Silencing the disappeared

Published June 28, 2022
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

THE news item was splashed across newspapers and websites because it took to task a man in the limelight — retired justice Javed Iqbal. As nearly everyone with even a bit of interest in our politics knows, the retired judge sahib has been heading NAB since the giant woke up from its slumber a few years ago, rampaging its way through politics and government departments. But very few would know that he also heads the lesser known Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances.

The latter is a name hardly familiar to people for it doesn’t deal with politicians, bureaucrats or other powerful people. Those who are picked up and disappeared are not important enough to lead to endless discussions about the injustices in our society. We save our outrage for the suffering of the known and powerful.

Read more: Govt forms committee to 'deliberate policy' on enforced disappearances

But because he is seen to have a connection with the pain caused to the powerful, the criticism directed at the inquiry commission headed by Javed Iqbal led to headlines when, in the case of a missing person, Islamabad High Court (IHC) Chief Justice Athar Minallah passed a scathing order, arguing that the commission had failed.

Athar Minallah (who is among the few judges who still assures some of us that our judiciary prioritises human rights over thundering about issues of governance) wrote: “The commission was constituted almost a decade ago and its main responsibility was to recommend to the federal government proposals to bring to an end the impunity against ‘enforced disappearance’. It has become obvious by now that it has not been able to effectively achieve its object. The commission is a burden on the exchequer.”

The lackadaisical attitude of the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances is old news.

He wrote these words while hearing the case of Zahid Amin, who has been missing since 2014. The case went to the commission, which issued his production orders in 2020 — to no avail. No action was taken. Two years later, his loved ones have approached the IHC.

The commission’s lackadaisical attitude is old news. A report by Malik Asad published in Dawn in February provided the figures the commission has put before the IHC, revealing that 550 people had not been produced despite the issuance of production orders. Back then, Justice Minallah said the commission saw its role as that of a post office. “The court observed that the commission’s objective was to give advice to the federal government to counter the menace of enforced disappearances. However, the commission had not forwarded any proposal since its inception in 2011, Justice Minallah said,” reported the story. But it is worth asking if anything different was ever envisaged.

Enforced disappearances were part of the mainstream discussion during the Musharraf period. They began shortly after 9/11, and if the debate around them was hesitant then, it became more black and white when the ‘affliction’ spread to Balochistan. Those who had been willing to overlook the ‘kidnappings’ of those allegedly associated with right-wing organisations, did not find it easy to ignore Balochistan. By the time Iftikhar Chaudhry entered the picture, eager in his role as the nemesis of Musharraf, the missing people became a familiar matter for the courts. The judiciary had jumped into it by 2006 but continued to take a loud interest after the 2009 restoration.

Read more: Notices be issued to Musharraf, successive rulers: IHC

Amina Janjua, Col Imam, Mama Qadeer, became familiar names for many who watched the dramatic proceedings unfolding in Courtroom No 1. But to those who could see beyond the headlines and breaking news created by the judiciary’s remarks, the limitations of the interventions were apparent. Some of the missing people were produced in courts, groups were named and shamed, occasionally even officials rebuked. But it is here the matter ended. Never was anyone held accountable for the ‘disappearances’ and no punishments were given.

Consider the judgements that Iftikhar Chaudhry and his colleagues gave on the day of his retirement in 2013. According to Dawn’s Nasir Iqbal, “… the chief justice categorically ruled that no intelligence or security agencies, including the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Military Intelligence (MI), Intelligence Bureau (IB) and Frontier Corps, could secretly detain a person for a long time without sharing information relating to his whereabouts with his relatives”. The judgement added that it was the civilian government’s responsibility to ensure the recovery of the missing people. This judgement took eight years — to only give some guidelines, if one may be so impertinent. As a legal expert quoted in the story commented, the judgement was a mere eyewash.

But in between, the issue had become quite public and high-profile, due to several reasons ranging from the Musharraf-Chaudhry saga to the relative freedom of the media, to the unpopularity of Musharraf, etc. A judicial commission of retired judges was set up, which then led to the commission now being headed by Javed Iqbal.

Its biggest achievement, one can say, is to make enforced disappearances disappear.

Unlike the court hearings, we now rarely hear of cases of enforced disappearances. The proceedings of the commission are not open to the public; all we get to read occasionally are the statistics it releases. Even those are quite telling for those of us used to reading between the lines. And the few cases which do come to the courts do not get the kind of publicity that earlier cases did. Remember the Adiala 11?

What has not changed are our low expectations. The theatrics aside, back then, the proceedings were deemed a success if a missing person was located or allowed to meet his family. A decade later, we define success no differently.

Social media is now an additional weapon in our measly arsenal. We tweet and tweet till the fuss is so loud that the one disappeared reappears, quietly. The power of silence is the people’s defence, once the reappearance happens. Safety is ensured in exchange for a vow of silence. We settle for these victories, for we are aware we cannot aspire for more. In the process, the more vulnerable who are deprived of a voice on social media or friends in big cities, continue to disappear and be swallowed up with little hope of even a quiet return.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, June 28th, 2022

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