Ending the epidemic of enforced disappearances in Pakistan | Human rights news
In February 2020, Haseeba Qambrani, a young woman living in Balochistan province in southwest Pakistan, received frightening news that her brother Hassan and cousin Hezbollah were missing. It was not the first time that his family had experienced such a tragedy, just a few years earlier, in 2015, Haseeba’s other brother, Salman, and his cousin Gazain, disappeared. A year later, Haseeba’s family discovered their mutilated corpses.
It is still unknown where Hassan and Hezbollah are a year later, and Haseeba is still trying to find them. She is not alone in her search for loved ones who have been abducted over the years in Balochistan.
Balochistan borders Afghanistan and Iran. Full of mountains and deserts, I call this place my home. Here, thousands of men and boys have been forcibly disappeared, held incommunicado for long periods or extrajudicially killed over the past two decades.
My own uncle, Ali Asghar Bangulzai, was kidnapped from the provincial capital of Balochistan, Quetta, in 2001. Twenty years later, we still don’t know his whereabouts. Deen Muhammad, a local doctor, suffered the same fate in June 2009, and his wife and two daughters Sammi and Mehlab are still looking for him. In October 2016, a student leader, Shabbir Baloch, disappeared during a military operation. His relatives are still awaiting his return.
I could go on. As the co-founder and chairman of Voice for Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP), a grassroots collective representing family members from Balochistan who are forcibly missing, I have recorded over 5,000 such cases. Other popular movements across the country have also collected chilling stories of fathers, brothers and sons who have been picked up by security forces in other parts of the country and have disappeared without a trace over the years. years.
Several organizations, including the Pakistan Human Rights Commission, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations Working Group on Enforced Disappearances, have confirmed that the security forces are the main suspects behind these disappearances. In 2012, when I admitted cases to the Supreme Court on behalf of VBMP, a bench of three judges formally declared that based on the evidence, it is clear that law enforcement was behind the kidnappings.
The security forces do not deny their role: they say they are looking for “militants”. In 2019, they said some of those missing may have joined “rebel groups” and “not all those missing are attributable to the state.” Yet the practice began under the watchful eye of military leader Pervez Musharraf 20 years ago, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks and the US invasion of Afghanistan. Musharraf allied the country with the United States in the so-called “war on terror” and aided the United States in the kidnapping, illegal detention and torture of suspected “militants”.
Soon, this extrajudicial practice spread to Balochistan and began to be used against anyone demanding social justice and equal rights. Numerous political workers, students, teachers and activists who have committed no crime other than trying to help those in need or claiming the fundamental rights and freedoms of the Baloch communities have been targeted.
Take the case of my uncle, Ali Asghar Bangulzai. In 1998, a Baloch community called the Marris left the Afghan city of Kandahar, entered Pakistan, and settled on the outskirts of Quetta, all in an effort to protect themselves from the Taliban. They had emigrated to Afghanistan to escape a 1970s counterinsurgency campaign in Pakistan. My uncle witnessed their arrival and, concerned about their well-being, organized help for them. He distributed food and blankets and even made arrangements for schooling and health care for members of this impoverished and displaced community. He also set up a small support committee, of which I was a part. For these efforts, he was kidnapped.
For more than a decade, families have organized under the VBMP and protested in front of press clubs, went to courts and met with politicians to find our missing loved ones and prevent other families from experiencing the same pain.
We had a few wins and many setbacks during our trip. Since the start of our protests, several representatives of the Pakistani state have admitted that the security agencies are responsible for the enforced disappearances. These confessions led to the creation of the Commission of Inquiry into Enforced Disappearances in 2011. The commission, however, has failed to do much in the past 10 years.
In 2019, the Ministry of Human Rights drafted a bill to criminalize enforced disappearances, giving us hope that this illegal practice may soon end. The project, however, has since disappeared into a web of bureaucracy and it is unlikely to be accepted as law anytime soon.
Last year, following negotiations between the VBMP and the provincial government of Balochistan, several people who have been missing for some time were released. We also saw some improvement in the length of disappearances – instead of killing men and boys for months or years, security forces began releasing large numbers of those they illegally abducted afterwards. a few days or weeks only. But thousands of people, including my uncle, are still missing and the authorities still seem reluctant to provide us with answers or take action against the illegal practices of the state security forces.
Last month, frustrated by the lack of progress on the files of our relatives, I visited with thirteen other members of the VBMP in the capital Islamabad. We sat in front of the Islamabad Press Club and called on the government authorities to pay attention to our plight. When no one from Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government came to speak to us, we took our protest to D-Chowk – a place in the government district near the Prime Minister’s office, Parliament and the Supreme Court.
We sat there on the street in freezing temperatures for days and made it clear to those around us that we had no intention of leaving until we spoke to someone about the government. First, members of the opposition started to visit us, and finally several parliamentarians from the ruling party showed up as well.
The parliamentarians of the ruling party promised to know the whereabouts of our relatives and the living conditions. They also assured us that if our relatives were detained by the state, they would either be released or publicly brought before a civilian court. In subsequent meetings with Federal Minister of Interior Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, Federal Minister of Law and Justice Mohammad Farogh Naseem, Federal Minister of Human Rights Shireen Mazari and the head of the Commission of Inquiry into enforced disappearances, Judge Javed Iqbal, we have been promised to act on these points by March 13.
We are now waiting for the government, the judges and the bureaucrats to act and give us real answers. We are optimistic, but cautious, because we have been disappointed by promises that have been shown to be empty several times before.
What we expect from the government is actually quite simple. As Pakistani citizens, we have rights enshrined in the constitution. We only ask that these rights be respected and respected. We want to know where our loved ones are and what they have been through since their abduction. If they are charged with crimes, we want those charges to be made public. We are ready for our loved ones to be tried in court. What we cannot accept is their disappearance. If the Pakistani security forces are not behind their disappearance, we want them to work with us to find out what really happened to them, as is their constitutional duty.
Today, Pakistan is battling not only the coronavirus pandemic, but also a deadly epidemic of enforced disappearances. It is time for our elected officials to recognize our suffering and help us find our loved ones.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.