Enforced disappearances: ‘Law of jungle’ cannot prevail, say activists

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  • Civil society says state institutions have failed people

LAHORE: Rights activists and civil society have expressed grave concerns over an increasing trend of enforced disappearances, demanding that the state institutions, including the intelligence agencies, be held accountable.

Recently, the issue caught the attention of international media when five bloggers had gone missing—four of whom have reportedly been recovered. Zeenat Shehzadi and Wahid Baloch were also part of the list of missing persons, both have been recovered though.

Most of the cases had one thing in common: dissent from the prevailing narrative in an exercise of their constitutional rights; however, the so-called anti-state narrative is no longer the sole cause of being whisked away, as in the recent context, people go missing for even minor matters.

Talking to Pakistan Today, former Human Right Commission Pakistan (HRCP) chairperson Najamuddin said that a democratic society cannot progress without addressing this particular issue.

“Ignoring the issue is not a solution as it will continue to haunt the state, and it has been so for a decade,” said the former HRCP chairperson.

“Being an aspirational democratic society, rule of law needs to be upheld as every civilised society is based on the supremacy of law,” he said, adding if the state cannot protect its citizens then it has failed its people.

“Abducting people is not a solution, in fact, it is accelerating the issue.” Why is there a need for certain state elements to resort to such extra-judicial method, he questioned, adding if there is no legal apparatus to deal with such an issue then the state should come up with a proper piece of legislation in this regard. “If we are trying to be democratic, law of jungle cannot prevail.”

If rule of law is important [to this country] then courts are there to look up to instead of infringing on people’s basic democratic rights,” said Najam, and lamented that the “people who are supposed to protect citizens are involved in extra-judicial disappearance”.

Responding to a question about the Enquiry Commission on Enforced Disappearances, Najam said the commission is limited in its constitution as it cannot take “real people” behind the gruesome practice to the task.

“All we need is one conviction in this case so that no one dares to think they are above the law,” Najam said.

“These disappearances are seen as legitimate by some of the institutions,” he lamented.

“There need to be clear investigations into the matter to hold perpetrators responsible.” And if state institutions are not behind this, then they, having all the necessary means, should come up with an investigation report to absolve themselves of the blame, concluded Najamudin.

The state’s ambiguous role in tackling the issue has attracted criticism by various international rights organisations. On the issue of Raza Khan, a peace activist who has gone missing recently, Amnesty International said, “Scarcely does a week go by without us receiving reports of people going missing in Pakistan. Many of them may have been subjected to enforced disappearances which is a crime under international law [and Pakistani law].”

The human rights organisation also criticised the Pakistani authorities for not bringing a single perpetrator of these cases to justice if not thousands, hundreds of such cases.

Jibar Nasir, a rights activist, said Raza was only part of a small progressive space and discussed the issues concerning common citizens. Such disappearances are an attempt to stifle the progressive discussions in society.

“The space for expressing dissent has further shrunk,” said Raheemul Haque, a comrade of Raza. Calling this a blatant violation of human rights, he said that there has to be a dialogue as people want to know why their freedom is being curbed.

When contacted, Supreme Court Bar Association ex-president Asma Jahangir refused to comment on the issue, saying she is pursuing the matter in the courts.

Despite repeated attempts, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) could not be reached for the comment on the issue.

On Thursday, the Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights called the recovered missing persons to enquire about the circumstances under which they went missing, dismissing the Balochistan additional secretary statement that only 136 missing persons have gone missing in the province.

Balochistan Human Rights Organisations, quoting government figures, said the secretary was deliberately distorting the facts, as “government [in Balochistan] has become a mouthpiece of security agencies”.

According to recent statistics submitted to the Supreme Court by the Justice (r) Javed Iqbal-led Commission of Enquiry on Enforced Disappearances, about 1,498 cases of enforced disappearances remain pending with the government.

Most of the missing persons belong to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where 837 cases were registered. Punjab had 237 cases, Sindh and Balochistan had 136 cases, and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) had 63 registered cases of missing persons.

A recent Human Rights Watch report says that despite the concerns of rights activists, enforced disappearances continue at an alarming speed. From August to October 2017, more than 300 complaints of enforced disappearances were registered.

The report further noted it is “one of the largest number of cases received in any three-month period since 2011”.