April Issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Published 15 years ago

The anger that has swept Balochistan over “enforced disappearances” and “missing women” stemmed initially from information provided by a former Baloch prisoner, Munir Mengal. He was arrested at Karachi Airport in April 2006. At the time of his arrest, Mengal was part of a group seeking to establish a Baloch language television station based in Dubai. He was held and interrogated for 16 months at different prison sites in Pakistan and accused of having links to underground nationalist Baloch organisations.

Towards the end of January 2007, Mengal was moved to a detention facility located inside the Malir Army Cantonment on the outskirts of Karachi. In a detailed interview, Mengal told this writer that the facility was run by a unit of the Military Intelligence (MI) known as the Military Security Services Unit #202.

Mengal claims that around midnight on a night late in January 2007, a young woman was brought to his cell by his military guards. She was fully clothed but “trembling and weeping.” He was ordered by the guards to rape her. He was also told he should not speak to the woman. As she knelt on the floor, he heard her praying in Balochi for her child. The child’s name was Murad. She told Mengal that shortly after her arrest, they had separated her from her son who she was still breast-feeding. Mengal says he spoke in whispers, assuring her that he would not cause her any harm and that he, too, was a Baloch prisoner.

She identified herself as Zarina Marri from the Kohlu area of the Marri region of Balochistan. She told Mengal that she was a teacher. She had been arrested several months earlier by the army near Kohlu. They accused her of being a member of the BLA. After three days in Sibi, she was flown by helicopter to Karachi, where she had been held ever since.

As the two talked quietly, the guards returned and shouted at him for not having raped her. When the guards left, Mengal said Zarina Marri pleaded with him to kill her. She told him that she was moved around as “a slave” and raped by military personnel at the prison. Mengal says that he told her that he could not kill her and would not harm her. He did not touch her and subsequently, he says, he suffered the consequences. The next morning before the azaan, she was taken from his cell. He never saw her again.

Mengal was finally released from detention in October 2008.  The Balochistan High Court had ordered his release. Yet, despite the court’s ruling, he was rearrested.  Finally, he was released again but ordered not to leave the town of Khuzdar. Ignoring these instructions, he secretly made arrangements to clandestinely leave Pakistan and fled to Abu Dhabi. By disguising himself as an anonymous member of a large delegation of travellers flying from Turbat, he succeeded in reaching the UAE.

Mengal claims that while still in detention, he gave a full account of his experiences in multiple prisons to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The interview with the ICRC took place at the Central Jail in Khuzdar in August 2007 and, during this meeting, Mengal claims he provided the ICRC with a full description of his encounter with Zarina Marri. Over a year later, after he reached the UAE, he insists he gave similar testimony to representatives of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNCHR). With the assistance of Reporters Without Borders (RWB), Mengal left Dubai in November 2008 and was resettled in Europe, where he repeated the same allegations in an interview that took place in Paris and was published on the website of RWB. His accounts appear to have remained consistent. On March 20, 2009, speaking before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, he repeated his claims regarding his encounter with Zarina Marri at the Malir Cantonment’s detention facility.

The specific details that Mengal has provided are grounds for a thorough investigation into whether Zarina Marri and others like her are still alive and being secretly detained. Mengal specifically named Major Iqrar Gul Niazi as being in charge of the Military Security Services Unit 202 at the Malir Cantonment. The senior officer in charge of Unit 202 in January 2007 was Colonel Mohammed Raza, he said. During the period Mengal was imprisoned at the Malir Cantonment, Major Niazi was promoted to the rank of colonel. These names appeared last year on the website of RWB.

Mengal’s testimony does not stand alone. The News published a report on March  6  indicating that Amina Masood Janjua, the founder and chairperson of a Pakistani organisation called the Defence of Human Rights (DHR), had recently visited Quetta, where she began “filing cases [on behalf] of missing Baloch women with the assistance of the Quetta Bar Association.” She had been in Quetta to gather information from local organisations and from families whose daughters and mothers were among the missing.

Janjua criticised the federal government’s contention that the demand issued by those who had abducted John Solecki,   was “unrealistic” in so far as it called for the release of 141 Baloch women in government custody. She insisted the facts indicated that this number was, indeed, very realistic. She told The News, “I have a list of 144 missing women. Verification of these unfortunate souls is underway with local authorities. [The] bulk of them hail from district Kohlu.” She pointed out that the list of missing persons included Zarina Marri, a school teacher in Kohlu.

According to reports published by the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), other witnesses they have interviewed have given similar accounts. One AHRC witness who was held by Military Intelligence in two different cities confirmed that “there were young Balochi females seen at those two torture cells, naked and in distress.”

AHRC has also noted that the fact that “the current advisor to the Prime Minister and Minister in Charge of Interior Affairs, Rehman Malik, again confirmed on February 14, 2009, that around 1,000 persons are missing in Balochistan, and the chief minister of Balochistan says he has a list of 800 missing persons … [Yet] the government of Pakistan has still not initiated a probe into allegations that the Pakistani military is using [the] missing girls and women as sex slaves, or the wider problem of forced disappearances.”

Similar allegations of sexual abuse were made in the past against Pakistani military forces during their operations in Bangladesh in 1971. Over the years, many Pakistan army officers have denounced these claims as propaganda. However, in 2000-2001, this writer interviewed more than 50 Pakistani military officers for a study related to Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine.

Many of the officers who had served in East Pakistan confirmed that women were deliberately held at several facilities in East Pakistan and were sexually abused.

One wonders if there exists a group of senior serving or retired officers willing to make their way to the Malir Cantonment and other “black sites” to investigate, find and free women prisoners, thereby putting an end to Pakistan’s shame? Are there serving officers willing to call upon General Ashfaq Kayani not to organise a “cover up,” but rather, to act with honesty and decency to remedy the situation? And, if no such group exists, the real question is, why not?

On March 22, a set of formal questions were put to Major General Athar Abbas, director general of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) unit of the Pakistan armed forces, regarding Zarina Marri and other Baloch prisoners reportedly held by units of the Pakistan Army. Similar questions were presented to Pakistan’s Ambassador in Washington, Hussain Haqqani.

On March 31, a reply was received from Lt Colonel Baseer Haider Malik, additional director foreign media of the ISPR. Haider stated that “Ms Marri was never in the custody of the Pakistan Army … The allegation of Ms Zarina Marri is part of a vilify [sic] campaign against the army by anti-state elements.” Lt Colonel Malik referred to statements made by the senator from Balochistan, Mohabat Marri, who is from the same clan to which the so-called Ms Marri belongs … Mohabat Marri has said categorically that there is no such woman Zarina Marri from his clan who is missing and who is in the custody of the army.

Incidentally, Mohabat Marri contested the Balochistan Assembly seat from the Kohlu constituency in 2002. He was defeated by Nawabzada Balach Marri, the son of Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri, with  over 18,000 votes, which according to reports at the time, represented the highest number of votes ever cast in the constituency. According to The News, Mohabat Marri, then a provincial minister, was defeated in the election “despite all efforts by the administration to support” his candidacy.

The letter written to Ambassador Haqqani by this writer specifically raised the possibility that some elements in the security services, wishing to make certain that unpleasant details do not emerge, may take steps to ensure that those who are alive do not see the light of day again. Therefore, it is imperative that steps be taken to immediately secure the safety and security of those individuals, who are still alive, and may be in danger. When this question was raised recently with Brigadier (retd) Abid Rao, a staff member of the HRCP, he said, “It is clearly a matter of legitimate concern.”

According to ISPR’s Colonel Baseer Haider Malik, Zarina Marri was “never in the custody of the Pakistan Army.” This still leaves open the question whether Zarina Marri was in the formal custody of some other government agency while being held at a military site. Munir Mengal, a former prisoner, claims he met Zarina Marri while in detention at the Malir Cantonment. With such contending claims in the public domain, an independent inquiry into the facts is essential.

One month before Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry was removed from his position by General Musharraf, he was engaged in a determined judicial effort to locate people who had “disappeared” due to the actions of various state agencies. According to Amnesty International’s 2008 report entitled “Denying the Undeniable: Enforced Disappearances in Pakistan,” Justice Chaudhry on October 5, 2007, directed the Defence and Interior Secretaries to question the heads of the country’s intelligence agencies about several cases of enforced disappearances pending before the court. It was clear that the court had lost patience with the constant dissembling on the part of the federal government.

The Amnesty report describes how Justice Chaudhry put a stop to the “not me, he did it” phenomenon. When Interior Secretary, Syed Kamal Shah, declared that as a federal official he could not locate missing persons since this was a provincial matter, Justice Chaudhry told him, “[The] police say [that] these people were not lifted by them and that they are in the custody of federal agencies. If the defence secretary says he cannot do anything, we will summon heads of intelligence agencies. Uniformed generals of ISI and MI will be standing here and [will be] questioned.” Justice Chaudhry went on to say that evidence existed that the missing persons were in the custody of the intelligence agencies and that criminal charges would be brought against those responsible for holding persons in “illegal custody.”

According to the Amnesty report, the evidence is clear that “persons subjected to enforced disappearances show that government officials, particularly from the country’s security forces, when called before the Supreme Court of Pakistan and the provincial high courts, resorted to a variety of means to avoid enforced disappearances being exposed. These tactics included denying that detention takes place and denying all knowledge of the fate and whereabouts of disappeared persons; refusing to obey judicial directions; concealing the identity of the detaining authorities, for example, by transferring the disappeared to other secret locations … All of these cases firmly establish that the persons concerned were detained incommunicado without charge or trial in undisclosed locations, and that state officials denying their detention or indeed any knowledge of their fate or whereabouts, concealed or helped to conceal them.”

In the context of Amnesty’s report, ISPR’s recent denial that Zarina Marri “was never in the custody of the Pakistan Army” must, on a prima facie basis, be viewed somewhat sceptically.

What needs to happen now is for a high-level “fact-finding” mission to be organised in order to visit Pakistan. Such a mission — led by distinguished women known to the world for their relentless work on behalf of human rights — could advance the search for definitive answers. There are many ways that such a mission could be formed. In my view, one possibility would involve a three-person team comprised of Louise Arbour of Canada, who until last year, was the UN’s High Commissioner of Human Rights; Irene Khan, general secretary of Amnesty International, and Pakistan’s own Asma Jahangir, chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

The AKJ (Arbour, Khan, Jahangir) Mission could begin its journey in Karachi to meet the Baloch elders, Khair Bakhsh Marri and Ataullah Mengal, both of whom have called upon the BLUF not to harm John Solecki, the UNHCR official who was kidnapped by them in early February. The delegation could then journey to Quetta and Dera Bugti to meet families of the “missing,” and finally, in Islamabad, they would meet senior government officials. The critical question — “Where Are The Disappeared?” — should be the fundamental item on their agenda.

Whether this happens or not — and for the sake of the “disappeared” and their desperate families, one certainly hopes that it will —  the BLUF should demonstrate some measure of political maturity and release John Solecki from its unlawful custody. It is important that this situation, unlike so many others, be resolved non-violently. Solecki, Zarina Marri and her imprisoned Baloch sisters have been fatefully tied together. They are not enemies of one another. Indeed, they are important allies in a battle of justice for all.

Lawrence Lifschultz was South Asia Correspondent of the Far Eastern Economic Review (Hong Kong) and has written extensively on European and Asian affairs for The Guardian, Le Monde Diplomatique(Paris), The Nation (New York), the BBC and numerous other newspapers and journals. He is the author and editor of several books including Why Bosnia? Writings on the Balkan Wars, co-edited with Rabia Ali. In 2000-2001 Lifschultz was a “senior” Fulbright Scholar in Pakistan. He has also been a Visiting Scholar at Yale University’s Center for International and Area Studies. He can be reached at [email protected] .