National shame

Published October 7, 2023

THE blight of enforced disappearances has become almost normalised in our society, with hardly any voice being raised against the unlawful detention of citizens.

It seems that people have come to terms with the fact that individuals go ‘missing’ in Pakistan and if they’re lucky, will miraculously turn up one day. However, if the victims are not so lucky, families will be called to collect a body bag.

One faint ray of hope has been the judiciary’s perusal of this troubling phenomenon. In a recent hearing of the Islamabad High Court, where nearly a dozen petitions related to missing persons were being heard, the IHC chief justice said that the court felt “embarrassed” that the issue was still lingering.

The bench observed that enforced disappearances stigmatised the image of Pakistan, and brought the country into disrepute. It is hard to disagree.

At one time, the issue of enforced disappearances was primarily a problem in Pakistan’s peripheries. Mostly, it was Baloch separatists or their sympathisers, Sindhi nationalists, suspected religious militants or MQM cadres who went ‘missing’. Rights activists and journalists were also whisked away if their work rubbed the powers that be the wrong way.

But in the aftermath of the May 9 events, the scope, and brazenness, of this deplorable practice has expanded greatly, with even members of well-connected families not spared.

We have witnessed the bizarre spectacle of people being freed by courts hauled away again by ‘unidentified’ elements numerous times.

The fact is that in the current scenario, unabashed disrespect for the law and due process has gone beyond just disappearing people; powerful, unaccountable actors have become so emboldened that they now feel confident enough to ‘punish’ citizens despite what the courts and the Constitution say about honouring fundamental rights. No civilised society can allow such a mockery of the law to take place.

During the aforesaid IHC hearing, the bench asked the attorney general to bring up the issue of missing persons with the caretaker prime minister.

With due respect to their lordships, this issue requires all power wielders in Pakistan to take a strong stand against enforced disappearances, and indeed all violations of the constitutional order.

Where the missing persons’ question is specifically concerned, the chief justice of Pakistan, who has been a high-profile advocate of this issue, can ask unelected forces where they stand on this and the steady erosion of fundamental rights.

Moreover, little can be expected from the caretakers; only an elected government can forcefully raise these issues, and bring these deplorable practices to an end.

But perhaps most importantly, it is the power elite that can initiate change. Is the state comfortable with the fact that Pakistan is seen as a lawless land, where people disappear and are arbitrarily punished?

Published in Dawn, October 7th, 2023

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