By Shair Abbas Kazemi

Pakistan’s missing - Did they vanish into thin air?

May 10, 2019

In Imran Khan’s much-hyped ‘Naya Pakistan’ (New Pakistan), the same old stories of pain, loss and hopelessness continue to dominate the national discourse. 

Human rights abuses continue with sheer impunity and public outcry over high-handedness of government-backed forces has gathered momentum. People are back in the streets, demanding their legitimate rights, asking for the whereabouts of their loved ones who left home and didn’t come back.

The disturbing phenomenon of enforced disappearances in Pakistan date back to the time of former military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf and the practice has continued over the years.

These days, members of the Shia community are staging a sit-in outside the official residence of President Arif Alvi in Karachi to seek information about their missing relatives and friends. The peaceful sit-in has continued for many days now and the protestors have vowed to hold their ground until their legitimate demands are met.

The protestors include women, children, youth, who are carrying placards, banners and portraits of the missing people, demanding information about their whereabouts. Did they vanish into thin air, they ask.

Sisters are waiting for their brothers, daughters are searching for their fathers, women are concerned about the well-being of their spouses, and parents are in deep trauma, thinking about their children. It seems like a hopeless situation, which has put a big question mark over Imran Khan’s promises. 

One of the protestors, a woman, whose two young sons are missing, was seen holding their pictures, asking simple questions: are they terrorists, criminals or target killers? She said both her missing sons were young, one studying in college and the other just recently employed. She has no idea why they were subjected to enforced disappearance. 

Another story of a woman, a widow, whose 23 year old son has been missing for two years, is heartbreaking. She said if her son was involved in any criminal activity, he should be tried in a court, through proper legal procedures, rather than subjected to enforced disappearance. She has a point. Pakistan is a democratic country, not a banana republic. 

According to reports, protestors are demanding the release of at least 40 persons who are missing or were illegally abducted without any warrant, in clear violation of the country’s laws.

One protestor was quoted saying in media that if the missing people are wanted in criminal cases or involved in any activity against the State, the law should take its own course. But their abduction is in clear violation of international humanitarian norms and the country’s Constitution. Many mothers have died in grief while waiting to hear the knock on the door again. 

Another protester was quoted saying that his brothers were abducted by the authorities in 2016, and in the last two years there has been no information about them. His mother passed away in pain and agony after knocking every door of the state to get justice.

Despite steps taken by the government of Pakistan by establishing a Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances (CIED), for the protection of human rights and to amend the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) to declare “enforce disappearances” as a criminal offence, the cases of missing people continue to be reported from across the country. According to Defence of Human Rights Pakistan, more than five thousand cases of enforced disappearances have been reported since 2000.

A report submitted by Sindh province’s home department to the Interior Ministry said as many as 3,758 persons were reported to have gone missing in Sindh over the last five years, of which 3,238 were successfully traced or their cases shelved. Of the remaining 520 cases, 156 are pending before CIED, while 364 cases are pending in the High Court (SHC).

The government of Pakistan refuses to acknowledge that the arrests and detentions of these missing people took place, and there has been no credible action even after the intervention of the Supreme Court. If the government that is supposed to work for the security and welfare of Pakistani citizens fails in its job, it leaves people with no other option but to take to streets and protest.

The Constitution of Pakistan has clear provisions to ensure protection of fundamental rights of Pakistani citizens. According to Section 4, “every person should be dealt with in accordance of law”, and Section 10 and 10A gives them protection from arrests and detention without being informed and right to have a fair trial. 

But the cases of missing people in Pakistan are an example of violations of these fundamental rights and mockery of the country’s Constitution. Any illegal detention and abduction is a heinous crime according to PPC. Law enforcement authorities are committing these crimes in the name of ‘war on terror’, the sham concept invented by the Western powers to advance their politics of hegemony.

In the name of ‘war on terror’, people are abducted and subjected to enforced disappearance in Pakistan. If someone speaks for his rights or criticizes the government institutions, or calls for reforms in the system, he is labeled a ‘traitor’ or an ‘agent’ working for ‘enemies’. 

Most of the missing people are those who have visited Iran, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries, which has added to the concerns of Pakistani students in these countries, especially in Iran. They are concerned about their fate and fear they will be either interrogated or pushed into the same dark alley. 

One of the Pakistani students in Tehran, wishing anonymity, said after the completion of his studies in Iran, he was interrogated by security agencies and authorities back in Pakistan. That’s the dilemma Pakistani students in Iran face today, always under the scanner in their home country.

In a country that takes pride in its democracy and rule of law, it is important to protect the rights of citizens and ensure innocents are not humiliated, harassed or exploited unnecessarily. 

The government led by Imran Khan announced its arrival with a proverbial bang last year, which gave hope to many people who had grown weary of the previous ruling dispensations. His manifesto appealed to people and they saw in him great potential to lay the foundation of ‘New Pakistan’. 

But, so far we haven’t seen anything new. The issue of enforced disappearances will be a litmus test for this government. It will decide whether the ‘Naya Pakistan’ slogan is truth or eyewash.  

Shair Abbas Kazemi is a lawyer and research scholar from Pakistan, presently based in Iran 

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