The 10,000 disappeared haunt Pakistan govt

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali

Rocking the unpopular US-client government of President Asif Ali Zardari, the Supreme Court of Pakistan has reopened the cases of thousands of missing or disappeared persons during General Musharraf's regime. In a major setback to the government, Pakistan's Supreme Court last month declared the controversial National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) as unconstitutional and ordered the government to reopen money laundering case against him in Switzerland.

Perhaps the issue of missing persons and the NRO's legality were the main causes behind the US and President Zardari's reluctance to reinstate the Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftekhar Chaudhry. However, under intensive public pressure and massive pro-Chief Justice demonstrations, President Zardari and Washington agreed to his restoration in March last year. Now the nightmare is coming true.

The Supreme Court decision against the NRO has already opened a Pandora box. There are calls for the resignation of President Zardari and many of his ministers who were given amnesty under the NRO.

On January 7, 2010, the Supreme Court has opened another front against the Zardari government with the resumption of hearings on the case of thousands of disappeared or missing persons apparently kidnapped by the intelligence agencies and many of whom have been handed over to the United States.

What is an enforced disappearance?  What is an enforced disappearance? It occurs when a person is arrested, detained or abducted by the state or agents acting for the state, who then deny that the person is being held or conceal their whereabouts, placing them outside the protection of the law. Very often, people who have disappeared are never released and their fate remains unknown.

Governments use enforced disappearance as a tool of repression to silence dissent and eliminate political opposition, as well as to persecute ethnic, religious and political groups. In recent years, in the course of the "war on terror", the U. S., sometimes with the complicity of other governments, has carried out enforced disappearances of terror suspects.

The term 'disappearance' was created during the 1960s at the School of Americas, an institute set up by the US military at Fort Guilick in Panama, which ran there till 1984. 45,000 Latin American officers were trained in counter insurgency there. Along with anti-guerrilla tactics, they were taught how to torture, and how to 'manage' prisoners. As soon as the officers left for their home countries, they applied what they had learned with 'disappearances' taking place in a large number of South American nations through the 1960s and 1970s. Four decades on, the families of the 'disappeared', in Argentina, in Chile, in Venezuela and in other countries are still pursuing the matter and are succeeding in gaining at least some justice.

A generation ago, officials from Argentina's Naval Mechanics School, known by its Spanish acronym, ESMA, secretly loaded drugged prisoners into aircraft and threw them out over the brown and frigid waters. As many as 5,000 people were "disappeared" at the hands of ESMA, perhaps the most horrifying symbol of South American repression in the 1970s.

In December last year, almost 40 years after these crimes were committed, 19 officials from ESMA, who were previously given amnesty by the government, finally appeared in court.

Not surprisingly, similar methods are being adopted by the Pakistani intelligence agencies in their cooperation with Washington's 'war on terror.' During the Musharraf era, people were picked up from their homes, work places, even from buses and till now the families of those disappeared don't know about their dear ones. There are calls that not only the disappeared people should be recovered but those responsible for their kidnapping should be punished just as it is happening in Latin America after four decades.Often forced disappearance implies murder. "The practice often involves an extra-judicial killing followed by the concealment of the body to get rid of any material evidence of the crime and to ensure the impunity of those responsible," says Iqbal Haider, Secretary-General, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

Nobody knows the exact number of the people who had been picked up by the intelligence agencies during the last few years, particularly after 9/11. According to the Defense of Human Rights of Pakistan, between 8,000 to10,000 people disappeared while a government list provided to the Supreme Court, says 1,390 people are missing. Baluchistan province's government says that 922 Baluchis are missing. It may be added that a separatist movement is underway in Baluchistan province while several Sindhi separatist groups are working under the umbrella of Jeay Sindh Qaumi Mahaz.

Who are the missing persons? They include Sindhi and Balochi nationalists, those suspected of involvement with militant groups, journalists, others who seem to fit no definite category but may have, in one way or the other, evoked the ire of influential people.

The missing persons' case has dominated apex court proceedings for more than four years now. In November 2007, it also led to the sacking of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry by the military ruler President General Parwez Musharraf. Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry was reinstated in March 2009 after an intensive civil society campaign.

During Wednesday's(1/7/2010) proceedings, when Advocate Hashmat Habib requested the court to summon heads of the Military Intelligence and the Inter-Services Intelligence, the presiding judge, Justice Javed Iqbal, said that last time when "we tried to summon them we were sent home for almost 16 months".

Since Pakistan's involvement in the US-led "war on terror" seven years ago, several hundred Pakistanis have been abducted, detained and tortured. Some have been handed over to US intelligence officials. The former President General Musharraf acknowledged in his book "In the line of fire": We have captured 689 (people) and handed over 369 to the United States. Various people have earned bounties totaling millions of dollars. (Page 237)

Interestingly, Acting Attorney-General Shah Khawar informed the Supreme Court in November last that a detailed list of people handed over to the US by the Musharraf regime would help a lot in resolving the cases of missing persons. Apparently, the civilian government is not in a position to get such a list from the intelligence agencies which operate outside the control of the civilian government. In 2006, officials of the defense and interior ministries told the Sindh High Court in a case involving the disappearance of three political activists that the Military Intelligence and the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) did not fall under their operational control.

Human rights groups across the country have been taking out rallies on a regular basis to keep the issue alive. However, so far very few of the missing persons have been recovered.

In 2006 the Supreme Court took up regular hearings of petitions filed on behalf of Pakistan's 'disappeared' or missing persons. However, in November 2007, Pervez Musharraf imposed a state of emergency and deposed the majority of judges. Since the elections in February 2008, not much has improved for the "disappeared" or their families. Amnesty International has called on the new government to act now to end this grave human rights violation.

Surprisingly, kidnapping of people continues under the present government. According to the Chairperson of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) Asma Jehangir, at least 30 people are missing from Swat where Pakistan army operation goes on since May last year. She says that there are reports of missing persons from South Punjab, Sindh and NWFP even after a democratic government came into power after February 2008 elections.

The case of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui: The case of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui echoed during Wednesday's proceedings when her counsel, Advocate Hashmat Habib, requested the bench to ask the concerned authorities to inform how Dr. Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist, went missing and was handed over to the US.

Trial of Aafia Siddiqui, accused of firing at U. S. soldiers and FBI agents in Afghanistan, begins in New York on January 19.

In 2003, Dr. Siddiqui and her three children disappeared while on their way to Karachi airport to get a flight to Islamabad. In August 2008, US officials claimed she had been in their custody in Afghanistan only since July 2008, even though she had disappeared five years earlier. The whereabouts of her two children remain unknown.

Case studies of some of the disappeared persons: Asad Usman, a nine-year-old boy, was picked up by the Balochistan Frontier Constabulary paramilitary force, who is on the record as saying that he would be released after his wanted elder brother surrendered. He was detained in Tump or Mand, near Turbat in Balochistan province. The Supreme Court ordered his release on April 27, 2007.

Masood Janjua, a 45-year-old businessman, was apprehended by Pakistani security forces while on a bus in July 2005 with his friend Faisal Faraz, a 25-year-old engineer from Lahore. The government has not acknowledged that it is holding Janjua, despite testimony from several former detainees. His wife, Amna Janjua, is now heading the Defence of Human Rights organization.

Dr Imran Munir, a Malaysian citizen of Pakistani origin, was arrested in July 2006 and his whereabouts remained unknown until the Supreme Court was informed in its hearing on May 4, 2007, that he was facing a court martial on charges of "spying against Pakistan". A month later, the court was informed that Dr Munir had been sentenced to eight years in prison.

The court ordered his appearance in court and, on finding that his health was deteriorating, ordered his admission into hospital. Dr Munir was set to record his statement regarding his enforced disappearance when the hearing was disrupted with the imposition of the state of emergency in November 2007. Dr Munir's conviction was set aside by military authorities after the Supreme Court questioned the conviction. Dr Munir is still confined to a hospital in Islamabad.

Shamsun Nissa, 60, remembers her only son Attiqur Rehman, who she says was picked up by intelligence agencies from his hometown Abbottabad on the day he was to get married in June 2004.

Saud Memon, a Karachi businessman, disappeared in March 2003. He was wanted in connection with the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl as he allegedly owned the shed where Pearl's body was found. Four years later, Memon was dropped off, emaciated and near death, at the doorstep of his family home in Karachi. He died two weeks later. While hospital authorities said he died of tuberculosis and meningitis, his family alleged he had been tortured by the authorities. He was never officially arrested or detained and lost contact with the family. Investigators at Human Rights Watch believe he was held in CIA custody before being turned over to Pakistani intelligence agents.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 January 2010 on page no. 23

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