, recovered after eight months, Raza Jarwar — writer, poet, Surwech Pirzado s/o well-known journalist and writer, Lutaif Peerzado — disappeared and was found killed, Asif Panhwer, student of Sindh University, remained disappeared for many months, died in an encounter alleged to be fake.
It has been established that a good number of the disappeared persons were innocent. In June this year, the present commission of enquiry decided 45 cases and 20 missing persons were reported to have returned home. Obviously, nothing to warrant criminal proceedings against them was found. They deserve to be compensated for their ordeal. But is it possible to compensate them for the trauma caused by loss of liberty, solitary confinement, torture, and separation from their dear ones?
The main reason for the state’s failure to effectively tackle the ED problem is that it looks at the whole thing from the point of view of law-enforcing agencies. It has tried only to trace the disappeared and shirked the responsibility of preventing disappearances and punishing the culprits.
The Supreme Court completed the task of identifying those largely responsible for ED. A comprehensive plan for making ED part of history was prepared by the judges’ commission of 2010. The commission called for legislation to “rein in” the intelligence services and also for measures to meet the administration’s security concerns. It also emphasised the need for paying compensation to victims’ families. Further, it urged the police to desist from concocting charges against the victims of ED after they had been handed over to them. These are eminently sound recommendations and deserve to be implemented without any delay.
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A major obstacle to a campaign to end disappearances is lack of interest in listening to the UN group (UNWGEID). The group visited Pakistan in 2012 and, despite being cold-shouldered by most of the important people it wished to meet, it made a number of valuable suggestions.
It called for the inclusion of a new and autonomous crime of enforced disappearance in the Penal Code, guarantees that anyone deprived of liberty shall be kept at a fully authorised place of detention and quickly produced before a magistrate, strengthening of the Commission of enquiry (COIOED) set up on the recommendation of the CEED, training of the police and intelligence personnel, protection of witnesses and victims’ families, financial aid and compensation for victim’s families, and ratification of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons against Enforced Disappearance.
Despite regular reminders from the working group the recommendations remain unimplemented. The UN Human Rights Committee, while discussing Pakistan report under the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, made similar recommendations.
The Pakistani authorities will do well to look at the latest UNWGEID report submitted to the Human Rights Council. According to it, Pakistan with 703 cases under intimation to the government ranks 11th in the world.
The pattern of reporting to the government is worth noticing: 93 cases were reported during 1985-2000, the number of cases intimated during 2001-2014 was 199, and the figure jumped to 253 in 2015 and 264 in 2016. The number of cases intimated this year — till May 17 — was 17.
Also worth noting is the fact that Iraq, Sri Lanka, and Argentina that have reported the largest number of enforced disappearance have recorded a huge decrease in cases over the last few years. Iraq that accounted for 16,416 cases in all reported only 37 cases during 2003-2017, and Argentina (3,241 cases in all) reported only 18 cases during 2002-2015. This is a fair indication that if the will to curb enforced disappearances is there the task is not beyond human means.