Disappearance of debate

January 15, 2017

Anyone who is deemed a dissident is blacklisted and forced to disappear, tortured even killed... What’s unfortunate, those who carry out the deeds remain above the law

Disappearance of debate

Nasrullah Baloch feels a sense of defeat now that their comrade in arms, Salman Haider, has allegedly been picked up. "When a non-Baloch lends his voice to ours, it gives impetus to our struggle," says the chairperson of the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP).

News anchor, Hamid Mir, tweeted: "He always raised voice for missing persons now he himself is missing from Islamabad #RecoverSalmanHaider"

There is suspicion that state agencies are involved in the disappearance of left-wing dissenter and editor of online Tanqeed, Salman Haider early this month. Around the same time, three other social media activists -- Ahmad Raza Yasir, Waqass Goraya and Asim Saeed -- were picked up. And now there is news that a fifth person, Samar Abbas, has also gone missing. They all openly aired anti-military views.

A week on, the government terming it a "priority" is still seen "investigating" these cases.

In 2012, before he became the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, while visiting a camp put up by the families of the missing had said, "People cannot go missing like this in civilised societies", and had promised that his party would move a resolution in the parliament for amending laws and ensure recovery of all ‘missing’ persons.

Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar who was then the leader of the opposition had said: "If parliamentarians cannot raise voice for the missing persons, they don’t have the right to sit in the Parliament House."

In the past, "it was rare to find educated men from upper and middle class being held in illegal detention, or tortured. Even custodial deaths of such people was unheard of," observes I.A. Rehman, human rights activist.

Read also: Let’s speak with one voice

While nationalists and those suspected of holding separatist views belonging to the far-flung areas of Balochistan and Fata were forced to disappear, of late, under the guise of national security, anyone who is deemed a dissident is abducted, tortured even killed (Sabeen Mahmud, Rashid Rehman and Khurram Zaki). What’s unfortunate, those who carry out the deeds remain above the law.

"The civilian government on its part has abdicated the responsibility to safeguard fundamental rights of the citizenry, particularly the Baloch citizens, in an exchange for its own lease of life," says Taqi.

Take the case of Zeenat Shehzadi, a young journalist who was pursuing the case of Indian citizen Hamid Ansari since 2013. She had kept the case alive and her persistence eventually led the authorities to acknowledge, in 2015, that he was in the custody of the military authorities. Soon after she was kidnapped and has not been found since.

In fact, there are laws that the state has been using to grant impunity to perpetrators of this crime. Take, for example, the Fata regulations (or Actions in Aid of Civil Power Regulation 2011) that allow for indefinite detention without charge in internment centres and that too without adequate judicial safeguards. This is why, explains Reema Omer, a legal advisor for the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), they are considered to facilitate disappearances by human rights groups as well as the UN Working Group on Disappearances.

Even the military courts (constituted under the 21st Amendment and corresponding amendments to the Army Act) have a connection with disappearances as many people convicted by these courts were at some point disappeared, kept in internment centres, and later tried in secret military proceedings, she adds.

Read also: Five missing people

Some of these cases were pending as missing persons complaints before various courts and the Commission of Inquiry on Disappearances.

Omer further adds, "Along with other glaring human rights concerns that emerge in their operation, the insidious use of military courts to ‘legitimize’ certain past cases of enforced disappearances makes the move to reinstate the 21st Amendment all the more deplorable and unacceptable."

According to columnist Dr Mohmmad Taqi, enforced disappearances are a political issue. He points out that the army had wrested away the power to prosecute citizens from the state. "The army has anointed itself the arbiter of patriotism and national interest and then went on to forcibly disappear those it deems doesn’t fit that bill. Army acts as a state within the state and has crippled successive civilian governments through a series of manufactured crises."

He further adds: "The civilian government on its part has abdicated the responsibility to safeguard fundamental rights of the citizenry, particularly the Baloch citizens, in an exchange for its own lease of life. The army has made Balochistan, Karachi and foreign policy a no-go area for the civilian government through undeclared threat to topple it."

"Those who survive and are set free are warned against opening their mouth and they dare not disobey. So great was the fear of security forces that Haider’s family had initially requested rights groups not to protest against his disappearance," says Rehman.

Baloch endorses this. "Over the years I have met several who have returned home. They have been completely broken down, physically, mentally and emotionally."

He further adds, "Most are reluctant to talk about their ordeal for fear of repercussions, but there are others who have told us of the kinds of torture meted to them. Apart from being severely beaten up, torture techniques included food and sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, using psychological tools and threats to harm other family members," to obtain the "truth" or "false confessions" any way one wants to look at it, from the detainees.

Meanwhile, the continuous cases heard by the government-appointed Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances and the addition of online activists signifies that the disturbingly regular feature continues, and has in fact widened its ambit.

In 2016, 728 people were reported to have gone missing, the highest in at least six years, according to the Inquiry Commission on Enforced Disappearances.

But rights’ activists say few have confidence in this government-led commission or its statistics. "Not everyone reports to them," says Zohra Yusuf, Chairperson HRCP.

Ammar Rashid, who teaches at the Quaid-e-Azam University, though currently on a sabbatical, knows Haider well as both worked with the Awami Workers Party (AWP). He says activists and critical dissenters like Haider were symbols of Pakistan’s "painstakingly achieved democratic progress", "revival of indigenous traditions of debate, criticism and socio-political engagement" that, for decades, had been suppressed.

He sees this new crackdown an attempt to "gain control over the new space" in the digital world that political activists had made for themselves to hold "critical discussion" on certain subjects, including Islam and the military, that were otherwise mired in heavy censorship.

The anonymity offered by alternative social media, explains Rashid, had led to dissipation of some fear that remains in the mainstream Pakistani media and opened up previously "inviolable topics to critical public scrutiny and participatory debate".

Based on the "successes" they have made in Balochistan, says Malik Siraj Akbar, a Baloch journalist based in the US, the security establishment thinks enforced disappearances are a "successful" and "effective tool" in spreading fear. "They are now expanding these practices to writers, intellectuals and anyone who questions the deep state."

For years the superior courts have been requesting security agencies that if they want to question an accused or a suspect, the process should be transparent and legal but to not avail.

But, points out Akbar, arbitrary detentions were carried out by units of the government -- either the intelligence agencies or paramilitary forces like the Frontier Corps -- who believe in the use of torture, among others, as a method to extract confessions. "They do not trust the abilities and the commitment of the police force to conduct such investigations. They also feel judicial intervention might disrupt their investigations. So, they choose an illegal path to handle these issues," he explains.

And yet, this modus operandi has failed to act as a deterrent to terrorism or stemmed dissent.

"Haider’s disappearance is alarming but makes no difference to what I and others need to do," says Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, nuclear physicist and activist, who has received threats that were of "pretty serious" nature.

Sadly, the issue is still not a priority in the parliament (although the Pakistan People’s Party Parliamentarians had submitted a calling attention notice in the National Assembly Secretariat seeking response from the government on the disappearances). There is a "pattern" to these disappearances and suggests that it was a "planned and coordinated action under taken to silence voice which are critical of prevalent socio-political issue in Pakistan" states the PPP notice.

It is not even seen as a national humanitarian crisis by the media. The mainstream broadcast media, specially, has been unnaturally quiet, only resorting to covering the protests organised by civil society groups.

The reasons can be various, according to Munazza Siddiqui, executive producer with Geo News (International) and range from "certain lobbies driving what can be given prominence and what must not; to the definite fear factor of reprisals even crackdown and self censorship although there are no direct instructions coming like in the past". She finds a definite narrowing of space in the electronic media for liberal thought.

"The state cannot be allowed to get away with this. Islamabad is not Turbat or Khuzdar, and we’ll keep reminding them," says Hoodbhoy, who had just returned from a protest meeting at the Islamabad Press Club.

But then, even the people in general, have not agitated against this cruelty.

"There is a widespread acceptance of this behaviour," conceded Akbar and added: "This is mostly because of the culture of fear that exists in Pakistan where people know there can be dire consequences for speaking up against intelligence agencies."

Disappearance of debate