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Revisiting disappearances

August 30, 2018


AS the whole world expresses solidarity with the victims of enforced or involuntary disappearances today, it is an appropriate moment for the government and the people of Pakistan to ponder ways and means of closing the chapter of missing persons that is bringing a bad name to the country, besides causing immeasurable suffering to a large number of families.

The matter has been making headlines in more than one form over the past few weeks. On July 11, the Islamabad High Court issued a somewhat unusual order on a petition for the recovery of an IT expert who had been abducted from his Islamabad residence in March this year. The court imposed fines on several high officials and ordered the payment of Rs117,000 per month to the aggrieved family. In another case of disappearance, the same court made some observations about the intelligence services.

Both decisions have been challenged in appeals and the law will take its due course. However, apart from anything else it may be necessary to realise the extent of the courts’ frustration at the way their efforts to do justice to the victims of enforced disappearances have been thwarted by the executive authorities. 

The International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances is being observed today.

Some days after the Islamabad High Court proceedings, the chief justice of Pakistan told a gathering of high-level authorities that the apex court would not allow the matter to hang fire any longer. After the general election excitement was over, Sardar Akhtar Mengal of the BNP-M probably spoke for the whole of Balochistan when he called for resolute efforts to stop enforced disappearances. 

In this situation, the new government has a clear obligation to make every possible effort to ensure the earliest possible recovery of victims of enforced disappearance, and to secure an end to the heinous crime.

 Before the issue is reviewed, it is necessary to concede that enforced disappearances involve not only questions of law enforcement but also the basic human rights of victims and their families and that these matters cannot be excluded from public debate.

The review may begin by acknowledging the fact that enforced disappearances are still being reported in significant numbers. At the same time, many such cases are not reported for lack of access to redress mechanisms and fears for the safety of missing persons in case of protest or agitation.

According to the latest monthly report of the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances, 77 new cases were added to its roster in July this year, raising the number of cases reported during the first seven months of the current year to 682, while the number of disposed cases — 386 — during this period is much lower. That this tendency is increasing is confirmed by the commission’s own fact sheet. When the CoIoED started functioning on March 1, 2011, it had before it 136 cases that had been left undecided by a three-judge commission in 2010. Since then 5,152 fresh cases of enforced disappearances were reported to it till July 31, raising the total number of cases to 5,290. The commission deleted 828 cases from its roster, 446 for not being cases of enforced disappearance and 382 for non-prosecution or incomplete addresses.

According to the commission, 2,636 persons have been traced. They include, besides those who have returned home, persons found in prisons or internment centres and persons whose dead bodies have been found. Thus, at the beginning of the current month, the backlog of cases stood at 1,828.

Apart from the slow disposal rate — a little over 50 cases per month as against the average monthly receipt of 57.9 cases — the commission has attracted quite a few adverse comments. It does not investigate the circumstances surrounding the appearance of missing persons in prisons/ internment centres. And it has made no serious effort to record the statements of persons who have returned home regarding the circumstances of their captivity, something the Supreme Court has asked for more than once. The requirement of fixing responsibility for enforced disappearances and compensating the victim/ family remains unfulfilled.

The present commission has not done as well as warranted by the seriousness of its task because it doesn’t have the requisite authority. Set up through an interior ministry notification, it does not have the powers of a statutory tribunal. Therefore, the investigating agencies display scant respect for the commission’s entreaties to trace missing persons. The UN bodies concerned and civil society organisations in the country have for long been asking for the commission to be given more financial and human resources.

Further, the commission has been without a functional chairman since retired Justice Javed Iqbal assumed the responsibilities of NAB chairman, a full-time job.

In these circumstances, the priority issues pending decision are:

  1. The CoIoED may be replaced with a statutory commission or tribunal duly answerable to the Supreme Court. Enforced disappearances must be added to the Penal Code as a distinct and serious offence 

  2. The report of the commission of three former judges that was set up in 2010 on the recommendation of the Supreme Court must be released and expeditiously implemented. Media reports, which were never contradicted, had disclosed that the commission had suggested vital reforms to provide for the legally justifiable arrest and detention of offenders/ suspects and the payment of compensation to the aggrieved parties.

  3. The government should join the international campaign to end enforced disappearances by ratifying the International Convention to Protect All Persons against Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance. 

  4. The government should not continue treating the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances as an adversary. The working group’s letters to the establishment need to be answered more promptly than has been the case so far.

  5. The justification for maintaining internment centres under the Actions in Aid of Civil Power Regulation needs to be reviewed.

Published in Dawn, August 30th, 2018