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Hope for the disappeared?

July 04, 2019

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I.A. Rehman
I.A. Rehman

THE return home of some of the Baloch missing persons, the Balochistan home minister’s optimistic forecast, and the good tidings conveyed to Akhtar Mengal are welcome developments but they raise more questions than they answer. From whose custody are these people being recovered and why was this not possible earlier?

Besides, the question of impunity remains unaddressed. Also ignored is the urgency of strengthening, in terms of human and financial resources, the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances (CoIoED) whose incapacity to deal with the matter is causing much distress and frustration to the affected families.

We can judge the performance of this body by its own reports for March and April, 2019. First, some bare facts.

The total number of cases received by the CoIoED till the end of April 2019 was 6,051; cases received during March and April: 62 and 136 ie 198; cases disposed of till the end of April: 3,783; cases pending on March 31: 2,181; cases pending on April 30: 2,258.

The receipt of 136 fresh complaints in April means that the number of enforced disappearances still being reported is quite high and that the backlog of cases pending before the CoIoED — 2,258 on April 30 — is also sizeable.

Even as some of the missing return home, the question of impunity remains unaddressed.

The region-wise breakdown of complaints received from March 1, 2011, up to the end of April 2019 is as follows: Punjab —1,271; Sindh — 1,512; Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — 2,277; Balochistan — 408; Islamabad — 256; Fata — 265; Azad Kashmir — 53; Gilgit-Baltistan — eight.

It is difficult to accept as correct the statement that the number of involuntary disappearances in Balochistan over the last eight years has been lower than in Punjab or Sindh. The only plausible conclusion is that the wretched citizens of Balochistan are too resourceless or too scared to even report enforced disappearances. And official apathy makes Akhtar Mengal angry.

During March-April 2019, the number of missing persons traced was 117. Those returning home numbered 64, while 53, ie 45 per cent of the persons traced, were not that lucky. Thirty-five of them were found in internment centres set up under the Actions in Aid of Civil Power Regulation issued for (former) Fata in 2011, 16 were found in jails facing a variety of charges, and two were reported dead and buried.

These cases raise some disturbing questions. The regulation of 2011, under which the internment centres are maintained, lapsed in the whole of KP following the Fata merger. But this regulation has been kept alive in the Provincially Administered Tribal Areas under a new law that is clearly in conflict with the Constitution.

Some of those detained at internment centres had disappeared long ago. Rahimullah, belonging to Swat, disappeared on Dec 29, 2001. He has been found at the internment centre at Paithon (Swat), a DSP told the CoIoED. No information is provided as to when the detainee arrived at the centre, why he is being detained, and why was it impossible to inform his family for 18 long years? Even if a detainee is accused of a serious crime there can be no justification for punishing his family members by keeping them in the dark and preventing them from taking the lawful course of action for his release.

Similarly, Farmanullah, from Mohmand Agency, disappeared in October 2010. An FC officer has told the commission that he was “presently confined at the internment centre at Ghalanai” and that his father had been informed of his whereabouts; he was informed after eight years!

Those traced in jails include several persons whose trial in military courts has been suspended, as the act authorising trial by the courts has not been extended beyond Jan 6 this year. This group also includes Ameer Zaib, from Lower Dir, who disappeared in 2013. Military intelligence has informed CoIoED (no date given) that he had been sentenced to death (when and what for?) and was being held at the Kohat district jail.

The cases of the 64 ‘missing’ persons who have returned home during March-April this year also merit scrutiny. The largest group comprises persons whose return has been reported by intelligence agencies, police officers and executive officials. The relatives of missing persons who confirmed the latter’s return home offered no details about the victims’ ordeal except for mentioning the period of disappearance, which varied from 14 days to four years.

About a score of returnees appeared before the commission but they declined to disclose what had happened to them. A few said they had gone away somewhere (on a tableeghi mission, for example) while a majority said they had been picked up by unknown persons, kept at unknown places and then released.

An exercise that doesn’t include identification of those responsible for enforced disappearances, and doesn’t provide a basis for the grant of compensation to the victims is a mockery of inquiry.

The functions of the CoIoED, as given in the notification about its formation, include the following: i) to fix responsibility on individuals or organisations for enforced disappearances; ii) get FIRs registered against those found prima facie responsible for enforced disappearance; iii) “recommend Standing Operating Procedures (SOPs) to be adopted by all law enforcement/ intelligence agencies through which the arrest/ detention of a suspected person could be declared under the provisions of existing acts/ rules”.

If the commission had fulfilled its tasks mentioned above, the victims’ families might have suffered less.

It is impossible to blame the CoIoED alone for this unpardonable situation. The commission is short of resources, both human and material. It is without a head since its chairman, retired justice Javed Iqbal became chairman of NAB in October 2017 but has not relinquished his CoIoED charge. An attitude of indifference prevails in the corridors of power. Civil society too seems to have given up the ghost. It must demand now that activist-journalist Zeenat Shahzadi, whose recovery was enthusiastically announced by Javed Iqbal, should be produced in public.

Finally, the government must expedite adoption of measures to declare enforced disappearance a penal offence and ratify the relevant UN convention.

Published in Dawn, July 4th, 2019