A prison of our own making

December 23, 2017


IN Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the prince greets two visitors to the royal court by asking what they have “deserved at the hands of fortune that she sends you to prison hither?” Surprised, one visitor asks what he means by ‘prison’. Hamlet says, “Denmark is a prison.” The other visitor comments that if so, the whole world is a prison. Hamlet says it is, and “a goodly one, in which there are many confines, wards and dungeons, Denmark being one o’ th’ worst”. The other visitor disagrees. Hamlet’s reply is profound: “Why, then, ‘tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.”

Raza Khan, a social activist, went missing in Lahore on Dec 2. His fault? The courage to express his opinions openly, invoking the wrath of the invisible, dark forces who consider themselves above the law. The message for him and others of his ilk is clear: you are no longer safe in your own homes. It is better to be silent and cow before the forces of darkness. “But we will not be silenced,” said the select group of lawyers and activists at a recent press conference, adding that “we will use every single platform we have available to agitate” against this latest case of enforced disappearance.

Raza is the seventh activist to go missing this year. Before they returned to their homes, for up to two months the others were ‘imprisoned’, silenced and disgraced for advocating for causes they believed in. Their bodily bruises may have healed by now, but their mutilated souls will remain tormented. Raza is the latest ‘prisoner’ apparently taken to purgatory to purge him of views that are perceived as ‘foul’ or ‘seditious’ by the invisible guardians of our national interests. Hopefully, he will return alive to breathe in a wider prison, as in the words of Richard Lovelace, “Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage.” He stands divested of liberty and freedom, and will carry the burden of the beastly behaviour meted out to him.

The deep state is like an unbridled horse, without the reins of constitutional oversight.

This brings me back to Hamlet’s cry, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” Pakistan, too, is a prison for all those conscientious, courageous activists and thinkers who strive to improve the lives of others. Rising above narrow self-interest, they want to promote peace, progress and tolerance. They have a right to dream big. Why should this right be denied? If, consciously or unconsciously, they break any law, the constitutional requirement of due process, fair investigation and transparent trial cannot be denied to them. Unfortunately, Pakistan is not only a ‘prison’ for political dissidents and social activists — it has become an inferno for religious minorities facing persecution and summary prosecution at the hands of bigoted brigades.

My complaint is against the guardians of the Constitution who take an oath to abide by it, ie the state institutions that are letting down the people they serve by acting either as cowards or culprits. Take the police: either they do not register cases of enforced disappearance, or file an FIR against ‘unknown’ culprits while waiting for the victim to be ‘found’ dead or alive. Highly professional, competent senior police officers avoid taking the path where angels fear to tread. Culprits are known, but are considered to be above the law. Why bother to swim against the tide? Based on circumstantial evidence, formal questions are not asked from the heads of ‘secret agencies’. Thus, a culture of impunity is further entrenched among institutions that are not governed under any legal framework.

The other complaint I want to respectfully lodge is with the esteemed judiciary. Why has no suo motu notice been taken of the recent disappearances? The present chief justice of Pakistan himself inquired into the disappearance, torture and death of journalist Saleem Shahzad. He recommended that the intelligence agencies be made accountable and be governed under a legal framework — back in 2011-12. The executive and parliament failed to implement his recommendations. To date, the deep state is like an unbridled horse, without the reins of law or control through judicial or parliamentary oversight.

During the days of judicial activism in 2007, when I was IGP Balochistan, the then chief justice of Pakistan took strong notice of the missing persons issue. Police, civil armed forces and intelligence agencies were made to identify and recover many ‘missing’ persons, and the military regime was forced to cough up many illegally kidnapped victims of state tyranny.

My recommendation then to the federal government was based on the law: detain the suspects under the Maintenance of Public Order Ordinance for up to three months in duly notified lock-ups and commission a probe by joint interrogation teams comprising members of the police’s counterterrorism department and intelligence agencies. Those against whom no evidence was found should be declared ‘white’ and released; those against whom strong suspicion but no solid evidence existed should be declared ‘grey’ and conditionally released with restricted movement; and those against whom sufficient evidence was collected should be declared ‘black’ and prosecuted in anti-terrorism courts — but no illegal detentions at secret locations, please. This was a combination of administrative and judicial processes in view of the extraordinary challenges faced by the state.

If the judiciary can undertake firm accountability of allegedly corrupt politicians, why should it not take strong notice of transgressions of the executive arms of the state trampling upon the fundamental rights of citizens whose voices are being muzzled by the barrel of the gun? As the year draws to a close, with the spectre of enforced disappearances haunting us all, I say with a heavy heart that we are indeed living in a prison. To me, safeguarding freedom of expression, right of peaceful dissent, avoiding illegal detentions and ensuring due process of law are more if not equally important to combating corruption across the board — including among our sacred cows.

The writer is former IG Police and author of The Faltering State (2017).

Published in Dawn, December 23rd, 2017