Enforced disappearances have remained a serious problem in terms of violation of human rights in Pakistan for a long time. But the scale and magnitude that this problem has acquired over the last one decade is frightening. The fourth military operation that started in Balochistan against Baloch nationalists in 2005 saw a growing number of Baloch political activists getting disappeared. Unfortunately, the parliament, political parties and the media didn’t focus on the Baloch disappeared persons. That’s why the problem has not only persisted but has acquired more serious dimensions. The so called war on terror after 9/11 had its own share in intensifying the problem of enforced disappearances in Pakistan. At that stage, Pakistan was seen as the epicentre of international terrorism due to the presence of top leaders of the most dangerous international terror outfits here. But since the country lived in denial of the existence of extremism/terrorism for quite some time under General Musharraf, she could not develop an effective system of anti-terror laws and procedures to prosecute terrorists. The security agencies, meanwhile, started dealing with the problem in extra-judicial ways. The problem came to national and international limelight when the Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry took up the cases of missing persons. The apex court did provide some relief to a few individuals, but it could not resolve the problem as such. Ultimately a special commission under a retired judge of the Supreme Court was created to address the issue of missing persons, but not much progress has been made as the relevant authorities have failed to cooperate with the judicial commission.
About ten days ago, a new chapter in the history of enforced disappearances in Pakistan started, when some bloggers and social media activists started disappearing from Islamabad and different places in the Punjab. So far, there is confirmation of five missing persons who were active on social media. There have been widespread protests against these abductions in the Parliament and outside it by civil society activists. So far, there is no authentic/formal information about the missing bloggers. But social media accounts supposedly run by the proxies of intelligence agencies have launched a vicious campaign against some of these bloggers for allegedly posting blasphemous material on their accounts. They are even recklessly hurling similar accusations towards political leaders, parliamentarians and civil society activists who are protesting against enforced disappearances. Knowing that levelling of such accusations is invitation to extremist violence, these elements are indulging in this practice with complete impunity. Is this a fascist tactic to silence the opposition? The other important question is that if any one of these bloggers have committed any offence, why are they not being properly arrested and produced in the court of law? Obviously no one will have any problem with that. But kidnapping and unjustified confinement is illegal and it can’t be justified under any pretext.
The abduction of social media activists is a serious issue in itself because when those who are supposed to provide security allegedly start abductions, what recourse will be left for ordinary citizens? But it is definitely not as simple as that. These abductions are connected with the larger questions of freedom of expression on social media and state policy about extremism and terrorism. As we know, print and electronic media have already been brought “under control” of the deep state through various modes of pressure. Self-censorship has become a feature of our mainstream journalism. Now is the turn of social media, although, a quite stringent or even draconian law was passed by the Parliament some time ago for curbing cybercrime. Many had expected action against hate speech on social media or legal action against the accounts of the proscribed organisations suspected of involvement in terrorism. But so far, no such action is visible. On the contrary, accounts known for their vehement opposition to extremism, sectarianism and terrorism have been targeted. As mentioned earlier, if there is anything objectionable or any material that violates the law of the land in these accounts, the law must take its course. But impunity for the proscribed organisations creates serious questions about the role of state institutions. It’s particularly so when the honourable Interior Minister justifies his interaction with banned organisations on shaky ground, not strong enough to stand logic.
If past experience is anything to go by, the policy of appeasement towards extremism and terrorism has been counterproductive and we have a long history of it. It rather encourages these elements. The despicable move of such evil minds to use the sectarian card against the top general of the country at the time of his appointment is the most recent example. This abhorrent move should have been investigated and those responsible should have been brought to justice because what can be more criminal than sowing sectarian discord in the most important security institution of the country?
There is yet another technical aspect of the issue of enforced disappearances. Intelligence agencies of the country don’t have the power to arrest anyone under the law. Under CrPC, only police or those working with police powers can make arrests. But it is common knowledge that in practice, intelligence agencies do arrest people on regular basis and go into denial when asked by the courts. This is a ridiculous situation that can’t go on indefinitely. We have to have an honest debate about it. The Parliament in consultation with all stakeholders and the civil society must come out with a workable solution for the problem. This shouldn’t be taken by any side as a zero sum game. It is after all, a joint effort for creating a democratic and civilised state and society in Pakistan.
The country’s constitution has a full chapter consisting of fundamental rights and there are numerous laws and institutions for the protection of human rights. Pakistan is also a signatory to numerous international conventions/covenants on human rights. But in practice, the country is faced with a crisis in human rights of all kinds due to non-implementation. To overcome this crisis, we need a human rights charter jointly prepared by all political parties and the civil society so that there is no immunity for violators. We also need a commission of truth and reconciliation so that the matter could be brought to a closure.
Writer: Afrasiab Khan Khattak
THE PASHTUN TIMES