“ON the one side is the army, they enter houses without any warnings and arrest people without any reason. On the other hand everyone is terrified of the Taliban; at any time they might kidnap you, or kill you. Everyone was saying that the army will come and improve the situation in Bajaur but instead people are as frightened of the army [as they were of] the Taliban.”
These are the words of Rostum Khan, a villager from Bajaur Agency in Pakistan’s north-western tribal areas — they reflect the harsh daily reality facing millions of people in the region.
In 2009, the Pakistan armed forces launched a series of military operations in the tribal areas to reclaim territory that was under the control of armed groups. Three years later, despite a relative lull in the direct fighting between the army and the Taliban, there has been no let-up for the people there.
In an extensively researched report, released today by Amnesty International, a disturbing pattern of violations by Pakistani forces — from torture and other ill-treatment to enforced disappearance — reveals the failure of Pakistan’s authorities to address the fundamental lawlessness of the tribal areas.
Like Rostum Khan, many feel trapped between the worst of both worlds — by threats from the Taliban on the one hand, and from the risk of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance on the other. Many who hoped the situation would improve after 2009 are badly disillusioned.
Thousands of men and boys have been detained by the security forces for long periods with little or no access to due process safeguards.
Many of them are subjected to enforced disappearance — they are kept without access to family, lawyers, the courts and with no information about their fate and whereabouts. On any given day, the Peshawar High Court is full of relatives desperately trying to find any information on their loved ones.
Others swept up by the army allege being tortured or otherwise ill-treated in custody. Former detainees we talked to described being at the receiving end of daily savage beatings for several weeks, or even months, at a time.
Some never return alive — Amnesty International has documented several cases of deaths in military custody. Almost every week, bodies of those detained are returned to their families, or simply found dumped across the tribal areas.
Equally disturbing is the almost complete failure of Pakistan’s authorities to effectively investigate these cases as required under international law. As far as Amnesty International is aware, no effective investigation has been conducted into any of the cases documented in the report.
The infamous case of the so-called Adiala 11 is both an illustrative and chilling example of the situation.
The 11 men were first unlawfully detained by security personnel in 2007 and 2008 in different parts of Pakistan. In May 2010, they were abducted from Rawalpindi’s Adiala prison by armed men — right in front of family members waiting for their release, which had been ordered by the Lahore High Court.
It wasn’t until relatives brought their case to the Supreme Court in 2011 that the armed forces admitted that the men were still in state custody. After further pressure, seven of the Adiala 11 were dramatically brought before the Supreme Court in February 2012 in visibly poor physical condition — the other four had died in unknown circumstances that have yet to be effectively investigated. The seven survivors remain in state custody, with serious concerns for their wellbeing.
At the heart of this crisis is a legal system in the tribal areas which excludes the enforcement of human rights protections by the courts and allows the armed forces to operate with impunity.
The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) are still being governed under the draconian colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), while acts of parliament still do not apply to the region, effectively cutting off its people from national political life. A new set of laws introduced in 2011, the Actions (in Aid of Civil Power) Regulations (AACPR), give the armed forces even broader powers to arrest and detain in Fata and the tribal areas in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in a manner that violates international law.
The AACPR seeks to exclude Pakistan’s high courts and parliament from jurisdiction over armed forces’ actions in the tribal areas. Although the courts have nevertheless heard cases challenging the lawfulness of some detentions, there have been no prosecutions of armed forces personnel for alleged torture, enforced disappearance or deaths in custody.
Even where alleged Taliban suspected of human rights abuses have been arrested and detained, the authorities have a very poor record of prosecuting them and achieving accountability for such abuses before the courts.
The Pakistan government must urgently address the deeply flawed legal system in the tribal areas, and tackle head on the absence of rule of law exploited by state and non-state perpetrators alike. Undoubtedly, Pakistan faces major challenges in the region in confronting persistent violence by armed groups, re-establishing civil authority and infrastructure after years of conflict, and addressing a continuing humanitarian crisis.
But the authorities can and must take immediate steps to institute the rule of law in the region. All detainees must be given access to families, lawyers and the courts; the AACPR must be repealed; the FCR repealed or amended in a way to be in line with international human rights standards; and the jurisdiction of the courts and parliament extended to the tribal areas.
Without urgent steps to make the armed forces accountable before the law and protect the human rights of millions living in the tribal areas, the grip of perpetual lawlessness in the region will never be loosened.
The writer is Amnesty International’s deputy Asia-Pacific director.