IT is a form of collective punishment that, one would imagine, only the most brutal autocracies inflict on their citizens. And yet, in Pakistan, where a democratic system ostensibly exists, thousands of families are made to suffer the anguish that is the fate of those whose loved ones have been forcibly disappeared.

The petition brought by one such family, that of journalist Mudassar Naaru who reportedly went missing on Aug 19, 2018, is being heard at the Islamabad High Court. On Wednesday, Chief Justice Athar Minallah conveyed a clear message that in such cases the buck stops with the federal government, specifically the prime minister and members of the cabinet. Terming enforced disappearances a crime against humanity, he described the state’s response towards recovering missing persons as “pathetic”, observing it would be very different if a public office holder’s loved one were to disappear.

In fact, the judge proposed that the prime minister and his cabinet, being responsible for the citizens’ security and having authority over the intelligence and investigation agencies, should pay compensation to the legal heirs of the missing. He also directed the human rights minister to arrange a meeting of Mr Naaru’s family with the PM and his ministers.

One can perhaps see in this an attempt by the judiciary to force the government to confront the pain of the families of the missing so that their conscience will be pricked into doing more than mouthing platitudes when the issue is raised in court. And if that fails, for each case to exact a financial cost from those at the helm. As Justice Minallah observed: “This is not a matter of summaries or reports”.

Indeed, this is a human tragedy on a vast scale. For too long, however, such cases have been treated with a cursoriness that smacks of a total disconnect between the state and its citizens. The government has yet to fulfil its long-standing pledge to criminalise enforced disappearances, even though the practice violates constitutionally protected rights to security of person and due process. Meanwhile, the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances has to date not investigated, let alone prosecuted, anyone for involvement in this heinous crime. It has thus been an abject failure in this aspect of its mandate, even though it has done well to document cases of enforced disappearances and traced the whereabouts of a number of victims.

Read more: Disappearances: a festering sore

However, until they are held accountable, the perpetrators of this crime are unlikely to give up these tactics. According to its latest progress report, the commission received 8,279 cases of alleged enforced disappearances from across the country between March 2011 and November 2021. It ‘disposed of’ 6,047 cases, including 123 last month. Behind each of those numbers, however, there probably lies a story of unspeakable suffering that will never see the light of day.

Published in Dawn, December 3rd, 2021

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