Missing persons still missing
In line with the judicial activism that has become the hallmark of Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Saqib Nisar, and which has elevated him in the eyes of the victims of the ‘system’ to the role of a saviour, his recent visits to Sukkur, Larkana and Hyderabad yielded a chorus of cries from the tortured families of missing persons for redress and justice. The CJP then summoned the IG Sindh, DG Rangers Sindh, provincial heads of ISI, MI and IB to the Supreme Court’s (SC’s) Karachi Registry on Sunday, June 24, 2018 on the issue.
The scenes outside and inside the court were as unprecedented as they were heart rending. The families of about 50 missing persons had gathered outside the SC’s Karachi Registry with posters, banners and photographs of their missing loved ones. According to human rights activist Jibran Nasir, the families were held back by a security cordon. Only one member from each family was being allowed into the hallowed halls of the SC’s Karachi Registry. He tweeted that the commotion was because the young could not leave the old outside in the sun and the old needed the support of their young ones inside.
Even inside the court there were rowdy scenes and near clashes between the protestors and the security forces. When things really started getting out of hand, the CJP left the courtroom for his chambers. However, he did return, admonished the protestors for their unprecedented bad behaviour before the apex court, including a woman almost indicted for contempt (but then mercifully forgiven) for thumping the CJP’s rostrum. Unacceptable as such rowdiness is in any court, let alone the SC, it is not difficult to sympathise with the plight of these families. After all for years they have knocked on virtually every door for news of and the safe release or charging under due process of their missing loved ones. The lack of information about the missing, even whether they are still alive or dead, is nothing but cruel torture for their families stretching back over many years.
The CJP did well to overcome the natural umbrage of the court at such behaviour, forgive the perpetrators and order the setting up of a special cell to provide information to the families of the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones. Positive as this step is, there is room for sckepticism as to its effectiveness, based on the track record of enforced disappearances and their aftermath. Having exhausted, and been exhausted by, the perennial running from pillar to post amongst the courts, the Commission on Enforced Disappearances and the like, there was reflected in this behaviour the desperation of poor souls besides themselves with grief and agony. No writs of habeas corpus, petitions to the courts (all the way up to the High Courts and even the SC), or applications to the Commission on Enforced Disappearances have yielded any meaningful results. This is because all these august bodies have failed to penetrate the cloak of secrecy and impunity in which the security and intelligence services have wrapped themselves for years. When a security or intelligence official in the face of the courts or the Commission blatantly denies any knowledge of the whereabouts of a missing person, none of these institutions have any means to challenge through independent investigations such denials. The ‘disappeared’ therefore seldom ‘appear’.
The CJP asked for and accepted the applications of the protesting families vis-a-vis their missing loved ones. What will come out of them is unknown but there is considerable room for scepticism given the impunity of the alleged perpetrators of enforced disappearances and the helplessness of state institutions charged with ensuring adherence to the rule of law in the face of this blanket, blatant denial. Very few cases have emerged over the years (perhaps because of some anomaly rather than a change of heart of the tormentors) of missing persons actually being traced to the secret detention centres run by the security forces. Even then, not many of these have returned to their homes and families. Those few who have dare not speak about their ordeal for fear of reprisals against them and their families.
Since 2002, when the current nationalist insurgency first broke out in Balochistan, reports of enforced disappearances starting emerging. It was perhaps the very impunity enjoyed by the security forces and demonstrated in practice that not only allowed these illegal and inhuman methods to continue, but incrementally emboldened the perpetrators because the response from the polity and civil society was so weak. Mama Qadeer’s long march from Quetta to Islamabad for missing persons was almost completely ignored by the political parties (with the exception of one or two Left parties) and civil society. There was not even a whimper of protest when the ISI had a roundtable discussion on missing persons in Balochistan cancelled by pressurising the LUMS management.
Since we did not speak up when the Baloch were being targeted through enforced disappearances, it became that much more difficult to voice protest when reports started incrementally pouring in of similar methods being employed in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh and Punjab. We can now rightfully claim to be ‘united’ as a country in this affliction.
Human rights defenders, the mainstream media and the social media have all gone through the cycle since the last 16 years of intimidation, threats and ‘silencing’. It appears the powers-that-be can no longer abide even just dissidence or criticism. We are simply asked to lump it. When five bloggers were ‘disappeared’ in 2007, their reappearance after months produced a sigh of relief. When they refused to speak (for obvious reasons) and thought it better for safety of life and limb to flee abroad with their immediate families, we became complacent that the problem was over. Now there are reports that the old and helpless parents of one of those bloggers have been threatened with dire consequences if they do not persuade their son abroad to stop his activities on social media. Gul Bokhari was whisked away from a Lahore Cantonment check post, held for five hours, but mercifully released apparently unharmed. But harm can be of many kinds. She is now incommunicado except for a brief message soon after her release thanking people for their support and asking for respect for her ‘privacy’ (read ‘silence’).
While CJP Saqib Nisar is to be appreciated for taking notice of the wails and tears of these suffering families, perhaps one should point out to His Lordship the scale of the problem. In Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, thousands are missing. In Sindh, it in the hundreds and mounting (on the very day the CJP held the hearing in Karachi, two Sindh Taraqqi Pasand workers were whisked away from outside a courthouse hearing in Mirpurkhas). Punjab has suffered a handful, but unless the most powerful province adopts a vow of silence on such matters, this too is likely to increase, given the ease and facility with which the regime of enforced disappearances has been imposed. The Commission under Justice (retd) Javed Iqbal proved as toothless as the rest. Now that the Justice has his hands full with NAB, it is unlikely the Commission will receive even the cursory attention paid to its task hitherto.
As we speak, the protest camp for missing persons outside the Quetta Press Club has by now assumed a permanent character. On June 24, 2018 (the day of the SC hearing), a seven-day hunger strike began outside the Hyderabad Press Club by the Voice for Missing Persons of Sindh.
Effective or not, the voices of the families and the platforms that have emerged to support them can still be faintly heard on the margins. Unless all of good conscience add their voices to this tragic refrain, the fear is that all our voices will eventually be made to ‘disappear’.