Musharraf is gone, but still no sign of the disappeared
2 September 2008
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
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
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
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.