By I.A. Rehman
August 31, 2017
PAKISTAN observed the International Day of Victims of Enforced Disappearances yesterday (Aug 30) at a time when this form of attack on life and liberty has acquired a new and more sinister dimension.
Sindh is in the grip of a wave of abductions. According to Sindh Human Rights Defenders, a body that has been monitoring cases of missing persons, out of the 120 or so victims identified since Jan 1 this year, 84 disappeared this month (until Aug 22).
Enormously more worrying is the fact that eight of the persons wrongly described as missing were known to be striving for the recovery of victims of involuntary disappearance. They are: general secretary Voice of Missing Persons, Sindh, Punhal Sario from Hyderabad; Abbas Lund from Dadu; journalist Ghulam Rasool Burfat; writer Inamullah Abbasi; Raza Jarwar; Partab Shivani from Mithi; Naseer Kumbhar also from Mithi; and Shoaib Korejo from Hyderabad. The last mentioned three have returned home but the fate of the other five was unknown till the time of writing.
As is usual in such cases those who have returned home are not talking. They communicate through their relatives in the fewest possible words. It is possible they wish to keep quiet out of fear of reprisal. Anyway, the authorities and civil society organisations both have a duty to carry out a Supreme Court directive about recording the statements of all those victims who survive the ordeal of enforced disappearances.
The identity of the state functionaries responsible for disappearances is no secret. What the authorities must do now is to ascertain whether the victims were picked up for their views or political affiliation. The impression that the space for freedom of opinion and association is shrinking must be removed.
Meanwhile, Pakistan continues to attract harsh notices from international organisations. It has not sincerely and adequately addressed the issues raised over several years by the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances. Last month, the UN Human Rights Committee, in its concluding remarks after hearings on Pakistan’s initial report under the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, made a pointed reference to disappearances and called upon Pakistan to criminalise the act of causing a person’s disappearance, ensure protection to the victims’ families and create a mechanism for offering them due compensation.
Once again Pakistan has been advised to strengthen the authority and capacity, financial and personnel-wise of the Commission of Inquiry into Enforced Disappearances. The justification for this recommendation will become clear if we take a fresh look at what this commission has been doing.
It had inherited only 138 cases of disappearance from the commission of three retired judges who had dealt with the issue in 2010. This new commission though headed by Javed Iqbal, a former judge of the Supreme Court, is not as powerful as its mandate demands. Neither a statutory nor a judicial commission, it is only a commission of inquiry created under a notification of the interior ministry. The law-enforcement authorities treat it with scant respect.
Since March 1, 2011, when it started functioning, the commission received till the end of June this year 4,059 cases, out of which it has disposed of 2,801, leaving 1,258 cases pending. Incidentally the commission had slightly fewer cases — 1,219 — on Dec 31, 2016. That alone tells us a story that is none too complimentary.
The figures of cases decided conceal, as has been noted before, a strange pattern of disposal. For instance, during June this year 45 cases were decided. This does not mean that 45 victims of enforced disappearance rejoined their families; it only means the present status of the 45 individuals concerned was confirmed. While 22 persons were reported to have returned home, 23 were not. Out of these 23, two were found to have died away from home, five were under detention at internment centres, seven were facing trial on criminal charges, and nine cases had been dropped for various reasons.
The highest number of cases received from a province since 2011 came from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (1,555) followed by Sindh (1,047), Punjab (858), and Balochistan (284). The case disposal pattern is quite interesting. Sindh has the best disposal rate — 756 cases out of 1,047, or 72.2 per cent; were disposed. Sindh was followed by Punjab — 440 cases out of 858 or 51.30pc; KP — 657 cases out of 1,555 or 41.2pc. Balochistan has the lowest disposal rate at 104 cases out of 284 or 36.6pc.
There is a need to look deeper into these figures. In nearly all cases of persons who returned home the information was provided by the police. Why can’t the commission ask police officials to produce the victims traced by them? The commission could then record the dates of a victim’s disappearance and his recovery and other much-needed information.
The urgency of a review of the whole set-up has become manifest. What is needed is a high-powered, properly staffed and financially well-supported commission not merely to trace the victims of enforced disappearance but also to identify their tormentors for prosecution, and to determine compensation due to the families.
Before that, however, the government must ratify the international convention on disappearances and make disappearance a penal offence. Further, the report of the judges’ commission of 2010 must be made public. If it contains classified matter that the government does not wish to share with the public that may be presented in parliament at a closed session. If the judges’ commission had suggested a practical way of freeing the state of the stigma of tolerating disappearances, that should not be left to be consumed by moths in record rooms.
PS. The family of a missing Lahore woman, social activist-journalist Zeenat Shahzadi, was again told last Thursday to keep waiting, to keep hoping against hope.
I.A. Rehman is a former ambassador to Iraq and Turkey.