Out of the abyss

Published May 22, 2024

ENFORCED disappearances remain a persistent blight on fundamental human rights in the country. Recent exchanges between the judiciary and government during Islamabad High Court hearings have once again brought the issue to the forefront, highlighting the need for accountability and reform. On Monday, Justice Mohsin Akhtar Kayani delivered a stern rebuke to intelligence agencies for their alleged involvement in the abductions of individuals such as Kashmiri poet Ahmed Farhad Shah. Justice Kayani’s insistence that intelligence agencies shed the perception of culpability in such ‘disappearances’ underscores the judiciary’s frustration with the practice. Following Monday’s hearing, Law Minister Azam Nazeer Tarar described the remarks as “inappropriate”, arguing that courts should dispense justice in accordance with the law and the Constitution without “sensationalising” issues. Mr Tarar’s argument reflects a broader reluctance within the government to hold state institutions accountable. This attitude not only undermines the rule of law but also perpetuates a culture of impunity.

Regrettably, political parties in Pakistan exhibit a Janus-faced approach to enforced disappearances. When in opposition, they vocally support the families of the missing, visiting protest camps and promising justice. Yet, once in power, they make excuses like “the issue is complex” and “cannot be resolved overnight”. This duplicity perpetuates the cycle of impunity and suffering. The case of Mr Shah is a stark example. Despite assurances from intel services and the defence ministry, Mr Shah remains unaccounted for, with his family left in anguish. Justice Kayani’s call for clear working procedures for intelligence agencies and his insistence on their adherence to legal boundaries are steps in the right direction. However, these steps must be backed by concrete actions and genuine political will. This includes ignoring a section of hawkish politicians who insist that missing persons are “terrorists”. If individuals are suspected of wrongdoing, they should be tried in accordance with the law. Enforced disappearances not only inflict immense suffering on the families of the victims but also erode public trust in state institutions. The judiciary’s recent observations are a reminder that the state’s duty is to protect its citizens, not to instil fear through unlawful abductions. The authorities must shed this dark legacy of enforced disappearances and help the country emerge from the abyss. The agony has lingered for far too long.

Published in Dawn, May 22nd, 2024

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