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‘Short-term’ disappearances

December 18, 2017

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IN a recent report, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) expressed alarm at the “frightening trend” of “short-term enforced disappearances” in a number of countries around the world.

The WGEID described short-term disappearances as “the unacknowledged deprivation of liberty which puts the individual concerned outside the protection of the law for a limited amount of time”. It emphasised that, “there is no time limit, no matter how short, for an enforced disappearance to occur”, and that “when a person is disappeared, every anguished minute spent by his or her relatives without news of that person is a minute too long.”

This trend highlighted by the WGEID sounds all too familiar in Pakistan’s context, especially when considering recent reports of enforced disappearance in the country.

What makes it especially frightening is that despite the government’s claims that it “pursues action against perpetrators who have been involved in enforced disappearances”, the country’s current legal framework has proven to be completely ineffective in responding to such cases — it has failed to reveal the truth, bring perpetrators of the practice to account and deter similar violations in future.

UN experts have called enforced disappearance “a tool for repression” and a “technique of terror”.

In 2015, responding to a case alleging enforced disappearance before the UN Human Rights Committee, committee member Olivier de Frouville pointed towards the evolution of enforced disappearance since the turn of the century.

According to him, in the 1970s, 1980s and even the 1990s, only a few people survived enforced disappearance. Most of the victims, once placed in secret detention, died after being subjected to torture or were summarily executed. In some countries, victims of disappearances would “reappear” years or even decades later, “completely shattered by the experience of confinement”, which included torture and other forms of ill treatment.

Nowadays, he noted, “short-term disappearances have proliferated”, where victims are placed outside the protection of the law in secret detention before being released weeks or months later, sometimes after having been tortured and without having been brought in front of a judge.

This description captures recent trends in Pakistan. Victims of the practice of “short-term enforced disappearance” include bloggers, activists and others who are critical of the state. After apparently being interrogated in secret detention for weeks or months and reportedly being subjected to torture and other forms of ill treatment, they are released without being charged with any offence.

In other cases, people are kept in secret detention outside the legal framework for sometime before being handed over to the police, sometimes with a falsified arrest warrant in an attempt to hide the real date of arrest. They may also be detained in internment centres in Fata, or tried by military courts for their involvement in alleged terrorism-related offences.

Reports of the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances too highlight this trend. In the last two years alone, the COIOED has documented dozens of cases where the “disappeared” person has “returned home” after weeks or months of going “missing” or been “traced” in an internment centre.

The fact that the victims “reappear” or “return” does not mean these cases can be treated as just another form of arbitrary detention. To be completely cut off from the outside world and be placed beyond the protection of the law has a particularly devastating impact on a person’s right to dignity and well-being. This makes the act a serious crime — ie an enforced disappearance — for which the individuals responsible are liable to criminal accountability.

The COIOED, however, considers such cases “resolved” and has failed to take action against perpetrators. Curiously, the commission’s terms of reference specify that it may direct the registration of FIRs only in the disappearance of an “untraced” person. This effectively means that once a person subjected to an enforced disappearance is found, the commission no longer has the competency to register FIRs against perpetrators.

Courts also respond to allegations of enforced disappearance by directing concerned authorities to “trace” the whereabouts of “missing persons” and produce them before court. While they have had some success on this front, they too have failed in bringing perpetrators of the crime of enforced disappearance to account.

This is the case even though it is clear that, under Pakistani law, such practice is clearly unlawful; “fundamental rights” protected by the Constitution, the country’s criminal laws and procedures, and jurisprudence of the courts all underscore that people suspected of an offence must be promptly brought before a magistrate, informed of the charges against them and be detained only in authorised places where they have the right to meet their family members and consult with lawyers.

But this alone is not enough; the law must be strengthened to better address the particular phenomenon of enforced disappearance, regardless of the duration.

It is becoming increasingly clear that impunity for serious human rights violations is endemic, entrenched and institutionalised in Pakistan. It has resulted in concealing the truth, denying victims the right to effective remedy and reparation, and emboldening perpetrators of human rights violations. It is also essential in understanding why the practice of enforced disappearances has persisted and is spreading — both in terms of geographical reach and the categories of people being targeted.

UN experts have called enforced disappearance “a tool for repression” and a “technique of terror”. They have expressed concern that, in a number of countries, it is being taught to intelligence and security officers as a response to “legitimate civil strife demanding democracy, freedom of expression or religion”.

This, disturbingly, also rings true for Pakistan. And for a country that claims to be “deeply committed to the promotion and protection of human rights”, it is a particularly damning indictment.

The writer is a legal adviser for the International Commission of Jurists.

reema.omer@icj.org

Twitter: @reema_omer

Published in Dawn, December 18th, 2017