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The biggest time bomb

November 07, 2013

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DESPITE the political authorities’ rhetoric and the judiciary’s exertions there is no end to the horrible crime described as enforced disappearances.

The heartrending ordeal of the victims of involuntary disappearances has once again been highlighted by the case of Ilahi Bakhsh Markhand, a young student whose 17-month long tale of illegal incarceration and torture concluded last week.

He had been picked up in broad daylight from the government college at Warah in Sindh where he was taking an exam. His disappearance was reported to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan by his cousin Sajjad Markhand. Soon afterwards, Sajjad also disappeared along with his friend Amir Markhand. The bullet-riddled bodies of both young men were found two days later.

Meanwhile, on a petition submitted by Ilahi Bakhsh’s uncle, the Sindh High Court bench in Larkana ordered the police to produce the ‘missing person’. On Oct 30, the SSP, Kambar-Shahdadkot made history by successfully complying with the court order.

Young Ilahi Bakhsh was helped into the courtroom by two men. He could not move by himself and had lost his ability to speak freely. Still, he could point out marks of injury on his head and legs.

There are no surprises in Ilahi Bakhsh’s harrowing story. The honourable men in power and the wretched citizens both have heard and read this story time and again. After being detained and tortured at undisclosed places, he was handed over to the Karachi police which booked him for possessing illegal weapons.

This is precisely the conduct for which the three-member judicial commission on disappearances of 2010 had lambasted the police force — that they slapped the detainees with fictitious charges.

Three days before Ilahi Bakhsh regained his freedom, some families of Balochistan’s ‘missing persons’ started marching from Quetta to Karachi in an attempt to arouse the nation’s conscience to their plight. The same day the beleaguered chief minister of Balochistan bemoaned his failure to resolve the matter of enforced disappearances.

A feeling of despair is gnawing at every Baloch heart. This despite the fact that the issue of enforced disappearances has been identified as the biggest obstacle to the restoration of normalcy in Balochistan.

Even the mild nationalists who are prepared to trust Islamabad one more time cannot do anything unless the practice of picking up people, detaining them indefinitely and throwing their dead bodies far and wide is ended.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, too, hardly a day passes that the Peshawar High Court does not pass progressively harsher strictures on the law-enforcement agencies for their lawless actions and callousness.

Last year, the provincial administration had informed the court that of the 1,930 persons reported missing 1,035 had been released and 895 shifted to the internment centres set up under the controversial Action in Aid of Civil Power Regulation. Yet the KP government cannot feel the agony of the families of the ‘missing persons’ because only drones are visible on its radar.

The Supreme Court that has been seized of the matter for more than six years has thrown up its hands in despair more than once. Besides hearing petitions for the recovery of the missing at Islamabad and Quetta, the court has taken other initiatives to extend the principles of accountability to the oft-identified state functionaries. Only the other day, a Supreme Court judge named the services that all trails of excess upon citizens who have not been convicted lead to.

Shall the state of Pakistan continue to plead helplessness in stamping out the evil practice of enforced disappearances, a crime as heinous and unforgivable as any other attack on a citizen’s right to life, liberty and the inviolable dignity of the human person known to the world?

In KP the law-enforcement authorities explain away their transgressions with references to the war against militant extremists. No such excuse has been offered for picking up citizens and dumping their dead bodies in Balochistan and Sindh. The victims have never been declared ‘enemy aliens’.

The dissidents in Balochistan and Sindh, and indeed anywhere else, may be making demands the custodians of power do not like. But simply making demands that have not been found unlawful by any court does not deprive anyone of his right to the due protection of the law.

All those who have disappeared involuntarily in any part of the country and the members of their families are our own kith and kin, our own flesh and blood. They are not suffering due to any acts committed by external powers, agents of Pakistan’s enemies, or non-state actors belonging to terrorist organisations. Their tormentors, in most cases at least, are public servants who are answerable to the state. The government can plead no mitigating circumstances for failure to recover the ‘missing persons’ and to stop fresh disappearances.

How many times does the state wish to be reminded that the issue of ‘enforced disappearances’ is the biggest time bomb that is ticking under its none-too-impregnable edifice? Pakistan may be able to survive the drone attacks that the prime minister has been talking about to the world, it cannot survive alienation of its citizens only because it cannot rein in its paid employees.

Much has been said about the possible ways to check enforced disappearances. Putting all empty rhetoric aside, the government will earn hefty dividends by doing three things.

First, nobody should be arrested by any unauthorised official or detained at an unauthorised place.

Secondly, there must be zero tolerance for death in or as a result of custody and for non-presentation of detainees in courts of law.

And, thirdly, ways must be found to keep order in Balochistan without leaving it at the mercy of the Frontier Corps or other paramilitary forces.

Finally, the signing of the UN convention on disappearances has long been overdue.