Volume 5, No. 5, May 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
One of the persistent phenomena of human and legal rights violations in Pakistan is that of so-called ‘missing persons’. This is a euphemism for Enforced Disappearances, whereby citizens are spirited away to unrevealed detention locations for years on end without redress. The rough estimate of how many people have been ‘disappeared’ hovers between 5,000-7,000. Their families and near and dear ones are left running from pillar to post searching for news of their disappeared loved ones. The courts are helpless in the face of the intelligence agencies and military establishment’s denial of responsibility, although it is common knowledge and belief that they are responsible for this atrocity.
Enforced disappearances originated in General Pervez Musharraf’s regime, especially after the outbreak of the fifth nationalist insurgency in Pakistan’s history in Balochistan in 2002. Initially, the Musharraf military regime resorted to the outrageous ‘kill and dump’ policy, whereby the dead bodies of Baloch citizens suspected of supporting or having sympathies with the nationalist guerrilla struggle starting turning up all over Balochistan, bearing horrible signs of torture before they were killed. Although this heinous practice has declined over the years, cases of ‘kill and dump’ still emerge from time to time.
The Musharraf regime made two changes from the strategy employed against previous nationalist guerrilla struggles in Balochistan (including, most prominently, the 1970s resistance). One, instead of deploying the regular army, they plumped for the Frontier Corps (FC), a paramilitary force charged traditionally with border security and commanded by seconded regular army officers. Two, instead of wholesale military operations against the Baloch tribes from whom the guerrillas are drawn, individuals within the reach of the intelligence agencies and death squads comprising Baloch collaborators with the military, wreaked havoc by employing the ‘kill and dump’ tactic. When the discovery of tortured dead bodies of suspected sympathisers of the nationalist guerrillas yielded horror and revulsion generally, and added fuel to the fire in Balochistan, the enforced disappearances policy came to be favoured more.
Starting from Balochistan since 2002, the enforced disappearances practice has spread to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) in the context of religious fundamentalists’ terrorism, Sindh targeting Sindhi nationalists, and even Punjab where dissidents and critics of the military establishment have been ‘disappeared’. Efforts by the families and friends of the disappeared to get information about their missing loved ones through the courts and human rights defenders have made shipwreck on the cloak of denial and impunity in which the intelligence agencies have wrapped themselves.
In March 2011, the government set up a Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances (COIED) to tackle the issue. Unfortunately, Justice (retd) Javed Iqbal, also chairman National Accountability Bureau (NAB), was appointed its head. Having acquitted himself so ‘heroically’ in NAB, the COIED under him claims to have ‘dealt’ with 7,000 cases of missing persons to date, and ‘resolved’ 5,000 of these. But if you ask the families of these ‘disappeared’, you will hear stories that will make your hair stand on end. The majority of enforced disappearances are citizens suspected of ‘terrorism’ (mostly KP) or sympathies with the nationalist movements (Balochistan mostly, plus some from Sindh). During the so-called ‘war on terror’ after 9/11, many of those ‘disappeared’ were handed over to the US in return for money (as detailed in General Pervez Musharraf’s book In the Line of Fire). The rest lie in limbo in detention centres or lost in the maze of denials and spin by the intelligence agencies.
In January 2021, the Islamabad High Court took up the issue and held the prime minister and his cabinet (Imran Khan at that point) responsible for what can only be described as a heinous crime that violates the Constitution, law and due process. The Islamabad High Court had responded in bold fashion to the wails and cries of the families of the disappeared. In November 2021, the National Assembly passed a bill criminalising enforced disappearances. The Senate has yet to pass it so it too lies in limbo like the victims it is intended to help.
Now the Islamabad High Court has once again returned to the enforced disappearances fray. It has held all heads of government since Musharraf to date responsible for, at the very least, tacit approval of this blot on Pakistan’s record and ordered notices to be sent to them to satisfactorily explain their tacit approval of the state’s undeclared policy of disappearing citizens or face high treason charges for subversion of the Constitution. Bold, brave and appreciable as this decision of the Islamabad High Court is, with the exception of the original author of this practice, i.e. Musharraf, the rest, civilian chief executives, could not and arguably still cannot budge the military to desist. One indicator of this helplessness of civilian chief executives in the face of the intransigence of the military and its intelligence branches is the statement by Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif when the issue was raised with him on a visit to Quetta not so long ago that “We will talk to the powers-that-be.” That sums up the helplessness of civilian chief executives on this issue.
Islamabad High Court Chief Justice Athar Minallah castigated the National Assembly for not fulfilling its constitutional obligations vis-à-vis disappeared citizens and the media for its failure to highlight the issue proactively. It is not that the honourable Islamabad High Court Chief Justice is unaware of the actual state of affairs. His decision to hold all the rulers since Musharraf directly responsible can be considered a move to apply pressure on all present and future chief executives to refrain in future from any support, tacit or otherwise, to the powerful military and its intelligence branches operating from the shadows outside the law and Constitution.
In response to the Islamabad High Court’s strictures, the government of Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif has set up a seven-member committee for deliberation of a policy on enforced disappearances. Headed by Federal Law Minister Azam Nazeer Tarar, the committee includes Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah, Power Alleviation and Social Safety Minister Shazia Marri, Communications Minister Asad Mahmood, Minister of Defence Production Mohammad Israr Tareen, Maritime Affairs Minister Faisal Ali Subzwari and Science and Technology Minister Agha Hassan Baloch. The committee is allowed to co-opt jurists, human rights organisations and other ‘appropriate’ members. It now remains to be seen whether this committee produces any results that can put balm on the wounds of the disappeared and their long anguished families.