Liberty disappeared

April 08,2017

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The nationo-chauvinists on our television screens and social media follow the same jumbled playbook whenever someone they dislike is ‘disappeared’. First, they feign outrage: how dare unpatriotic liberals insinuate that the state would ever do anything as tawdry as picking up dissenters. Once that shtick wears thin and it’s obvious what happened, they change tack.

Reading off a tired, rehearsed script they go after those who had the temerity to be abducted. The conduct attributed to the missing people is so appalling it would make one want to come out with pitchforks themselves. Never mind that the denial and demonisation strategies contradict each other. The entire purpose is to keep flinging mud quicker than it can be washed off.

For all we know, Hasan Zafar Arif was picked up for listening to a speech. The MQM-London hasn’t been banned but it makes a certain kind of sense to imprison members of that party when members of outlawed parties can freely roam the country. Riaz Ahmed is not a member of MQM-London but still he was picked up and found himself in jail. He and Mehar Afroze Murad had the gall to try and point out that it is absurd – in the Kafkaesque sense – for the state to hold someone without due process.

The ex post facto justification given for his detention by the Rangers was that an illegal weapon had been found in his possession. Dr Riaz is as likely to carry a gun as the state is to develop care for those it dislikes. But that doesn’t matter. It is always easy to concoct a justification and then use the true believers and useful idiots on talk shows to make so much noise that we forget the original miscarriage of justice.

It is easy to understand why Dr Riaz would be seen as a problem. He is a socialist in a country where the ideology is outside the narrow parameters of acceptable opinion. The last time he was picked up was in 2007 for, ironically enough, protesting against the violence brought to the city by the MQM. The party was in the good books of power at the time. Now it is the state that is trying to prosecute members of the MQM – apparently for the very crimes Dr Riaz was vocal in protesting.

His has been a consistently righteous voice on the issue of Balochistan. After the murder of Sabeen Mahmud, right after she had hosted a talk on Balochistan, he was one of the courageous few who made sure the voice of the Baloch was not silenced. Now it is he they are trying to silence.

We may try and understand why Dr Riaz was picked up but we should never confuse understanding with acceptance. Real patriotism comes not from those bragging about nukes and other toys of war; it belongs to courageous people like Dr Riaz who work to protect the vulnerable and forgotten.

Not that this is any justification for what was done to him, but Dr Riaz will at least have his day in court where he can try and prove that the charges against him are cooked up and ludicrous. The same courtesy was not afforded to others who were picked up and released later.

For years now, the Supreme Court has been trying to locate all those who have ‘disappeared’. But the judiciary cannot do anything about it. In 2010, the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances was set up to investigate the cases of all those who are being secretly detained. Its true purpose is to whitewash state lawlessness. The commission will hear from the families of those picked up, who are too afraid to say anything because security personnel are also in attendance. Then law-enforcement officials will give a cursory briefing. Finally, the commission will decide that the missing person was likely kidnapped or is dead.

The commission is excellent at producing reports. Every month it produces a report of how many people came to it to report a missing person. In 2016, it was nearly 800 people. That means more than two people a day are being picked up. And this may be a fraction of the actual number. Everyone knows all this is a farce and doesn’t bother with it.

The state acts as kidnapper even when the law allows it to hold people without charge because eventually it would have to frame charges and go to a judge. Kidnapping also makes threats and torture easier. There is a reason those who mysteriously disappear and reappear are too spooked to talk about it.

The case against Dr Riaz should eventually be dropped because it is a farce. But how many people who are disgusted by what is happening in the country will now hold their tongues because they do not want to be the next victim? For every individual who is picked up, there are dozens of others who are effectively silenced.

Wary newspaper editors quickly learn what they can and cannot allow to be published; universities cancel talks if the subject matter is considered ‘sensitive’; venues do not host events that might prove controversial. Every time a Dr Riaz is picked up, all of us lose a little bit of our liberty.

The writer is a journalist based in Karachi.



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