Ending Pakistan’s epidemic of enforced disappearances
Thousands of Pakistan’s Baloch have been abducted by security forces. Will Prime Minister Imran Khan act to find our loved ones?
In February 2020, Haseeba Qambrani, a young woman living in Pakistan’s southwestern province of Balochistan, received chilling news: Her brother Hassan and cousin Hizbullah had gone missing. This was not the first time her family had experienced such a tragedy, just a few years earlier, in 2015, Haseeba’s other brother Salman and cousin Gazain went missing. One year later, Haseeba’s family discovered their mutilated dead bodies.
The whereabouts of Hassan and Hizbullah are still unknown a year later, and Haseeba is still trying to find them. She is not alone in her search for loved ones who have been abducted over the years in Balochistan.
Balochistan borders Afghanistan and Iran. Full of mountains and deserts, I call this place my home. Here, thousands of men and boys have been forcefully disappeared, held in incommunicado detention for long periods, or extrajudicially killed in the last two decades.
My own uncle, Ali Asghar Bangulzai, was abducted from Balochistan’s provincial capital, Quetta, in 2001. Twenty years on, we still do not know where he is. Deen Muhammad, a local doctor, suffered the same fate in June 2009, and his wife and two daughters Sammi and Mehlab are still searching for him. In October 2016, a student leader, Shabbir Baloch, was disappeared during a military operation. His relatives are still waiting for his return.
I could go on. As a co-founder and chairperson of the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP), a grassroots collective representing family members of Balochistan’s forcibly disappeared, I have registered more than 5,000 such cases. Other grassroots movements across the country have also collected chilling stories about fathers, brothers and sons who have been picked up by security forces in other parts of the country and vanished without a trace over the years.
Several organisations, including the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances, have confirmed that the security forces are the primary suspects behind these disappearances. In 2012, when I admitted cases to the Supreme Court on behalf of VBMP, a three-judge bench formally declared that based on the evidence, it is clear that law enforcement agencies have been behind the abductions.
The security forces do not deny their role: They say that they are hunting for “militants.” In 2019, they said that some of the missing may have joined “rebel groups” and not “not every person missing is attributable to the state.” Yet, the practice began under the watch of military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, 20 years ago, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the US invasion of Afghanistan. Musharraf allied the country with the US in the so-called “war on terror” and assisted the US in the abduction, unlawful detention and torture of suspected “militants”.
Soon, this extrajudicial practice spread to Balochistan and started to be used against anyone demanding social justice and equal rights. Many political workers, students, teachers and activists who committed no other crime than trying to help those in need or demanding basic rights and freedoms for Baloch communities, have been targeted.
Take the case of my uncle, Ali Asghar Bangulzai. In 1998, a Baloch community called the Marris left the Afghan city of Kandahar, crossed into Pakistan, and settled on the outskirts of Quetta, all in an effort to protect themselves from the Taliban. They had migrated to Afghanistan to escape a 1970s counterinsurgency campaign in Pakistan. My uncle witnessed their arrival and, concerned for their welfare, organised aid for them. He distributed food and blankets and even made some schooling and healthcare arrangements for the members of this impoverished and displaced community. He also set up a small support committee, of which I was a part. For these efforts, he was abducted.
For more than a decade, families have organised as part of the VBMP and protested in front of press clubs, gone to courts and met politicians to find our missing relatives and prevent other families from experiencing the same pain.
We have had some victories and many setbacks on our journey. Since the beginning of our protests, several representatives of the Pakistani state have admitted that security agencies are responsible for enforced disappearances. These admissions led to the establishment of the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances in 2011. The commission, however, has failed to achieve much in the last 10 years.
In 2019, the Ministry of Human Rights drafted a bill to criminalise enforced disappearances, giving us hope that this unlawful practice may soon come to an end. The draft, however, has since disappeared in a web of bureaucracy and is unlikely to be accepted as law anytime soon.
Last year, as a result of negotiations between the VBMP and the Balochistan provincial government, several individuals who have been missing for some time have been released. We also saw some improvement in the length of disappearances – instead of disappearing men and boys for months or years, the security forces started to release many of those they unlawfully abducted after just a few days or weeks. But thousands of people, including my uncle, are still missing, and authorities still seem reluctant to provide us with any answers or take any action against the unlawful practices of the state security forces.
Last month, frustrated with the lack of progress on our relatives’ cases, I travelled with thirteen other members of the VBMP to the capital Islamabad. We sat outside the Islamabad Press Club and demanded that government authorities pay attention to our plight. When no one from Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government came to talk to us, we took our protest to the D-Chowk – a square in the government district close to the prime minister’s office, Parliament and the Supreme Court.
We sat there, out on the street, in freezing temperatures, for days, and made it clear to those around us that we had no intention of leaving before talking to someone in government. First, members of the opposition started visiting us, and eventually, several parliamentarians from the ruling party showed up as well.
The ruling party parliamentarians promised to find out the whereabouts and conditions of our relatives. They also assured us that if our relatives are found to be in state custody, they will either be released or publicly put to trial in a civil court. In subsequent meetings with Federal Minister of the Interior Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, Federal Minister of Law and Justice Mohammad Farogh Naseem, Federal Minister of Human Rights Shireen Mazari and the head of the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances, Justice Javed Iqbal, we were promised action on these points by March 13.
We are now waiting for the government, the judges and the bureaucrats to take action and give us some real answers. We are hopeful, yet cautious, as we have been disappointed by promises that proved to be empty many times before.
What we want from the government is actually quite simple. As Pakistani citizens, we have rights that are enshrined in the constitution. We ask only that these rights are upheld and respected. We want to know where our relatives are and what they have been through since their abduction. If they are accused of any crimes, we want these charges to be made public. We are ready for our loved ones to be tried in a court of law. What we cannot accept is their disappearance. If the Pakistani security forces are not behind their disappearance, then we want them to work with us to find out what really happened to them, as is their constitutional duty.
Today, Pakistan is battling not only the coronavirus pandemic but also a deadly epidemic of enforced disappearances. It is time our elected representatives acknowledged our suffering and helped us find our loved ones.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.