Musharraf is gone, but still no sign of the disappeared

Saturday 30 August marked the 25th anniversary of the International Day of the Disappeared. Irene Khan, Secretary General of Amnesty International, calls on Pakistan’s new government to publish details on those held in secret detention and shed light on the fate of many disappeared citizens.

Pakistan’s new ruling coalition may have successfully forced Pervez Musharraf to resign but it still has not done much to reverse his administration’s abusive human rights legacy. Twenty five years since the International Day of the Disappeared was launched, Pakistan has joined the list of nations practising enforced disappearances as a direct consequence of its alliance with the US-led “war on terror”.

This particularly painful legacy of the Musharraf era has subjected hundreds, if not thousands, to enforced disappearances — the practice under which people are kidnapped, held in secret locations outside any judicial or legal system, and often tortured, sometimes to the point of death. Pakistan not only shamefully helped fill the wire cages at Guantánamo Bay’s Camp X Ray and the secret prisons of the CIA by handing some of the detainees to the US authorities but also incarcerated many secretly in Pakistan itself. Held out of sight and without charge, with no word to their families and loved ones (much less lawyers), the fate of many of them remain unknown to this day.

In September 2006, after Amnesty International published its first report on the disappeared in Pakistan, I wrote to President Musharraf and in January 2007 met with the then Prime Minister Shawkat Aziz to urge the government to investigate and end the appalling practice of abduction and secret detention. I never received a satisfactory response.

If the leaders of the ruling coalition want to demonstrate they are serious about changing Musharraf’s policies, they should immediately reveal details of where the hundreds of disappeared are being held. And then they must begin the process of establishing some control and accountability over the country’s notorious security agencies, chief among them the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), which carried out these enforced disappearances.

Amnesty International’s recent report ‘Denying the Undeniable: Enforced Disappearances in Pakistan’, used official court records and affidavits of victims and witnesses of enforced disappearances to show how government officials, especially from the security and intelligence agencies, obstructed attempts to trace those who had disappeared. The report reveals a pattern of security or other forces arbitrarily detaining people (some of them children, in one case a nine-year-old boy), blindfolding them, and moving them around various detention centres so they become difficult to trace.

Take the case of Dr. Imran Munir, a Malaysian citizen of Pakistani origin, who was arrested in July 2006 and whose whereabouts remained unknown until Pakistan’s Supreme Court demanded information from Pakistani authorities. After the Supreme Court took up regular hearings of cases about the disappeared in late 2006, around a hundred disappeared persons were traced, having either been released or found in recognized places of detention. Dr. Munir was one those lucky ones; during the course of hearings on his case, it became apparent that various security agencies had tried to hide him even after the Supreme Court had ordered his appearance in court.

The Supreme Court under Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry became impatient with such obfuscation and denial and announced in October 2007 that it would summon the heads of the intelligence agencies to explain their role in enforced disappearances and would initiate legal action against those found responsible.

Dr Munir was set to record his statement regarding his enforced disappearance, as well as information about others subjected to enforced disappearance, when the hearing was disrupted by Musharraf’s imposition of the state of emergency in November last year and the unlawful deposing of independent-minded judges.

Musharraf’s Declaration of Emergency expressed his indignation succinctly when it spoke of “judicial interference” in the government’s fight against terrorism. The sacking of the judges, clearly and crucially in anticipation of a negative decision in respect of the eligibility of Musharraf to the office of the presidency, got rid of this irritant.

Not surprisingly, the hand-picked new judges of the Supreme Court have not found it necessary — or opportune — to resume hearings about the hundreds of petitions relating to disappeared persons. A confrontation with those responsible for enforced disappearances, including Pakistan’s notorious intelligence services, apparently takes more determination, grit and political will than they appear able to muster.

Thus the fate of the disappeared has become closely entwined with that of Pakistan’s higher judiciary. It seems unlikely that the disappeared will receive appropriate judicial scrutiny for the time being, given the controversy over the reinstatement of deposed judges.

But the new government need not await judicial pressure to shed light on the fate of the disappeared. The government can use its executive authority to demand that the ISI and other security agencies provide information about those subjected to enforced disappearance. As a first step, the government should immediately gather and publicize a list of all those in government detention. It’s good record-keeping; it’s basic law enforcement; it’s also the law.

In April 2008, shortly after the elections, Law Minister Farooq Naik stated that the government was collecting details of disappeared persons and pledged that all would be released.  Now is the time to go public with that information.

Providing information about the fate of the disappeared would bring some solace to hundreds of families — thousands of people — who continue to fear for the lives of their loved ones, aware that torture and other ill-treatment are routine in Pakistani places of detention.

By abducting and detaining terrorist suspects in secret hiding places, or failing to investigate and reveal the fate of the disappeared the government violates human rights and does little to counter terrorism. By arresting and prosecuting those suspected of terrorism in accordance with the rule of law the government can show its commitment to both human rights and fighting terrorism.

It would also send a clear, immediate signal of a radical break with the Musharraf era, and at very little cost — something very important to the fractious new government as it faces the many woes besetting the country such as a slumping economy, high fuel costs and a growing Taliban insurgency in the areas bordering Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s new government has a clear choice: it can continue the bankrupt and brutal anti-human rights practices of the Musharraf regime or it can counter terror with justice and put the country on the path of the rule of law and human rights.