An unexpected call from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on May 15 brought news that Waqar Ahmed and his parents had been long waiting for: Waqar’s younger brother, Iftikhar Ahmed, kept in the high-security Bagram prison near Kabul for about four and a half years, was finally free.
The caller said Iftikhar, 23, had been handed over to the Pakistani authorities. But the hopes of a family reunion faded as swiftly as they were raised.
The next call that was to confirm the date of the young man’s arrival home in Pakpattan never came. Islamabad was silent; the government didn’t even acknowledge holding him or nine others freed from Bagram until a Lahore High Court (LHC) order forced the interior ministry to acknowledge their release from Afghanistan.
“Iftikhar went to Lahore for work soon after his marriage,” Waqar says. “A few months later he called to tell us he was going to look for work in Chaman. After some weeks he stopped calling and we found his phone switched off. We had no means of knowing his whereabouts.”
A year and a half ago someone from the ICRC called Waqar to inform him that Iftikhar was in the Bagram prison. “We started getting calls from him through the ICRC once a month. The call would be cut off if the conversation veered towards the circumstances of his arrest,” Waqar muses. “We were in regular telephonic contact with him when he was in Afghanistan but since he was sent to Pakistan, we’ve been totally cut off. He is not well, mentally.”
In late May, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan conceded 10 Pakistanis released from Bagram had returned to Pakistan and a probe into their cases was under way.
All the former Bagram detainees are being kept in jails near their homes, according to the information provided to the court in response to a petition by the Justice Project Pakistan (JPP), a non-profit organisation fighting since 2010 for the repatriation and rights of the Pakistanis detained in the Bagram detention facility. Two of them are being held in Balochistan and seven have been handed over to Fata authorities. Iftikhar is being kept in Sahiwal jail — around 40km from Pakpattan.
His brother and the JPP lawyers have seen him only once, for 20 minutes, in the presence of an intelligence official. The JPP lawyers say the other nine prisoners haven’t so far been given access to their families or lawyers.
“After the court orders, the ministry issued instructions to give their families and lawyers access to the detainees,” says Shahab Siddiqi, a JPP official. “But the authorities are not facilitating their meetings. We haven’t been informed of the charges against them nor have we been given any information on the status and nature of the investigations being conducted. It is a kind of illegal detention. It may put them at the risk of torture. The government should either free them or explain.”
Another group of Pakistani detainees repatriated in the ‘middle of the night’ in November last year also faced similar treatment. They were held incommunicado at an undisclosed place in Fata for several weeks until the JPP won a court order granting their families and lawyers access.
“It’s all so fuzzy,” Siddiqi observes. “The authorities arbitrarily graded them as white, grey and black. Four men graded white were bailed out on personal surety and two graded grey on bail bonds.” It is hard for anyone to translate these ‘grades’ in the absence of information about the details of the investigations and their outcome.
The list provided by the interior ministry to the court in 2012 showed 40 Pakistanis were detained at the Bagram facility, which is known for torture and is often dubbed Afghanistan’s Guantanamo Bay. It’s difficult to say how many Pakistanis are still in Bagram after the release of 16 of them since November because the interior ministry hasn’t updated the list despite court orders. No charges were framed against any of them or trial held when in Bagram, although many are believed to be there since 2003.
The Pakistan government also did nothing to ensure their legal rights or press for their freedom until the JPP took up their cause. The government took up the issue with the American authorities once the JPP had filed the petition. Yet it is blamed for not doing enough for their safe return home.
“We don’t know where they were arrested and under what circumstances,” Siddiqi says. “Some had gone to Afghanistan for work and were turned in by ‘bounty hunters’. Some, like Iftikhar, could’ve been arrested or abducted from near the border [inside Pakistan]. We cannot know these details unless we get unfettered access to them. As far as we know Americans had no forensic evidence against them and didn’t put them on trial. The same is true for the Pakistani government.”
Even if the government has any evidence to hold them, it cannot deny them a fair investigation and access to their families under the country’s Constitution. The families of Iftikhar Ahmed and of other ex-Bagram prisoners are desperate for reason to intervene.
Published in Dawn, June 29th, 2014