April issue 2012
An Eerie Silence: Pakistan’s Missing People
“No mother would wed her daughter to a terrorist. My son—in-law’s only ‘terrorism’ was his beard, his namaz and his Islamic views,” says 55-year-old Khadija. Sitting next to her are her daughter and five-month-old granddaughter, the wife and daughter of Khadija’s missing son-in-law.
Next to them sits the family of Imran Khan. On October 13, 2009, Imran Khan, a resident of village Takht Bahai, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and a taxi-driver by profession, left his home to ply his trade just as he does every day. His taxi was booked to take a passenger to Mardan. That was the last he was heard of. According to the Mardan police, Imran’s cell phone shows that he last dialled the number of a mechanic in Takht Bai. The mechanic is also missing.
Then, there is the more recent case of Advocate Aurangzeb.
While he was on his way to the Peshawar High Court with a colleague, a car pulled up alongside their vehicle, and both were forcibly abducted. Aurangzeb’s colleague was subsequently released, but Aurangzeb remains missing, his whereabouts unknown. His colleague privately told Aurangzeb’s family that when kidnapped the men were taken to a safe house in Hayatabad. However, Aurangzeb has, in all probability, long been moved from that location.
Recently, a number of families have set up camp in front of the Parliament House in Islamabad to demand that their missing relatives be accounted for. While some question the location of their camp, the bigger question is, can the house of public representatives address their problems?
In today’s under-the-media-spotlight Pakistan, much has been written and spoken about the camp. The government has allocated two or five rooms (depending on who you ask) in the nearby Parliamentary Lodges to provide two hours a day of medical aid for the families, if required. The families are not impressed. “The government should give us what we need: information about our loved ones whereabouts. We don’t need medical aid,” declares a 70-year-old gentleman, whose son was picked up from Hangu. The interior minister’s response to such statements is that the families know their loved ones had gone for jihad to Kashmir or Afghanistan and are now almost certainly dead.
As the families continue to camp out in the cold, they are ‘visited’ by several groups of people for various reasons. There are the political leaders ostensibly showing solidarity with them and thereby making a statement, assorted NGO representatives genuinely wanting to help, and curious onlookers. They were even visited by a fake ‘ISI captain’ who was subsequently arrested. The man threatened the families with dire consequences if they did not abandon camp. He was arrested for impersonating an agency officer, whereupon one of the campers sarcastically asked, “Would he have been arrested if he had been the real Mcoy and threatened us?“
This question is summarily dismissed by an impatient serving military officer. “This is all a big drama that the media and NGOs are using for their own ends. The media keeps referring to the missing and their families as ‘victims.’ But let’s establish who the victims really are. Ask Amina Januja what her source of income is. You will soon discover how much of a human rights defender she really is,” he says. He adds, “Our problem is that we cannot speak freely. Why were the parents, wives and siblings of the missing so oblivious to the activities of their loved ones? When your husband disappears for days on end with a bunch of new friends, should you not question about where he’s been when he returns? Let’s also set up a camp for the families of those who lost their loved ones due to the activities of these missing people. The chief justice of the Supreme Court spoke of how it was enough to instil the fear of God in one when confronted by the terrible state of the four prisoners who were brought to court. Look what they have been reduced to. But they would feel the real fear of God if they knew what we know (about the activities of such men).”
That begs the question: what stops the military from telling the court what it knows. He responds, “In a country where the conviction rate is 2%, is it logical to look to the court for redressal of such issues?”
Some individuals have been brought to court. On March 14, Justice Noorul Haq Qureshi of the Islamabad High Court summoned an Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) official to appear in court on account of two identical petitions filed for the recovery of two missing activists of the banned Hizbut Tahrir (HuT). Justice Qureshi also directed the ISI director-general to ensure the presence of Major Tariq in the court on the next date for the hearing of the case. The petitions had been filed by Mohammad Islam Abid and Naveed Mukhtar — who had earlier petitioned the court through Advocate Umar Hayat Sindhu — regarding the abduction of their respective brothers-in-law, Dr Abdul Qayyum and Dr Abdul Waheed.
By definition, ‘missing persons’ is the term used to refer to the people who have been forcefully taken, allegedly by Pakistan’s agencies and have since gone off the radar. They are accused of assisting terrorists or terrorist organisations in the country. Some have reportedly been handed over to the US authorities and/or flown to Bagram, Afghanistan, and subsequently shipped off to secret facilities, where they are reportedly tortured and questioned about their illicit activities. While a few have eventually surfaced, scores of men who were picked up by the agencies remain unaccounted for.
Article 9 of Pakistan’s 1973 Constitution states “No person shall be deprived of life or liberty save in accordance with law.” According to the Supreme Court, this constitutional safeguard is being flagrantly violated in the case of the missing people, and law-enforcement agencies, including the ISI, have been cited as the perpetrators of this violation.
In Pakistan, through the decades, the right to a fair trial and due process has often been usurped under various labels. During General Naseerullah Babar’s tenure as interior minister, extra-judicial killings were considered in government circles as the key to ‘a cleansing of Karachi.’ More recently, in the military operation in Swat, sources in military circles privately acknowledged that “the masterminds of terrorism in the area have already been taken out. The less lethal activists will now be tried.”
While there are varying schools of thought regarding how the alleged perpetrators of terrorism should be dealt with, with some concurring with the manner in which the masterminds of the Swat trouble were put down, there is no arguing the fact that both the Karachi ‘cleansing’ and the elimination of those involved in the trouble in Swat were extra-judicial acts. They are no different from the 338 HRCP-reported killings in ‘police encounters’ in 2010, encounters which continue to be par for the course in police operations across the country. According to Amnesty International, such forms of punitive justice are “unlawful and deliberate killing carried out by order of a government or with its acquiescence. Extra judicial killings are killings which can reasonably be assumed to be the result of a policy at any level of government to eliminate specific individuals as an alternative to arresting them and bringing them to justice. These killings take place outside any judicial framework.” And this is what the families camped out in Islamabad fear — that their missing relatives have been arbitrarily taken and silenced by official concurrence.
Those in official quarters accused of violations of this nature, however, refuse to concede they have acted wrongfully. One official cites a case in Balochistan to bolster his stance. “There was a Pakistan Studies teacher in Kharan Balochistan who was not allowed to teach the subject any more. He moved to Quetta but after three months went back to Kharan to collect his dues. Sitting at a tea stall, he was gunned down by your new heroes: the so called Baloch nationalists, just because he was a Punjabi. What does your Amnesty report say about this? How guilty was he? Were his killers innocent?”
Along with scores of Baloch featuring among the missing, there are also members of the banned-today, kosher-tomorrow, banned-again organisations such as the Hizb ul Tahrir. Brigadier Ali Khan, the man who was arrested four days after the Abbottabad operation to get Osama bin Ladin, on May 2 2011, is currently facing a court martial for his ‘links’ with the HuT, but the whereabouts of four army majors who were also arrested with him remain unknown.
And in such cases no news is rarely good news.
This article was originally published in the April 2012 issue under the headline “An Eerie Silence.”