Disappearances revisited

Published March 31, 2016

THE suicide of Saddam Husain, an Intermediate student, apparently out of despair over his sister, who disappeared in August last year, calls for a review of cases of enforced disappearance, the plight of the families affected and the state’s inability to defend the victims’ rights.

The case of Saddam’s sister, journalist-cum-activist Zeenat Shahzadi, has often been discussed in the media. She was picked up in August 2015 from a bus stop near her Lahore home days before she was to appear before the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances (CoIoED), in connection with the case of Hamid Ansari, an Indian national who had been held for trying to help his Pakistani friend. She was also pursuing Hamid’s case in the Peshawar High Court. The security agencies attracted suspicion as they had picked her up some days earlier.

Her case was being heard by the commission since September 2015 without any progress. Although disappearance cases are also pending in the superior courts, the CoIoED is now the main forum for dealing with them, and a brief look at its work is in order.

A good practice by the CoIoED is the preparation of a monthly report on cases of disappearance dealt by it. The report goes to a large number of authorities who must be fully aware of the ordeal of the affected families. One wonders whether it would be advisable to include the Supreme Court, the houses of parliament and the National Commission on Human Rights in the distribution list.


The Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances received 66 new cases in February.


According to the latest (March 3, 2016) report, the number of cases on record on Dec 31, 2010 was 138 only. These were perhaps the cases the commission received from the three-member retired judges’ commission of 2010. The view that the number of disappearance cases at the end of 2010 was probably higher is widely held in non-official circles. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa led other provinces/ territories with 57 cases, followed by Balochistan (47), Punjab (15), Sindh (11), Fata and Azad Kashmir (three each), Islamabad (two) and none from Gilgit-Baltistan.

Between March 1, 2011 and Feb 29, 2016, the commission received 2,996 new cases — the largest number of cases (1,234) from KP. Sindh with 740 cases surpassed Punjab (611) while only 205 cases were reported from Balochistan.

Out of the total 3,134 cases dealt with by the commission, 400 were given up for one reason or another, and 1,352 cases reached a conclusion, leaving a balance of 1,382 cases. The number of cases pending before the commission is thus higher than the cases decided during the past five years. Does this give an idea of the time the commission will take to clear the backlog?

The commission tells us that 1,352 persons have been traced over the past five years. It might have also told us as to how many of them have returned to their families and how many are under some form of custody.

Assuming that the number of persons involuntarily disappeared is equal to the number of cases, the rate of recovery is best in Punjab — 305 persons out of 626 or 48pc. In Sindh 337 were traced out of 751 (44pc), and in KP 544 out of 1,291 (42.14pc). Balochistan has the lowest recovery rate — 80 traced out of 252 (31.75pc).

Amongst the 1,382 cases pending with the commission, the largest single group belongs to KP — 671, followed by Sindh (293), Punjab (208), Balochistan (129), Fata (37), Islamabad (32), and Azad Kashmir (11).

The rate of enforced disappearances remains high; the commission received 66 new cases during February 2016.

While the good work done by the commission must be duly acknowledged it does not have the clout the Supreme Court has to force the various agencies to comply with its orders. The intelligence agencies are looked up to for two reasons. In quite a few cases credible evidence has been available to show that the involuntarily disappeared persons were held by them. The judicial commission of 2010 noted several such cases, determined the period of their unauthorised detention and ordered payment of compensation. Secondly, even if they are not directly involved with a case of disappearance the state has the right to use their resources to trace any missing person.

Matters should have improved if the government had acted on the recommendations of the judicial commission of 2010 and the Saleem Shahzad commission (2012).

The 2010 commission had proposed legislation to regulate the working of intelligence agencies, advised them to rely on the police for arresting anyone, and censured the police for concocting false cases against persons who were given in their charge by the intelligence agencies (after they had completed their interrogation).

The subject was far more thoroughly discussed by the Saleem Shahzad commission, headed by Justice Saqib Nisar of the Supreme Court.

The commission recommended that the press be made more law-abiding and accountable and that “the balance between secrecy and accountability in the conduct of intelligence getting be readjusted”. For gaining the latter objective the commission suggested legislation to outline the mandates of the intelligence agencies and making them accountable at three levels — before the minister-in-charge, before a parliamentary committee, and through a judicial forum for redressal of the grievances against them.

It is certainly time the government made earnest efforts to implement the recommendations of the two commissions, help the intelligence agencies to retain the people’s trust and provide the families of the involuntarily disappeared persons the satisfaction they as of right deserve.

The government must also prepare its brief for the Universal Periodic Review before the UN Human Rights Council next year by expediting action on the recommendations made during the 2012 UPR. These recommendations called for criminalising enforced disappearance, ratifying the Convention on Enforced Disappearances, and vesting the commission of inquiry on enforced disappearances with greater authority and resources. None of these recommendations is exceptionable or not doable.

Published in Dawn, March 31st, 2016

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