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Silent alarm over mysterious deaths

October 09, 2012


PESHAWAR: The bodies began turning up again a few months ago. Dumped on the outskirts of the city, some are simply thrown on roadsides, while others are stuffed in sacks and left for passersby to find.

The details are sketchy. No one is quite sure how many bodies have been recovered; few victims are identified before burial; and the cause of death is unknown because post-mortems are not performed.

In August, Peshawar High Court Chief Justice Dost Muhammad Khan took suo motu notice of the spate of mysterious deaths and on Sept 27 directed the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa police and government to investigate the discovery of 26 bodies.

The police and provincial civilian authorities dutifully appear before the court when summoned, pledge their full cooperation, and then nothing comes of it.

Human rights activists suggest that anywhere between 50 and 100 bodies have been recovered so far. In the unexplained absence of autopsies, the cause of death can only be guessed at: cardiac arrest, kidney failure, starvation or various forms of torture.If answers are hard to come by in the public cat-and-mouse game between the determined chief justice and recalcitrant provincial police and government officials, the story comes tumbling out in private.

“The dead bodies are of persons who have been picked up. Everyone knows who’s behind it. There’s only one institution that can be doing this,” according to a lawyer familiar with the issue of missing persons and the recent deaths.The allegation that the army and its intelligence agencies are responsible for the mysterious deaths was firmly denied by a senior security official in the province. “Absolutely not. We’ve killed so many on the battlefield, why would we need to be doing this?” the official claimed.

But the army denials are rejected by human rights activists. “Of the people the security forces pick up, they put them in three categories: white, grey and black,” said Sher Muhammad Khan, the vice-chair of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

“White are released eventually, grey are handed over to the courts and black they deal with themselves.”

Judicial scrutiny

Much of the credit – and in certain quarters, blame – for highlighting the issue of missing persons and the dead bodies is attributed to the superior judiciary. Chief Justice Dost Muhammad Khan, who was elevated to the top slot in the Peshawar High Court last November, has been particularly forceful in trying to bring the security apparatus to account.

“The PHC is constantly asking questions, threatening to suspend officials, making statements, bringing a lot of media attention,” according to Malik Jrar, a Peshawar-based lawyer who has represented the families of missing persons.

“This new phase of judicial activism really took off after the Adiala 11 case,” Jrar added, referring to the Supreme Court’s attempt earlier this year to determine the fate of 11 detainees allegedly picked up by the army from outside Adiala prison, Rawalpindi, after they were set free by the Lahore High Court in 2010.

The senior security official in the province claimed he was somewhat sympathetic to the superior judiciary’s actions – “they are just following the law” – but expressed dismay at the system.

“Let’s say there are people in the four figures with us. But look at me, I’m an educated man, a professional man and my word can’t be evidence in court because the law doesn’t accept a policeman or soldier’s word but will accept that of even a chaprasi,” the official said.

An analyst familiar with the security establishment’s thinking suggested that in reality there is somewhat less patience with the superior judiciary’s inquiries. “They just want to be rid of the (PHC) CJ somehow, get him elevated to the Supreme Court or something,” the analyst said.

The promotion option for Chief Justice Khan may be available relatively soon: in February, Justice Tariq Parvez Khan of the Supreme Court will retire, reducing the usual strength of three or four justices from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the Supreme Court.

Broken system

As dead bodies continue to be discovered in various parts of the province and individuals continue to go missing, officials privately agree that without a fundamental overhaul of the legal code the problem of missing persons and unexplained deaths will remain.

The Actions (in Aid of Civil Power) Regulations signed into law by President Zardari in June 2011 is a case in point of uncertainty created by weak legislation – in this case regulations allowing for the setting up of internment camps in Fata and Pata to detain suspected militants.

In June, under pressure from the Peshawar High Court, provincial authorities produced a list of 1,035 detainees who have been released and another 835 who have been shifted to the newly set up internment camps – a number far below the detainees estimated to be in the province.

“The problem is the regulation has been challenged in court and the security forces are concerned that if they bring everyone onto the books and then the regulation is struck down, they’ll be forced to release all the detainees,” said Ghulam Dastageer, a journalist who tracks the issue of missing persons.

Politics too plays its part in the lack of robust legal reform. A senior parliamentarian from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa said that the reform of anti-terrorism laws has been blocked in the National Assembly. “The JUI-F doesn’t want the laws overhauled. They won’t let it happen in the standing committee on interior.

We thought of taking it to the national security committee, but Maulana Fazlur Rehman himself sits on that committee,” the parliamentarian said.

“I went to President Zardari and told him we needed this done,” the parliamentarian added. “But he said, ‘What if they (the establishment) use the laws against us later?’ So there’s no way through.”

A chilling effect

While the PHC and Supreme Court press ahead with their inquiries, lawyers and human rights activists in Peshawar claim that the families of missing persons are increasingly afraid to turn to the courts because bodies continue to be found.

“Some families are pulling back. They may have news from somewhere that the family member is alive and think that petitioning the courts at this stage may antagonise someone and the detainee could turn up dead,” according to Malik Jrar, the Peshawar-based lawyer.

For all the unexplained dead bodies, however, it does not appear that a large-scale kill-and-dump policy, like the one being implemented in Balochistan, has been introduced in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

“KP isn’t Balochistan. There’s too much pressure and too much attention on the issue. The killings should come down,” Sher Muhammad Khan, the HRCP representative in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, said.

“This seems more about spreading fear among the terrorists, sending them a message, than a mass elimination.”