DAWN - Opinion; August 30, 2008

August 30, 2008


Where are the disappeared?

By Irene Khan

PAKISTAN’S new ruling coalition may have successfully forced Pervez Musharraf to resign but it still has not done much to reverse his administration’s abusive human rights legacy.

Twenty-five years since the International Day of the Disappeared was launched on Aug 30, Pakistan has joined the list of nations practising enforced disappearances as a direct consequence of its alliance with the US-led ‘war on terror.’

This particularly painful legacy of the Musharraf era has subjected hundreds, if not thousands, to enforced disappearances — the practice under which people are kidnapped, held in secret locations outside any judicial or legal system, and often tortured, sometimes to the point of death.

Pakistan not only shamefully helped fill the wire cages at Guantanamo Bay’s Camp X-Ray and the secret prisons of the CIA by handing some of the detainees to the US authorities but also incarcerated many secretly in Pakistan itself. Held out of sight and without charge, with no word to their families and loved ones (much less lawyers), the fate of many of them remains unknown to this day.

In Sept 2006, after Amnesty International published its first report on the disappeared in Pakistan, I wrote to President Musharraf and in January 2007 met the then Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz to urge the government to investigate and end the appalling practice of abduction and secret detention. I never received a satisfactory response.

If the leaders of the ruling coalition want to demonstrate they are serious about changing Musharraf’s policies, they should immediately reveal details of where the hundreds of disappeared are being held. And then they must begin the process of establishing some control and accountability over the country’s notorious security agencies, chief among them the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), which, allegedly, carried out these enforced disappearances.

Amnesty International’s recent report Denying the Undeniable: Enforced Disappearances in Pakistan, used official court records and affidavits of victims and witnesses of enforced disappearances to show how government officials, especially from the security and intelligence agencies, obstructed attempts to trace those who had disappeared. The report reveals a pattern of security or other forces arbitrarily detaining people (some of them children, in one case a nine-year-old boy), blindfolding them, and moving them around various detention centres so they become difficult to trace.

Take the case of Dr Imran Munir, a Malaysian citizen of Pakistani origin, who was arrested in July 2006 and whose whereabouts remained unknown until Pakistan’s Supreme Court demanded information from Pakistani authorities. After the Supreme Court took up regular hearings of cases about the disappeared in late 2006, around 100 disappeared persons were traced, having either been released or found in recognised places of detention. Dr Munir was one those lucky ones; during the course of hearings on his case, it became apparent that various security agencies had tried to hide him even after the Supreme Court had ordered his appearance in court.

The Supreme Court under Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry became impatient with such obfuscation and denial and announced in Oct 2007 that it would summon the heads of the intelligence agencies to explain their role in enforced disappearances and would initiate legal action against those found responsible.

Dr Munir was set to record his statement regarding his enforced disappearance, as well as information about others subjected to enforced disappearance, when the hearing was disrupted by Musharraf’s imposition of the state of emergency in November last year and the unlawful deposing of independent-minded judges.

Musharraf’s declaration of emergency expressed his indignation succinctly when it spoke of “judicial interference” in the government’s fight against terrorism. The sacking of the judges, clearly and crucially in anticipation of a negative decision in respect of the eligibility of Musharraf to the office of the presidency, got rid of this irritant.

Not surprisingly, the new judges of the Supreme Court have not found it necessary — or opportune — to resume hearings about the hundreds of petitions relating to disappeared persons. A confrontation with those responsible for enforced disappearances, including Pakistan’s notorious intelligence services, apparently takes more determination, grit and political will than one appears able to muster.

Thus the fate of the disappeared has become closely entwined with that of Pakistan’s higher judiciary. It seems unlikely that the disappeared will receive appropriate judicial scrutiny for the time being, given the controversy over the reinstatement of deposed judges.

But the new government need not await judicial pressure to shed light on the fate of the disappeared. The government can use its executive authority to demand that the ISI and other security agencies provide information about those subjected to enforced disappearance. As a first step, the government should immediately gather and publicise a list of all those in government detention. It’s good record-keeping; it’s basic law enforcement; it’s also the law.

In April 2008, shortly after the elections, Law Minister Farooq Naek stated that the government was collecting details of disappeared persons and pledged that all would be released. Now is the time to go public with that information.

Providing information about the fate of the disappeared would bring some solace to hundreds of families — thousands of people — who continue to fear for the lives of their loved ones, aware that torture and other ill-treatment are routine in Pakistani places of detention.

By abducting and detaining terrorist suspects in secret hiding places, or failing to investigate and reveal the fate of the disappeared the government violates human rights and does little to counter terrorism. By arresting and prosecuting those suspected of terrorism in accordance with the rule of law the government can show its commitment to both human rights and fighting terrorism.

It would also send a clear, immediate signal of a radical break with the Musharraf era, and at very little cost — something very important to the fractious new government as it faces the many woes besetting the country such as a slumping economy, high fuel costs and a growing Taliban insurgency in the areas bordering Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s new government has a clear choice: it can continue the bankrupt and brutal anti-human rights practices of the Musharraf regime or it can counter terror with justice and put the country on the path of the rule of law and human rights.

The writer is secretary general of Amnesty International.

Our Olympian also-rans

By F.S. Aijazuddin

EVEN Mongolia managed to secure two gold medals and two silver ones in Beijing. What do three million Mongolians have that 1.5bn of us South Asians do not?

Mongolia’s total population is less than Bangalore’s on a busy day or Faisalabad’s on pay-day. The answer must be simpler than body fat compacted from a diet of buuz, khuushuur and bansh.

If anyone should know, it is the three national Olympic committees of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. But quite obviously they do not. India’s only gold medal was won in air-rifle shooting by Abhinav Bindra, a Sikh BBA who funded his own training and used bullets financed by the Arcelor Mittal Group. The only other medals gained by India were two bronzes in wrestling and in boxing. Pakistan and Bangladesh returned empty-handed. These national committees could do worse than spending the next four years in penitent atonement. It is clear that their nation’s athletes do better without them.

The singular, personal achievement of these athletes echoes the ideals enshrined in Article 6 of the Olympic Charter, which defines the Olympic Games as “competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries.” Just how far the Olympics have moved away from that pristine ideal is best gauged by the subsequent article that reads: “The Olympic symbol, flag, motto, anthem, identifications (,) designations, emblems, flame and torches … belong exclusively to the IOC, including but not limited to the use for any profit-making, commercial or advertising purposes.”

Olympics are now big business. Gone are the days when the marathon could be won by Spiridon Louis, a Greek shepherd turned post office messenger (Athens 1896), or a US long-distance runner disqualified genteelly for riding 11 miles in a motor car instead of running the full length of the marathon (Paris 1900). Gone the open-ended wrestling bouts that could extend up to nine exhausting hours (Stockholm 1912); gone the Aryan racism so pervasive at Hitler’s Games (Berlin 1936); gone the boycott of host countries (Moscow 1980, Los Angeles 1984); and gone the unworldly earnestness of gifted amateurs.

Instead, the only thing remotely Greek left about the Olympics is its Midas touch. Everything associated with modern Olympics is expected to turn into gold. The International Olympics Committee (IOC) runs its affairs like some transnational conglomerate with its eye on the bottom line. Host countries hope that the benefits from a fortnight’s hospitality exceed the costs of such compressed conviviality. The career path of successful competitors leads to the winner’s podium and then onwards to their banks.

This spirited commercialisation of the Olympics occurred during the reign of Senor J.A. Samaranch, the Spanish president of the IOC (1980-2001). During his 21 years, he encouraged the IOC to market itself, permitted professionals to compete, and member countries to pit themselves like early Ionian pugilists with gloveless ferocity against each other in their bids to host prospective Olympic Games. Hosting the sports soon degenerated into a blood sport, with no holds or punches barred.

Bribes were offered and accepted, royal honours solicited and awarded (King Juan Carlos of Spain was rumoured to have been especially liberal before and after Barcelona 1992), nepotism acknowledged and encouraged. One of Samaranch’s last acts as the outgoing president was to nominate his son J.A.S. Salisachs as a member of the IOC. When US Senator John McCain (now the Republican presidential candidate) expressed horror at this undisguised nepotism, Samaranch responded by informing the press that nine other members of the IOC had followed their fathers as delegates. Not surprisingly, the Pakistani member is among them.

Today, the gold medals won by Pakistan’s fabled hockey teams in 1960, 1968 and 1984 gather dust in showcases. Their ribbons are as faded as our hopes of ever making a comeback. Since 1956, apart from hockey, we have won a bronze medal each only in boxing and in wrestling. India and Pakistan seem to share more in common than the gristle of history.

The categories of Olympic events to which we are drawn are symptomatic of our truculent nature. We are instinctively combative rather than competitive. We are loners, preferring to excel individually rather than share success with a team. We believe that sports like politics should begin only after one has reached voting age. Not for us the identification of future Olympians while they are still gamboling in kindergartens. Not for us the rigorous obsessive training that makes Olympic record holders out of childhood champions.

The Chinese, throwing their obligation as hosts to the winds, greedily amassed 100 medals at Beijing, including 51 gold (15 more than the US and twice those of their former ideological comrade Russia). They should be stopped from becoming such an example to the world. The BBC and CNN tried, damning the meticulous organisation by the Chinese with faint praise, always diluting their coverage of the Games with some derogatory remark about China’s human rights record or authoritarianism or air pollution. But China’s spectacular success like its closing fireworks display was visible to everyone everywhere across a wonderstruck world.

We in Pakistan have four years before the next Olympic Games in London. We have enough time to reassess our strengths and to develop our intuitive talents. Instead of dissipating them on team events such as hockey, we should focus on individual events, such as shooting. We are good at it; we do it every day. We can even score a bull’s eye, especially when the target is a fellow Pakistani.


Why is the pulpit non-committal?

By Nasser Yousaf

THE people of the Frontier can do little more to further establish their sincere Islamic credentials. Throughout the length and breadth of the province the mosques are overflowing with the faithful. Come time for the evening prayer and the bustling Saddar Road in Peshawar ceases to exist; shoppers and shopkeepers from all around convert the road into a makeshift mosque.

Men are sporting beards in large numbers as one keeps bumping into hordes of them at every step. No women on the streets or at university campuses in the province have ever been spotted in skirts and those few who wear jeans do so with long flowing shirts. Similarly, women driving cars keep to their cultural ethos in the most profound sense of the word. Little is needed to substantiate the Pakhtuns’ way of adherence to the month of fasting. The severity of fasting in the Frontier is such that the rest of the country lightly refers to Ramazan as the headache of the Pathans. There are no nightclubs, pubs or casinos anywhere and life comes to a halt when the night is still pretty young.

But this does not seem to be enough in the eyes of those currently at war with the defenceless people of the Frontier. The puritans’ brigade killed 12 innocent people on Aug 12, 2008, in a suicide attack in Peshawar and then called it a fidayeen (holy warriors) onslaught against forces presumably inimical to their cause. Two veiled women and a minor girl on their way to a wedding, two persons on bicycles and some lower-ranking officials of the air force were among the targets.

Before this, the militants twice targeted the 500 KV power tower on the outskirts of Peshawar in the infamous summer heat of the plains. As a result power supply to the provincial capital and scores of other districts remained suspended for days causing untold miseries to the sick and old. Perhaps the militants did not know that a majority of cancer patients being treated at various reputed hospitals of the country hail from the Frontier or else their think tank would have reconsidered their plans.

The ongoing frenzy in the province might be sending very confused signals to the outside world. Those not familiar with the area might be imputing this fracas to a battle between the Islamists and non-Muslims. The record says otherwise: Muslims constitute 99.4 per cent of the population of the Frontier.

This leaves little room for people of other faiths to figure on the map. Nevertheless the census report does put the Christians and Ahmadis way down at less than one per cent while Hindus are so few that they easily evade even telescopic review. What is the issue at stake then? With the holy month of fasting to begin next week, why has Bajaur Agency been exorcised of most of its 900,000 inhabitants? The pulpit was supposed to shield the faithful but it is keeping mum or has it also been silenced into submission?

Friday prayers hardly get ignored when, in accordance with the teachings of the Holy Quran, Muslims stop working and find themselves mosque-bound as if by instinct. Several mosques in the Frontier have built separate enclosures for women. Children invariably make it to the mosques, adding an aura of special festivity to the congregational prayer in the true spirit of the ritual. The preacher leads the congregation, according to his own sweet will, reinforced by his easy access to the loudspeaker that now forms a part of his dress code through his buttonhole.

Garrulous preachers are what no administration would like to have in its jurisdiction but yet they are there occupying the pulpits till death do them part. A candidate being interviewed for the civil service was once asked why it was considered ominous to have the Eid festival on a Friday. After the interviewee drew a blank, the suave examiner explained that the issue was not one of superstition but one that concerned the management of two congregations gone awry on the same day as the enormity of the occasion entailed great cost for the government of the time. This in a nutshell shows the importance of the Friday sermon. But why is the preacher turning a blind eye to the melee in his own ranks?

No doubt, it is the presence of hundreds of worshippers listening to him in rapt attention that lends vanity to the tone of the preacher sitting on a higher pedestal. A politician spends a fortune on assembling a crowd of a few hundreds and then trying to keep it in good humour. On the other hand, preachers have facile access to an audience of more than 20m every Friday in Pakistan. People make it to the mosques without anybody’s persuasion or prodding. But the preacher seems to be oblivious of the added responsibilities that the enviable position bestows on him. He can thus be heard busying himself with inanities.

In a mosque in one neighbourhood, the preacher vents his spleen on those who according to him are throwing away their fortunes in the laps of dancing girls, a euphemism for a term that the preacher would have preferred. The sermon is relayed to all houses down the street on airwaves as the preacher repeats the charge more vociferously. This happened on a Friday when a woman fleeing from the battlefields of Bajaur Agency gave birth to a child on the roadside. The preacher then invoked curses on the enemies of Islam not knowing that salvation was one prayer away: the prayer that the pulpit may be restored to its conceived status in Islam.