IN mystery novels, people who disappear are a trope: why they vanished, how they vanished, where did they vanish to. Not so for us. Abduction of citizens by security agencies is documented by the government’s Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances and by the Supreme Court in its judgements. The commission recommended filing criminal cases against 117 officials involved in enforced disappearances, yet there’s no known case of even a single prosecution.
Impunity refers to those in power not having to face the legal consequences of their actions. The powerful maintain political control by communicating they are beyond laws and that people are helpless. And no, impunity can’t be offset with football tournaments and Independence Day festivals. There’s an African proverb, the axe forgets, but the forest remembers.
The arguments about missing persons — whether or not the number is inflated, whether or not they’re anti-national by the establishment’s definition of national interest, whether or not they’re atheists — are smokescreens. They create a moral haze that filters citizens allowed the law’s protection from those morally excluded from it.
The arguments about missing persons are smokescreens.
Hence the exposure of brutality by state officials does not lead to support for victims. It took Dr Yousuf Murad Baloch over 12 years to go public with the torture he was subjected to when he went missing, chronicled by the Balochistan Times, but it did not create even a ripple. It’s not surprising then that most ‘re-appeared’ remain silent unless they are able to leave the country.
Forced disappearances were systemically introduced in the Musharraf years but impunity in Pakistan is still not institutionalised like in other countries through formal civil-military pacts, executive pardons, amnesties or laws. Baltasar Garzon, the jurist who issued an arrest warrant for Chile’s Gen Pinochet declared, “Impunity as absence of justice, is the second of two assaults on the law and the dignity of victims, second only to the original crime itself … far from being transient, it endures until subsequent governments or judges repeal it.”
Spain tried ignoring what happened under a military regime through a wilful amnesia it called the ‘Pact of Forgetting’. It ended up, 70 years after Gen Franco’s dictatorship was imposed and almost four decades after it was over, realising that strengthening its democracy was possible only if it recognised the persecution, violence and suffering inflicted, and passed the Historical Memory Law to rectify it.
Impunity casts a dark shadow over important positive steps that state security agencies have taken against terrorism in Pakistan, and emboldens some within to take actions that may not have institutional approval. Countries transitioning from authoritarian to democratic regimes have used a range of actions, from truth commissions and criminal prosecutions to creating memorials, reparations and reform of institutions.
Nawaz Sharif tried it, by attempting to put Gen Musharraf on trial for treason for subverting the Constitution. But going by the severe backlash and the army’s institutional recoil, the push was probably too soon, given that stakeholders were still strategically entrenched. The ruling party also could not push through anti-graft laws that covered the military and judiciary.
The PPP had a better idea of symbolically focusing on Gen Zia’s dictatorship through the retrial of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, since there’s now general consensus that the regime was a disaster, and its main players are no longer around, lessening the degree of resistance. I’m tempted to write they lost the plot, but they didn’t have one to begin with. That it was just a populist bid and not seriously thought through was clear by their negligent, idiotic handling of the case, by their not planning to bring in testimonies of the MRD resistance, and squandering a historic opportunity by not legislating to declassify the sealed military archives of the Zia era.
If we aren’t yet ready to account for what happened in FC forts in the ‘war on terror’, we can start with what happened in Lahore Fort, Machh, Baldia camp and Kot Lakhpat during Zia’s regime. Ignoring these doesn’t make their history go away. Centuries back, the Roman Senate tried to expunge history through ‘damnatio memoriae’ — condemnation of memory — in which every statue, coin, plaque, document and reference to emperors was wiped out, to make it seem like the event or person never existed. That we know they tried this is proof it didn’t work.
For democracy, impunity must be dismantled and every politician with any understanding of politics knows this. The challenge is to do so without derailing democratic progress. It requires walking on a tightrope that’s a patchwork of jugulars. Every misstep will draw blood but there’s no choice. It will not dissipate on its own. An Arabic proverb this time: trust in God, but tie your camel.
The writer is a researcher and consultant in the social sector.
Published in Dawn, February 25th, 2018