A misery called disappearance

16 Mar 2017


THE lack of satisfactory progress on affording relief to the victims of enforced disappearance makes it necessary to revisit their case. The more one looks at the monthly reports on the cases pending before the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances, the more alarmed at the unmitigated suffering of the people affected one becomes.

Let us look at these reports for the last three months — December 2016, January and February 2017. The commission inherited 138 cases from the earlier body. It has received 3,718 complaints since March 1, 2011, when it started working, raising the total number of cases to 3,856. The commission claims to have traced 1,953 people in all. Three hundred and fifty-four cases have been deleted from the list on the ground that information about the disappeared persons was incomplete and another 309 cases were dropped for other reasons.

Thus, at the end of February 2017, the commission had cases of 1,240 involuntarily disappearing persons pending before it.

At the end of December 2016, the number of pending cases was 1,219.

At the end of January 2017, the number of such persons was 1,223.

At the end of February 2017, the number of pending cases was 1,240.

The monthly rate of increase in pending cases is small — four in January 2017 and 17 last month — but the unwelcome fact is that the number of cases is rising. That fresh cases of enforced disappearance have been reported over the past three months, at an average monthly rate of 57 persons, is a matter that should worry any authority whose conscience is not absolutely dead.

Hidden behind the statistics are incredible stories of human suffering.

Where do these unfortunate people come from? The position at the end of February was that the largest group (684 out of 1,240) belonged to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, followed by Punjab (245), Balochistan (103), Sindh (102), Islamabad (44), Fata (43), Azad Kashmir (13) and Gilgit-Baltistan (six).

How do these territories figure on the table of disposal of cases?

The largest group of persons traced so far belonged to Sindh (714 out of 1,025 people reported to have disappeared), followed by KP (626 out of 1,461), Punjab (398 out of 799), Balochistan (102 out of 281), Fata (51 out of 113), Islamabad (49 out of 131), and Azad Kashmir (13 out of 40). As for Gilgit-Baltistan, none of the six disappeared have been traced.

Hidden behind these statistics are incredible stories of human suffering. For instance, out of the 35 cases disposed of in February 2017, the largest group (13) belonged to Punjab. Eleven of them are said to have returned home. They included three of the five bloggers (a fourth fell in the Islamabad quota and the fifth is perhaps still ‘missing’) who had been picked up in January 2017. All of the persons traced were recent cases; seven of them had disappeared in 2016 and one in 2015. Of the two who did not return home, the case of Shahnaz Bibi, belonging to a Jhang village and reported missing since 2013, was not considered one of enforced disappearance, and the case of Muhammad Aqeel Ahmed of Islamabad (wrongly included in Punjab cases), missing since 2006, was dropped for “other reasons”.

The report does not tell us where all those who were reported to have returned home in February 2017 were after their disappearance. If they had been released from official custody, authorised or unauthorised, was the cause of their detention ascertained? Was any action taken or recommended against those responsible for detaining them?

The case of one person, Tallah Pervaiz Alam, living in Orangi Town, Karachi, was deleted on the ground of his address being incomplete. Was it impossible to trace his family? The next entry in the report is that of Mohammad Kaleem, resident of Pak Colony, Karachi. He returned home. Was his address complete?

Five persons were found confined to internment centres — three of them in Kohat, one at Fizaghat and the fifth at Parachinar. They had disappeared in 2012, 2014 and 2015. When were they sent to the internment centres? On what grounds? Has their trial started? What are their conditions of detention? The commission’s report is silent on all these crucial points.

One of the 35 cases disposed of in February was that of Samiullah from Karachi, who had disappeared in 2012; his dead body was recovered. But from where? Had the victim been tortured? Did his family accuse anyone? Does the commission carry out any investigations when dead bodies are recovered? Or is the file closed once a person has been traced in the form of a carcass?

Among a larger number of cases decided in a month, 105 in December 2016, we find that four persons reappeared as dead bodies, one was found in jail, five were said to be in judicial custody, and 10 cases were dropped as the address was said to be incomplete. Strange, as the mobile phone numbers of eight of them are recorded in the report. All the questions asked earlier apply to these cases as well.

Unfortunately, this commission of inquiry is so much handicapped for want of authority and resources that one cannot be angry with it. The government has paid no heed to the advice by UN agencies and forums to increase its powers and give it adequate resources. A high-powered conference to make the search for the disappeared persons truly effective is now overdue. The present commission was set up by the interior ministry on the recommendation of the 2010 commission of former judges that had been set up at the Supreme Court’s initiative. Perhaps it is time for the apex court to address the misery of the disappeared human beings.

Zeenat Shahzadi: The rights activists are deeply worried about a young human rights defender, Zeenat Shahzadi, who disappeared from near her Lahore home in July 2015. How long can the government live down the stigma of failing to recover her?

Published in Dawn, March 16th, 2017