Sunday, March 16, 2014

Non-combatant prisoners The talks process continues to meander on. On Saturday, the government side had interactions with the Taliban-appointed negotiations committee that had just returned from talks with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) shura in North Waziristan. Professor Ibrahim and Maulana Samiul Haq have both conveyed the message that the TTP seeks to convert the present temporary ceasefire into a permanent one. In imitation of the TTP’s recent moves, unconfirmed reports say al Qaeda and Jundullah have also agreed to a ceasefire for a limited period. The issue of the venue for the next round of talks between the newly reconstituted government negotiating committee and the Taliban remains under discussion without conclusion. The two sides have made various suggestions regarding the venue, which must meet the security and safety considerations of both. According to Professor Ibrahim, North Waziristan has been ruled out as the venue since the Hafiz Gul Bahadur group is fearful that if the talks fail, they would face the brunt of any military operation in North Waziristan. Again according to Professor Ibrahim, South Waziristan has been mooted as a possible venue. But it seems the government side is not too enthusiastic about FATA generally as a venue, since it remains the ‘wild and woolly east’ in which the government negotiators may not be safe. That is why the government has put forward Bannu as an alternative, being located in the settled areas yet close enough to FATA to facilitate the Taliban side. The issue of the venue is not unimportant, given the state of law and order in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA. One reminder of the state of affairs came from the incident in which 18 Shinwari Afridi tribesmen were abducted from a suburb of Peshawar on Saturday. Reports say the abductions may have been kidnappings for ransom, one of the growth industries in the area whenever times are troubled. The kidnapping for ransom ‘industry’ has targeted many in Pakistan over many years, with some victims still awaiting release and freedom. In a meeting with the Ulema Council the other day, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had said the government was contemplating the release of non-combatant Taliban prisoners if it was proved they were not involved in terrorism (and provided they receive a clean chit from the intelligence and security agencies that they will not join or return to the ranks of the terrorists). Speculation has been sparked in the media about whether the prime minister’s statement meant to include the women and children the Taliban say are being held by the authorities. Since the claim has been roundly refuted by the army, that seems unlikely. However, the fact is that the security establishment is reportedly holding some 735 Taliban prisoners in about a dozen internment centres. The release of some, if not all, should not however be contemplated before extracting a quid pro quo from the Taliban that non-combatant Pakistanis being held for ransom or other reasons by the Taliban be released in return and the kidnapping for ransom industry be closed down. Amongst others, slain Governor Salmaan Taseer’s and former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gillani’s sons are still in the custody of militants. It would be a great service if the agony of their families were put to an end by linking the release of non-combatant Taliban prisoners considered safe to be freed with the release of all non-combatant Pakistanis in the custody of the militants. The victims of such kidnappings are innocent people who have unfortunately run foul of this criminal activity because of being at the wrong place at the wrong time or family and other links. For example, what sin have the sons of the two PPP leaders mentioned above committed? They are simply the collateral victims of the Taliban’s conflict with the state. The fact that their fathers were or are in politics does not and should not justify their being held (for years now in the case of Shahbaz Taseer) for no fault of theirs. The innocent offspring of these political leaders as well as all those being held for ransom or other reasons should be released as part of any deal with the Taliban to release some of their prisoners. Justice and fairness demand little else.

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