Ghosts of deeds past

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When skeletons in cupboard start rattling

The visit by the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) would not have taken place if the government had reined in those in Balochistan who consider themselves above law. As late as Saturday, the Supreme Court has warned the concerned officials that a UN delegation was on its way to review the situation of missing persons in the province. Further that irrespective of whether the UN delegation remarked upon the missing person’s situation, it would still be observing the entire situation. He had asked the Balochistan advocate-general what would happen if the UN delegation visited the province and recorded statements.

Now that the WGEID has arrived all super patriots who remained mum when disappearances took place are opposing the visit. A parliamentarian belonging to the PML-Q has termed the arrival of the delegation a ‘threat to the country’s sovereignty’ and ‘the first step leading towards the disintegration of the country’.

While Foreign Minister Khar had earlier taken the stand that the WGEID had been invited by the government itself, she is having cold feet now. She has said that the UN mission was not mandated to conduct any fact finding.

A petition moved in the Supreme Court maintains that the commission’s arrival in Pakistan “to investigate missing persons’ case was a conspiracy against the country”. Further that the commission visits the states where there was no independent judiciary or democracy but Pakistan is independent having all facilities to investigate its internal matters. The petitioner asks the apex court to issue an order to deny any cooperation with the commission and its members should be sent back immediately.

As a member of the UN, Pakistan is required to abide by the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. Article 1 of the Convention maintains that no one shall be subjected to enforced disappearance and no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification for enforced disappearance.

It is interesting that while some of us expect the UN to stop human rights violations in Kashmir and Palestine, they resent the visit by a UN group investigating similar crimes in Pakistan.

Hundreds of reports and scores of columns and editorials in Pakistani media over the years have highlighted the gravity of the situation in Balochistan. The HRCP has sent several fact finding missions to the province and released about a dozen well researched reports which highlight enforced disappearances. These expose the involvement of law enforcement agencies in the overwhelming majority of the cases. Baloch parliamentarians have repeatedly pointed finger in the same direction. Some of them subsequently resigned their seats convinced that none in Parliament was willing to go beyond wringing hands. The SCBA has held two national conventions to underline the plight of the Baloch people. When skeletons in the cupboard start rattling, outsiders are curious to know what is going on.

The enforced disappearances started under Musharraf when the PML-Q legislators, now objecting to the UN mission’s arrival, were members of the military ruler’s cabinet. They continued to enjoy the perks and privileges and looked the other way as Akbar Bugti was killed and Baloch political workers picked up and kept incognito in violation of law. It never occurred to them that large scale illegalities by the agencies can turn the population against the state and thus endanger the country’s integrity.

Disappearances have multiplied under the PPP government. They are now followed by the dumping of scores of tortured bodies of some of those made to disappear earlier. The PPP had apologized to the Baloch before assuming power over excesses committee against them. To remain in office it has extended its policy of reconciliation centered around “we won’t stop you from doing what you want if you don’t stop us from doing what we do” to security agencies also. Theoretically, there is an elected government in place in Balochistan. Practically, the chief minister is powerless, which he has admitted several times, while the province continues to be ruled by law enforcement agencies.

The Supreme Court had taken up the issue of missing persons soon after the restoration of the independent judiciary. Early this year it turned its attention to Balochistan. On a petition filed by Balochistan High Court Bar Association President citing widespread incidents of violence and deteriorating law and order situation in the province, the court sought reports from the chief secretary, IB and Special Branch. Finding the reports unsatisfactory, the apex curt initiated proceedings at its Quetta Registry.

It didn’t take the court long to realize that important government officials and bigwigs of the security agencies were trying to stonewall the proceedings. Top officials sometime failed to appear when summoned, feigned ignorance of enforced disappearances and made statements that turned out be untrue.

As the phrase goes murder will out. In June, the apex court issued an interim order in the case. The court held Frontier Corps (FC) responsible for the disappearances across the province. The order stated that the helplessness of Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs) was against all expectations.

In July, the court warned FC officials involved in disappearances to put an end to the illegal acts. “Enough evidence is available regarding the involvement of the Frontier Corps in picking up of every third missing person,” CJ Iftikhar Chaudhry observed.

We are reminded that Pakistan is a democracy and the courts and media are free. Hence there is no need for the UN WGEID to visit the country. Do democracies condone agencies found involved in gross human rights violations? Do parliaments allow gross illegalities of the sort to take place year after year? Interestingly the opposition, which threatens to launch long marches if the government was to defy the SC, didn’t put up even pretence of support to the SC as the agencies continued to resist its authority.

At a sitting of the bench in July, the CJ warned that the Supreme Court should not be forced to issue orders for the appearance of commandants and other senior officers of the Frontier Corps before magistrates as there had been no response to directives of the court to produce the missing persons before it.

On July 12, The CJ ordered Balochistan FC Commander Major General Obaidullah Khattak to produce the 30 missing persons in court, maintaining that there was evidence that the troops were involved in their disappearance. “It is his (Khattak’s) duty to comply with the court orders and affect the recovery of the missing persons and produce them,” the CJ said. The court rejected the commander’s denial of responsibility as “unacceptable… in the wake of evidence against the force in picking up missing persons”. Another judge on the bench remarked, “If there are some rogue elements in the force, they should be exposed.” The proceedings went on month after month without compliance on the part of the security agencies.

At times attempts were made to malign the Supreme Court. On July 30, the counsel for intelligence agencies had the cheek to tell the bench that it was ‘perpetuating an anti-state agenda.’ Remarks of the sort had earlier been made against those criticising the agencies for human rights violations. The counsel was duly snubbed by the CJ who remarked, “You are perpetuating an anti-state agenda, you should refrain from making such statements.”

At a hearing towards the end of July, the SC made a highly serious observation which it had never made before. The court said that the Constitution was not being implemented in Balochistan.

What are the consequences when the FC and other agencies decline to cooperate with the Supreme Court, the government does not support the court and the opposition simply ignores what is going on? Should this not create worries about the integrity of the country? With friends like the PML-Q MNAs, Pakistan hardly needs an enemy.

The writer is a former academic and a political analyst.