Pakistan’s Missing Persons

, by HUSAIN Irfan

The Pakistani state’s kidnapping of its critics
is eroding its own foundations, says Irfan Husain.

On 29 December 2006, a photograph made the front
pages of most Pakistani dailies, shocking a
violence-hardened nation. It showed a young man
with his baggy shalwar pulled down around his
ankles, being beaten on the legs and buttocks by
the Islamabad police.

Mahmood Masood’s crime was to accompany a small
group of protestors as they marched towards army
headquarters to give the vice chief of army staff
a petition. This demanded the release of their
relatives allegedly being held by military
intelligence agencies.

For months now, Pakistani newspapers have been
reporting on the phenomenon of “missing” citizens
from all four provinces. In December, the supreme
court took up forty-five cases, and directed the
Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) agency to
produce them. Although this elite spy outfit had
been denying that it had abducted anybody,
twenty-one individuals were released. In Sindh
alone, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan
(HRCP) has documented 400 cases.

 An everyday event

Here are two typical cases. The first (recounted
by a nephew, Khuda Bux) is of Moula Bux, who was
returning home from a court appearance in Sehwan
Sharif, Sindh province, on 10 July 2006, riding
on the pillion seat of a relative’s motorcycle,
when they were intercepted by a blue Toyota
Corolla. The car had no number-plates, and
contained four uniformed policemen.

The cops dragged Moula Bux into the car and drove
off. He has not been seen since. His wife, three
sons and a daughter are frantic. Relatives have
been going from police stations to government
offices, trying to find out where he is.
Initially, the police refused to register a case,
but were forced to do so in November on a
supreme-court directive.

The second case is of Abid Raza Zaidi, who is
more fortunate. He was kept in safe houses, moved
around blindfolded, and tortured for four months
until he was released recently. A PhD student at
Karachi University, he tells of being transported
by train, plane and car. He has no idea where he
was taken. He was suspended upside down over an
open sewer, and had his head lowered repeatedly
into the foul water below. This is a variation of
the American technique known as “waterboarding”.
To this day, he has no idea why he was picked up.
His is one of seventy such abductions reported in
Karachi alone.

 Into the void

On 3 December, Ghulam Mohammad Baloch was forced into a police van in Lyari. Witnesses say there
were a number of police officers present,
including a DSP and an SHO. On 7 December, the
Sindh high court issued notices to the police and
several intelligence agencies, directing them to
produce Baloch. Nobody has thus far accepted
responsibility for this kidnapping.

According to Sajid Baloch, a relative, 6,000
Balochis (Baluchis) have disappeared over the
last couple of years. Most people, especially in
rural Balochistan (Baluchistan), have never heard
of the HRCP, and therefore do not report these
disappearances.

Apparently, reports of such incidents have
skyrocketed after 9/11. Almost invariably, the
police and intelligence agencies deny any hand in
these disappearances. And when the victims do
return, most of them are too scared by threats to
report their experiences to the media, or to go
to court. In any case, most of them are
blindfolded during their captivity, and cannot
prove who had kidnapped them.

Pakistan’s prime minister Shaukat Aziz was asked
to comment on the brutal incident involving the
public thrashing of Mahmood Masood. Demonstrating
a breathtaking degree of insensitivity, he
advised the relatives of the missing people not
to take to the streets, but to "observe
protocol". He forgot that in most cases, families
have spent months going to police stations,
hospitals and courts in an effort to secure the
release of their loved ones, and to find out
where they are being kept. What “protocol” are
they supposed to follow after exhausting all
legal avenues?

It is clear that these cases of kidnapping and
torture are part of a covert state policy. There
are just too many men disappearing for this to be
a random crime-wave.

Saleem Baloch, an office-bearer of the Jamhoori
Watan Party (JWP), told reporters at a press
conference on 20 December at the HRCP office of
being kidnapped in March 2006, having being
released a few days earlier. During his
eight-month ordeal, Baloch came across many other
Balochis in similar illegal confinement.

 The Balochi factor

It appears that the uprising in Balochistan is
the cause of many of these covert operations.
Unable to produce any evidence that would stand
up in court, the government is resorting to these
methods to obtain information, and to punish
people they think might be connected to Balochi
nationalist organisations, most notably the
Baloch Liberation Army (BLA). By resorting to
these tactics, Pervez Musharraf’s government is
taking a page out of the American torture manual:
Washington’s policy of covert rendition and its
hellhole in Guantánamo Bay are clearly the models
here.

But apart from suspected Baloch nationalists,
other people have fallen victim to this policy.
Moula Bux was an activist who sought a semblance
of a fair deal for his people as gas was being
pumped out from their land. In a letter addressed
to the managing director of ENI, a multinational
exploiting the local gasfield, Bux wrote in
January 2004:

"(1) That in Gas Field’s plant as yet has not
appointed any single said original area
inhabitant [sic];

(2) That as by Company constructed road and
Plant have not yet paid any remuneration amounts
as in this respect faced losses by land owners
[sic];

(3) That small small work and contracts were awarded to outsiders... [sic]"

I have no idea if Moula Bux’s agitation for local
rights was responsible for his disappearance. But
his family is convinced that this is the only
possible explanation as he was not involved in
any other kind of activity that could justify
what happened to him.

The HRCP also has records of twenty young Shi’a
men who have been abducted. Again, their families
insist they were not involved in any subversive
activities. By behaving like those they seek to
defeat (nationalists, extremists), government
functionaries are only strengthening resistance
to a rule that is being increasingly viewed as
illegal.

If the state does not follow the rule of law, how
can it expect others to do so? So while the
temptation to lash out at its perceived enemies
might be great, by placing itself above the law,
this Pakistani government is eroding the very
foundations of the state.

P.S.

* From opendemocracy.net/, 24 January 2007. Circulated by South Asia Citizens Wire | January 27-28, 2007 | Dispatch No. 2354 - Year 8.

* Irfan Husain is a columnist with Dawn newspaper in Pakistan.

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