In order to raise awareness of enforced disappearances, the United Nations (UN) designated this day, 30 April, as the International Day of the Disappeared. However, Pakistani electronic media largely ignored the events and protests.
Families of all groups — Baloch, Sindhi, Pashtun, Shia — flocked to the press clubs every year across the country holding portraits of their beloved male family members who had been abducted by the Pakistani military, with a hope in their rheumy eyes and a unified plea on their lips that if they are implicated in illegal activities as the agencies claimed, they should be detained, charged and put through due course of law.
Since the start of this year, racial profiling, surveillance and labelling of Baloch students by intelligence and security agencies in provincial units have brazenly intensified. On the one side, the state negotiates with terrorists such as the TTP, and on the other, it abducts defenseless Baloch students. For instance, if we consider Sindh, five students who are currently enrolled at Karachi University (KU) have been extra judicially abducted in the last six months, primarily from the varsity premises. Three of them have returned, while one is still held captive.
Some of the students, who spoke to us on condition of anonymity, shared heartbreaking tales of how they are purposefully thwarted from pursuing their education merely because of what they wear and how they can easily be identified as “Balochs” and “Pakhtuns”. When they visit the library, they experience intimidation and are compelled to leave.
”Whenever I put on a Balochi chadar (shawl), I am made to leave the canteen by security personnel who prowl around the departments in civilian clothing and order us to cease moving about in various places. The reason is to prevent us from pursuing education,” Aftab Mir (name changed) tells The Friday Times – NayaDaur. “We live in continual terror for our lives, yet we are powerless to fight them because they are so strong.”
Saeeda Hameed, the daughter of disappeared Abdul Hameed Zehri (Baloch), along with her family, staged a sit-in for more than 20 days in July 2022 outside Karachi Press Club (KPC) despite torrential downpours and Eid holidays. When clips of the protest site floated on Twitter, the provincial minister contacted them and promised that they would find all Baloch missing people as soon as possible, including Hameed.
“In the wee hours of 10 April 2021 at 3 pm,” Saeeda recalls in a haggard voice, “around eight to ten Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) personnel and cops clad in black masks brandishing guns tried to smash the door abruptly. My mother went and asked what was going on; they claimed to be from the police and were inspecting the vicinity. The only building left, they said, is our house.”
“They lied to us and did not conduct any checks; rather, they stubbornly entered, pulled the sheet over my father’s face while he was still asleep, and examined him using the CNIC photo on their phones. They then informed us that a system has been installed in the vehicle, and they will dispatch him within five minutes following identification.”
The mother of Rashid Hussain is among the small but tenacious group from the Baloch community who, since 30 days ago, have been demonstrating like abandoned orphans despite the inclement weather in front of the governor’s mansion in Quetta, demanding a concrete judicial investigation to ascertain the truth about their male family members’ deaths and claims that they were terrorists. However, the provincial government and state authorities have not held enough or substantive discussions to date.
Rashid Hussain, a 23-year-old Baloch activist, was extradited to Pakistan by the UAE intelligence services four years ago. He continues to be held in secret detention in Pakistan, without access to his family or legal counsel.
“My mother faced fiendishly difficult problems since Rashid disappeared; every time she testifies before the commission, she invariably makes no progress. They reprimand her, call her names, and eject her,” Fareeda Baloch, Rashid’s sister, tells TFT-ND. “Despite the fact that she recently underwent surgery and has extraordinarily high level of diabetes, the chief minister’s call for them to leave and return when the weather calms down shows how despicably uncaring he is.”
“Whoever gets a chance, they quite literally begin boot-licking these days. The sitting interior minister, Rana Sanaullah, recently made an appearance on Aaj News, where he did not deny extrajudicial abductions but openly admitted that the ‘forces are compelled to take such drastic measures’ and they ‘cannot reveal the details publicly’ for fear of upsetting the victims’ kin.”
“If the installed political ruling class — irrespective of the party they belong to — cannot be bound to the Constitution and are criminally self-censoring the direly needed actions in order to curb this ongoing methodical cleansing of all ethnic groups, citing ‘majburiyan’ (constraints), they are equally responsible and complicit in it.”
“Today, when hands and feet of democracy are tied, political decisions of ‘who-will-be-the-next-selected-one’ are made by the upper echelons with concessions of the ISI to be designated as a special vetting agency and keeping mum about issues regarding Balochistan in return, a ‘neutrality’ narrative is being established to keep one’s nose clean, and conventional mechanisms are used to strangle dissenting necks, these words by Asma Jahangir chokes me everyday: ‘Soldiers are siyaasi (political) duffers. The country won’t change if you carry on with your current course of action in following their policies. I don’t care what America or Africa say; all that matters to me is that our country’s citizens get rid of this army.’”
Most of them have been given explicit or implicit warnings to cease their protest movement if they want their loved ones to return home safe and sound
While on vacation with his wife and their 10-month-old son in August 2018, Sindhi progressive writer, poet and journalist Mudassar Naaru was abducted from Naran Valley. After holding protests and canvassing one government office to another to find answers, his wife eventually succumbed to the state-enabled psychological terrorism. Later, at the Islamabad High Court’s insistence, the then prime minister Imran Khan met Naaru’s mother and kid and asserted ignorance of who had taken him away. Having been missing for three years at that point, the mother was obliged to identify her son. Khan promised the family that he would do all in his power to help, but ever since his overthrow, he has been outspokenly acknowledging that the army held the key to the political vehicle that he had been driving.
On April 29 2019, responding to senior journalist Hamid Mir’s question about waging war on the nation’s own citizens, the military spokesperson in a press conference admitted that the missing persons were missing “because it’s part of war” and upholding the ages-old dictum “everything is fair in love and war.”
Mir had faced scathing backlash, with headlines asserting that the spokesperson had shut Mir’s lips with a direct answer, but none of that has actually diminished his compassion and concern for the cause. Infact, he is still the only journalist in Pakistan who has been relentlessly broaching the matter on electronic and social media after having already faced the fury of the state.
Then comes the ludicrous claim, embraced by a sizable portion of the security establishment, that these people are terrorists and many of them went to Afghanistan surreptitiously for their own reasons. If we accept this for a moment, are our security agencies — who interject themselves into practically every political decision under the sun — so inept and under-equipped that they cannot trace a citizen, a taxpaying individual whose protection the state is obligated to provide? If the state can deduce firmly that they did so willingly, then the state also owes an explanation to their families as to where they crossed the border into Afghanistan or any other country, or what travel documents they used.
The price of protest
In Pakistan, people are kidnapped with no sign of their whereabouts, and when their loved ones demonstrate in the streets, they are either detained or vanish. Most of them have been given explicit or implicit warnings to cease their protest movement if they want their loved ones to return home safe and sound. Even the right to protest is denied to Baloch people. Regardless of who is in charge or where the families of the missing Baloch people go, they are grossly mistreated.
“When I initially started participating in the protests and left the house, some agents from the [security] agencies showed up at our house in disguise with firearms, threatening us to stay inside,” says Saeeda. ”Well, if my father returns, I won’t go since I don’t care, and I will stay at home instead,” she sobs.
The PMLN-PPP coalition regime, which overtly vouch as leaders sharing the grief of these communities when in opposition, have majorly failed to do the bare minimum for these missing persons. Instead, they used brute force when families set out to protest against the safe release of the-then-missing Doda Elahi and Gamshaad Baloch, in front of Sindh Assembly in Karachi barely two months ago.
It was the same spot where the PPP-led Sindh government’s pet police silently watched Jamaat-e-Islami protest for two weeks in a row but they didn’t use a baton charge, invoke colonial laws like section 144, or try anything to stop them. But, for Baloch who were indignant, angry and enraged and were peacefully protesting; male and female police personnel with concealed visages, all at once stormed their protest and the events that transpired subsequently demonstrated to the world that this is possibly the darkest period for this nation since independence.
In July 2019, Amina Masood Janjua of Defence of Human Rights Pakistan, a non-profit to fight disappearances and help struggling families whose loved ones were abducted by state authorities, spoke with the ex-Director General of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR). Families experienced a surge of hope when General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), announced in a press release following the meeting that General Headquarters (GHQ) will create a specific cell to “facilitate and address the issue” of missing persons.
“When I initially started participating in the protests and left the house, some agents from the [security] agencies showed up at our house in disguise with firearms, threatening us to stay inside,” says Saeeda. ”Well, if my father returns, I won’t go since I don’t care, and I will stay at home instead,” she sobs
I asked Amina about the status of the cell and whether GHQ had contacted to the impacted families.
“After the meet-up, I kept in contact with them and inquired over and over but it was merely a political statement outlining future intentions and remained limited to a photo op. Surely the cell must have some kind of purpose if it were functional. Not an ounce of progress has been made thus far, and we never heard about it,” Amina says.
In order to criminalise enforced disappearances, the National Assembly drafted an enigmatic measure in Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) tenure without consulting with stakeholders i.e. civil society and families of the missing. This was later referred to the Senate after being approved by the NA Standing Committee. However, it vanished in the interim and never made it to the Senate, highlighting the impunity that these crimes receive.
“Despite hearing instances involving missing persons from 2005 to 2018, not a single judge rendered a verdict in any of the cases. However, cases involving elected prime ministers and other civil political leaders are wrapped up with the speed of light, judgements are handed down, and decisions are made that even result in their disqualification,” Amina continues. “Enforced disappearances’ perpetrators have not yet been brought to justice. This really pinches us straight in the heart,” she says almost inaudibly.
When a politician is found guilty, they are summoned by the court. But, when a judge is egregiously exposed on electronic media for the felonies like sexually exploiting female kin of missing persons, including harassment, outraging, insulting modesty, misdemeanor, and misuse/abuse of authority, it shall put a last coffin in the already tainted democracy.
Recent revelations about the odious Javed Iqbal, President of the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances, has not only sullied the reputation of the judiciary but also severely shaken the relatives’ trust and faith in the most formidable pillar of a democratic system, making them think twice before approaching now.
“Despite the rise and fall of four successive prime ministers, the utterly adored, most distinctive blue-eyed boy (Javed Iqbal) has stayed constant. He was placed there expressly to offer lollipops to the affected families, and in spite of his character being widely publicised, he hasn’t been removed. This government brought the issue to the floor of parliament; but how come he’s still serving the commission and no inquest has been opened?” Amina wants to know.
When asked about the attitude and response she perceived whilst pursuing legal measures, Saeeda tells me that when she approached the JIT and Commission after receiving a date, the policemen sitting there at first questioned her, “Did you find out anything about your father?”
She continues: “Why, in the world, should I trust the legal system anymore? Why?”