December issue 2006
Missing in Custody
The government’s questionable policies in Balochistan to control insurgency have caused deep anger and unrest in the province. Thousands of people have allegedly been picked up by intelligence agencies and held in custody for months, if not years, without being produced in a court of law.
The mother of Gohram Saleh Baloch has threatened to renounce her Pakistani citizenship. Her son has been missing for over two years now, and has still not been produced in a court of law.
Gohram Saleh was with his brother, Ibrahim Saleh, when they were allegedly picked up by intelligence agencies. It was August 2004, and Gohram was enroute to Gwadar seeking a job. According to reports, the brothers were grabbed in Balochistan’s Kech district. Different versions of the story have been circulated in the media, but one version maintains that while Ibrahim was released in Karachi, Gohram remained in custody.
In a petition filed for the recovery of Gohram Saleh in the Balochistan High Court, it was alleged that Gohram was picked up by intelligence personnel from Talar, an area between Kech and Gwadar districts. During the petition hearing, intelligence and law enforcing agencies, testified under oath before the court that Gohram was not in their custody. But during the hearing of other petitions, the court discovered that the Balochistan home department had ordered the release of Gohram Saleh after he had been declared innocent by the Joint Investigation Team (JIT), comprising three intelligence agencies.
It was the testimony of one of the government’s own jailers that proved the official story false. On oath, before a bench headed by Justice Raja Fayyaz Ahmed, the then Chief Justice of the Balochistan High Court, the assistant superintendent of the Anti-Terrorist Force (ATF), sub-jail in Quetta cantonment, said that he released Gohram Saleh after receiving orders from the home department.
But Gohram’s freedom didn’t last long. As soon as Gohram Saleh stepped out from the ATF sub-jail — the Baloch Bar Association has branded the prison the Guantanamo Bay and Abu Gharaib of Balochistan — he was taken into custody by two personnel of an all-powerful intelligence agency. Though the court ordered the concerned quarters to produce Gohram Saleh Baloch, the agency had flatly denied custody of Gohram Saleh, despite the disclosure made by the assistant superintendent of the ATF prison.
Unfortunately, Gohram Saleh’s situation is not unique. A large number of people, mostly political activists and Marri and Bugti tribesmen, have gone missing in Balochistan. The disappearances started in 2000, in the aftermath of the acts of sabotage that erupted in the province. The root cause of the unrest can be linked to the assassination of Muhammad Nawaz Marri, a judge of the Balochistan High Court in early 2000. Much speculation about government involvement clouded the high-profile murder. Not only was Nawaz Marri being escorted by police, but he was killed in an area of the city where security is tight. The government, however, blamed Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri, a Baloch nationalist leader, for the judge’s death. But Baloch nationalist forces described the killing as a government conspiracy to pit Marri tribesmen against each other in order to pave the way for government access to Kohlu’s huge reservoirs of oil and gas. Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri has always maintained that until and unless Baloch ownership of the province’s natural resources is accepted, he would not allow anyone to come in and exploit resources in Kohlu and other parts of Balochistan.
Soon after the killing, Nawab Khair Baksh was arrested on charges of murdering the judge and eventually released on bail. A few months after his arrest, bomb blasts targeting government installations and security forces started across the province. In retaliation, the government indulged in a spate of unconstitutional and illegal arrests, as well as full-scale military operations in the province, including the still ongoing conflicts in Kohlu and Dera Bugti.
Nationalist forces claim that the number of illegal arrests are in the thousands. Some of the missing disappeared more than four years ago. BNP (Mengal) has prepared a list of many of the missing persons, and handed it over to national and international human rights organisations. Under the law, anyone arrested and accused of a crime must be produced before a judicial magistrate within 24 hours of arrest. Amazingly, none of those missing have been produced before any court and moreover, no challans have been submitted against any of them in any court within the stipulated 14 days. As a result, scores of applications regarding the arrested and missing are pending in the Balochistan High Court. But little progress has been made. The legal requests have been given no importance and intelligence agencies continue to deny custody of the missing, despite strong evidence to the contrary.
Part of the mounting testimony against the government comes from those who have come forward and alleged that they were captured and subsequently released. They recount tales of interrogation and torture while in the hands of intelligence agencies. But again, during court hearings, the concerned agencies denied their custody.
Stories of illegal arrests are endless. Dr. Hanif Sharif is an intellectual who was picked up by intelligence officers from Turbat. After a petition for his release to the Balochistan High Court proved useless — with the usual official denials by the counsels representing the Balochistan and Federal governments — Dr. Sharif’s father and mother staged hunger strikes in front of the Karachi Press Club. Eventually, Dr. Sharif was released.
Samiullah Baloch, the younger brother of Senator Sana Baloch, the central Secretary Information of BNP (Mengal), was allegedly picked up from a military police check post in Quetta cantonment. He was travelling home with his elder brother Abdullah Baloch, when their vehicle was chased by armed, plain-clothes intelligence personnel. When they reached the police check post, they believed they would receive refuge there. Abdullah was left alone. But Samiullah was taken into custody. Abdullah speculates that being a US green card holder might have saved him. Nonetheless, he is horrified that despite his claims that his brother was picked up by intelligence personnel right before his eyes, all concerned agencies have refused, in court, of having custody of his brother. Samiullah Baloch was picked up in June 2006 and his whereabouts are still unknown.
Within nationalist political circles, it is alleged that the main objective behind the hundreds, if not thousands, of illegal arrests of political activists and relatives of political leaders, is to pressurise them into changing loyalties.
Another case resulted in the longest-ever hunger strike in world history. The case of Ali Asghar Bangulzai. MMA leader, Hafiz Hussain Ahmed, disclosed during a chat with journalists that when he approached a senior officer of an intelligence agency about Ali Asghar Bangulzai, the officer admitted that Ali Asghar was in their custody. But later they denied custody or any knowledge of his whereabouts. His whereabouts are still unknown and his children staged a hunger strike that continued for nine months. The hunger strike attracted international press coverage and embarrassed the government, leading the governor of Balochistan to personally intervene and approach the District Nazim of Mastung to end the children’s hunger strike.
Other hunger strikes have forced a positive response from the government. Dr. Allah Nazar Baloch, Dr. Imdad Baloch, the former chairman of the Baloch Students Organisation (BSO) and five other of their colleagues were amongst the fortunate who were released. They alleged that while in custody, they were subjected to the worst kind of torture. “After they failed to get the expected answer, I was ordered to lie down on the floor. Then they continuously hit me with a leather paddle for four or five minutes. It was so painful that I could not move,” said Doctor Nasim Baloch, who was arrested with Doctor Imdad and Doctor Allah Nazar Baloch from Karachi’s Gulshan Iqbal. “They kept me in solitary confinement for a long time. I had to urinate in a bottle and empty it once in a day, when I went for defecation. Defecation was a torture itself, as a man would stand nearby and shout: ‘Hurry up, you only have 40 seconds.’ Then he would shout. ‘Hurry up, your time is almost finished…’ Often, one had to come out without washing up,”Doctor Naseem said, adding, “I was abused, humiliated, and was helpless. I could not even express my anger. I would only occasionally see the face of the soldiers who served us our meals, or who took us to the toilet.” He alleged that the persons who were interrogating him threatened, “If I failed to cooperate and refused to accept responsibility for the bomb blasts, I would be killed in a false police encounter.”
Jumand Khan Marri, who was illegally arrested in mid-2006 from a local hospital, told a press conference after his release, “They gave me electric shocks and did not allow me to sleep for a week.” He alleged that “Many Baloch were there and during the night there were terrible cries of pain coming from different torture cells.”
Jan Muhammad Buledi, a member of Balochistan Assembly, told a recent session of the Assembly, that Abdul Sattar Baloch, a school teacher, was arrested a few months ago from Turbat. He was severely tortured. “When Sattar Baloch was released a few weeks back, he was paralysed and was unable to walk,” claims Buledi.
Despite protests, illegal arrests have continued in Balochistan. Relatives of missing persons are neither getting relief from the government, nor from the courts that are meant to protect them. As a result, a deep and dangerous anger is growing among the Baloch. “The situation in Balochistan is serious. Intelligence agencies have no option but to pick up suspected people in order to get information and to check terrorism in the province,” said a police officer on condition of anonymity.
Condemning the alleged massive arrests, the leader of the opposition in the Balochistan Assembly, Kachkol Ali Advocate, said that the government and its agencies have no respect for the rights of the people of Balochistan. “The government is talking about the establishment of the writ of law in Balochistan. But when the government and its agencies do not have any respect for the law, then how they can expect people to follow the writ of law,” he said, adding that unless the hundreds of missing people are given justice, the situation would deteriorate dangerously in Balochistan.