Internment centres

October 21, 2019

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IT is a long overdue redressal of rights violations perpetuated against the people of the tribal areas, an injustice that became all the more indefensible after the region’s merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in early 2017. On Thursday, the Peshawar High Court declared the scores of internment centres operating in the area since years as being unconstitutional. The two-judge bench also ordered the provincial police chief to assume control of the sites within three days and form a committee to review each case and free the individuals found to be detained on undetermined grounds. Crucially, the Peshawar High Court also struck down the legislation that allowed laws in force in Fata and Pata before their merger with KP to remain extant even after that historic event, whose avowed purpose was to bring these areas into the constitutional fold. These regulations, enacted in 2011 but applied retrospectively from 2008, gave security forces sweeping powers to arrest and indefinitely detain any individual, and also sanctioned the setting up of internment centres. For the government to not only try and maintain the status quo through its legislative powers, but to extend that status quo surreptitiously to the rest of KP through an ordinance passed in August — also declared illegal by the court — defies all norms of justice.

The shadowy detention centres in Fata and Pata, sometimes likened to the Guantanamo Bay prison complex or the ‘black sites’ in Afghanistan, have long been a stain on this country’s reputation. ‘Security concerns’ is a bogey calculated to elicit unquestioning acquiescence of the wider public to repressive, extralegal measures that jettison constitutional guarantees of due process and security of person. This is nowhere better illustrated than with the internment facilities and all that has become associated with them; including enforced disappearances and unprecedentedly opaque trials by military courts, many of which ended in the death penalty being handed down.

Numerous reports have emerged of individuals having been abducted, and held at such locations for years, without charge and without trial — or without any intimation to their families who have been left running pillar to post in an effort to locate their loved ones. In October 2017, the Supreme Court summoned a complete record of the detainees at 45 internment centres; the government subsequently disclosed during the proceedings that it had sent 1,330 people to these sites. However, even where the courts have attempted to assign responsibility for enforced disappearances or obtain information about the prisoners, they have been thwarted time and again by government functionaries through one legal loophole or another. There can be no more emphatic denunciation than the Peshawar High Court’s verdict of this ‘security’ regime that transported individuals into a black hole where they languished at the state’s pleasure. Finally, for people of the tribal areas, in an importance sense, it is no longer a case of one country, two systems.

Published in Dawn, October 21st, 2019