“My cell in detention was smaller than a grave where I spent several months,” recalls Saad Iqbal Madni, a resident of Lahore who was detained in Bagram air base and Guantanamo Bay for seven years for his alleged links with Osama Bin Laden.
After his release through legal interventions in 2009, Pakistani intelligence agencies and law enforcement networks kept him under house arrest for almost five years, until this June, when Lahore High Court declared him a free person.
Madni’s mother died during his detention period and his family was unaware of his whereabouts for around two years. His family came to know about him after a year in detention when a Red Cross team met him in Bagram air base.
In his late 30s, Madni is one of those hundreds in Pakistan picked at different times from different places by different intelligence agencies on suspicion of terrorism. After 9/11, scores of men were picked up and handed over to the United States for alleged connection with al-Qaeda and its like-minded groups.
Enforced disappearances have become a global issue. Based on the United Nations figures, the issue has spread to more than 130 countries. The problem is more complex in internal conflict situations, especially as a means of political repression of opponents.
“The number of such inmates, according to my information, is around 3,000,” says Madni, adding, “Many have died and those alive, have no contact with their families. The families do not even know when and how they were picked.”
According to United Nations records, the stories of missing persons started emerging in 1980s during dictator Ziaul Haq’s regime. They reached its peak after 9/11 when another dictator General Pervez Musharraf sided with the US in War on Terror.
The United Nations observes the International Day of Victims of Enforced Disappearances, also known as International Day of the Disappeared, every year on August 30. The day is meant to draw the world’s attention to the fate of individuals abducted or detained by agents of the state (or those acting with the support of the state), and their detention is concealed from their relatives and legal representatives.
In Balochistan, where Baloch nationalists claim their rights are denied, hundreds of persons are either missing or have been found dead in mysterious circumstances. Reports of mass graves in different areas also appear in the press from time to time. On the other side, among the missing persons are a large number of members of religious outfits and human rights activists. Journalists and members of non-government organisations are also among the missing persons.
Voice for Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP) registered nearly 2,800 cases by 2013, among them many have been killed – only a few have been released.
Former Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Chaudhry, in his tenure, took up some cases of missing persons seriously but non-cooperation of intelligence agencies exposed the weaknesses of the system.
“The courts have taken some steps but their pace is slow. It is difficult to take on intelligence agencies in our country,” I.A. Rehman, Secretary General Human Rights Commission of Pakistan observes.
What is happening in Balochistan is no secret. There are reports of mass graves and rising number of killings and abductions to curb insurgency in the area.
The PPP government set up a commission of Supreme Court judges in 2010 to deal with the issue but no significant development has been seen yet in this regard.
Human rights bodies have expressed deep concern over the recently passed Pakistan Protection Act (PPA) by the government, fearing its misuse and abuse in a country like Pakistan, “where law enforcement agencies and intelligence networks have no proper accountability mechanisms,” says Rehman.
PPA, human rights groups believe, is meant to give legal cover to security and intelligence agencies suspected of keeping the accused under unannounced detention.
A report of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, released this month, emphasises how the changing situation of enforced disappearance requires new strategies to counter that crime and urges states to strengthen measures to prevent and eradicate enforced disappearance – to secure the right to truth, justice and reparations of victims.
Hamza Haider, a criminal lawyer at Justice Project Pakistan (JPP), a law firm fighting for the freedom of Pakistanis detained abroad, says, “The issue of enforced disappearances is obviously a very serious concern.”
He iterates that it is a grave violation of fundamental rights granted to every citizen by the constitution. “Law, like PPA, is an effort to legitimise these disappearances. There are similar laws in other countries, like the United States and India. The concern that arises stems from the misuse of the PPA. The law has given unfettered power to law enforcement agencies. The government needs to keep a check on these unfettered powers in order to prevent misuse.”