Enforced Disappearances in Pakistan
Author: Fatima Orujova
Department: Pakistan Team
Enforced disappearances remain a persistent human rights issue in Pakistan. It has been reported that there have been more than 7,000 cases of enforced disappearances in the country since 2011 (Shah, 2021). As for the definition of the term, Article 2 of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED) that became effective in 2010 describes it as:
“Arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorisation, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which places such a person outside the protection of the law”.
It has been found that the practice of enforced disappearance in Pakistan dates back to the mid-1980s (Gandhara, 2021). Yet, it started to increase significantly during the military rule of Pervez Musharraf, who ordered the persecution of many individuals in the country in the name of the “war on terror” following 9/11 (Gul, 2016; Baloch, 2021).
The groups that have been targeted most by Pakistani secret services are minorities, including Sindhi, Baloch, Pashtun ethnicities and the Shia community (Amnesty International, 2019). Yet, the targets also comprise political opponents, students, journalists, human rights activists, members of armed groups or religious organisations in the country (Siddique, 2018; Amnesty International, 2019).
In most cases, victims are detained by the police or intelligence officers, who do not provide families of victims with any information on their whereabouts. Families of victims often feel reluctant to report the cases to the police because of their mistrust of the government (Gandhara, 2021). There have also been many families that have participated in protests or have publicly called for justice for the victims, but they have continuously been forced by the police or secret services to stay silent (Amnesty International, 2019). Many victims also experience torture and death during their custody (Amnesty International, 2019). Besides, those who could return home were still being threatened and surveilled by secret services (Gul, 2016).
2.1. Latest cases
One of the cases that has led to the outrage of locals and the international community in the country most is the disappearance of Idris Khattak, a human rights activist and a former Pakistani consultant for Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) (Gwakh, 2021). He wrote reports that criticised enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions in the country (United Nations (UN), 2020; Gwakh, 2021). Khattak was kidnapped by intelligence agents in November 2019 when he was travelling from Islamabad to his hometown, Nowshera (Gwakh, 2021). For several months, his family did not have any information about his whereabouts and the reason for his disappearance. The Pakistani military later admitted that they had taken Khattak (Gwakh, 2021). A military court charged Khattak with treason and espionage, sentencing him to 14 years imprisonment (Gwakh, 2021). Khattak’s family submitted a petition to the Peshawar High Court to find information on the whereabouts of Khattak, and yet, their effort was obstructed by Pakistani authorities (HRW, 2020).
Another case that has also drawn the attention of international media agencies and civil society actors is the kidnapping of Inamur Raheem by secret services in December 2019 (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), 2019). Raheem is known as a lawyer handling the cases of enforced disappearances in the country, which is the reason behind his disappearance, according to human rights activists (RFE/RL, 2019). On January 10th, 2020, the Lahore High Court announced that the custody of the lawyer was unlawful, and it requested the military to free him (Dawn, 2020). However, this decision was immediately challenged and suspended by the federal government, and then, by the Supreme Court on January 12th and 14th, 2020, respectively (Iqbal, 2020; Bhatti, 2020).
The number of cases of enforced disappearances in Pakistan has seen a sharp rise in the southwestern province, Balochistan, which is the least developed and poorest region in the country (Amnesty International, 2017). There are findings that there were 541 people that possibly disappeared during the year of 2018 in the province (Dunya News, 2018). Enforced disappearance is particularly common in Balochistan because the authorities are trying to fight the nationalist independence movement in the province (Baloch, 2022). Pakistani secret services have been utilising enforced disappearances as a tool to suppress the movement and the voice of those advocating the independence of the province (Baloch, 2022). Thus, thousands of Balochs have been abducted, tortured, and killed by Pakistani intelligence agents over the past few years (Asian News International, 2021).
Students, journalists, human rights defenders and political activists in Balochistan are the active groups in the independence movement in the province and have thus been targeted by secret services (Baloch, 2022). Moreover, students in the province have particularly often been persecuted by secret services because educated Baloch are seen as a threat by the federal government, according to human rights activists (Baloch, 2022; Jalil, 2022). One of the most recent cases, in which Pakistani secret services targeted Baloch students, was the kidnapping of Hafeez Baloch, a student of Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad on February 8th, 2022 (Krishnankutty, 2022). The case has received lots of international and local attention and remains unsolved (Khilji, 2022). According to his family, Hafeez was not involved in any activities against the government and was highly active in promoting education of children and the youth in the province (Khilji, 2022).
Furthermore, Balochs indefinitely leaving for other foreign countries have also become targets of Pakistani secret services. For instance, a journalist, Sajid Hussain Baloch, who moved to Sweden and had an association with Baloch Students’ Organisation, disappeared in 2020 (Jalil, 2022). He was not politically active after his move to Sweden but had a website that was blocked by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (Jalil, 2022). Two months after his disappearance, his body was found in the river, Fyris, in Sweden. Similarly, Karima Baloch, a Pakistani human rights activist, was found dead in a lake in Canada in 2020 (Jalil, 2022).
2.2. Reaction of the international community
As mentioned earlier in the article, the international community has not been silent on human rights violations, including enforced disappearances, in Pakistan. Numerous civil society organisations, like the International Commission of Jurists, have condemned the absence of a law that criminalises enforced disappearances in the country (Dunya News, 2018). Moreover, Amnesty International has addressed Pakistani authorities, stating that enforced disappearances are a crime under international law and has denounced the fact that no one has been held responsible by the State for an enforced disappearance (Dunya News, 2018; RFE/RL, 2018).
Furthermore, in November 2020, a resolution was introduced in the US Congress by Democrat, Bradley James Sherman, who represents California’s 30th congressional district, calling Pakistani authorities to stop the practice of enforced disappearances (Mishra, 2021). The UN has also made some steps to draw attention to the issue in the country, one of them being the statement of the concern by the Working Group on Forced and Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) under the UN during the 125th session (United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), 2021).
2.3. Response from the Pakistani government
Up until today, the Pakistani government has not taken significant measures to tackle the issue of enforced disappearances in the country. Most notably, Pakistan is still among the countries that have neither signed nor ratified the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance drafted in 2006 and signed in 2007 (HRW, 2013). Furthermore, no one has been found accountable for any enforced disappearance cases in the country (Ijaz, 2017).
However, some politicians and governmental bodies have stepped up and called for measures to tackle enforced disappearances in the country. For instance, Shireen Mazari, Pakistan’s Human Rights Minister has requested the Prime Minister to sign the International Convention against Enforced Disappearance (HRW, 2020). Moreover, the opposition parties like Awami National Party (ANP) have openly demanded the government to ensure the safe return of the disappeared people (World Is One News (WION), 2021). For instance, the party organised protests in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and demanded justice for missing people and their families (Asian News International, 2021). Also, the senior vice-president of the party, the Awami National Party held protests demanding the safe return of missing persons across Pakistan, stating: “it would be criminal negligence if they remained silent over the issue of missing persons” (Asian News International, 2021). Additionally, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) has given statements on the situation several times. For example, on February 14th, 2022, during the hearing of the case of the missing journalist, Mudassir Naaru, the IHC Chief Justice made a statement that the State should not commit the enforced disappearance.
In 2011, following the request from the Supreme Court, the Pakistani government established the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances that was mandated to document and inspect the cases of the disappeared in the country (The Print, 2022). However, the Commission has not made remarkable achievements, according to human rights activists in the country (Baloch, 2021). For instance, the Commission has been criticised for not tackling the issue of entrenched impunity in the country and has not held any perpetrators accountable even in the cases in which the whereabouts of the victims or perpetrators had been identified (Hashim, 2021).
In addition, in November 2021, the lower house of the Pakistani National Assembly passed the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill that was introduced in June of the same year (Khan, 2022). The bill criminalises enforced disappearance and defines the act as “illegal and without lawful authority arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by an agent of the State or by person or group of persons acting with the authorisation, support or acquiescence of the State” (Hashim, 2021). It also declared that anyone guilty of committing enforced disappearance may be sentenced to ten years of imprisonment (Shehzad, 2021). Criminalisation of enforced disappearances has been long requested by the local and international human rights activists. However, the bill has been found controversial by many human rights defenders across the world as it declares that anyone who makes a false allegation of enforced disappearance will face a penalty of up to five years’ imprisonment as well as a fine of PKR 100,000 (Hashim, 2021). Civil society actors like Amnesty International believe that these penalties will be used as tools by Pakistani authorities to discourage families of the victims of enforced disappearance to report their cases (Amnesty International, 2021). Additionally, the bill has still not been approved by the Senate, the upper house of the Pakistani Parliament and the Pakistani president (Gandhara, 2021; The Hindustan Times, 2022).
Looking at the recent developments, it can be expected that enforced disappearances will remain a pressing human rights issue in Pakistan. While there have been some steps at the State level, such as the establishment of the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances in 2011, and the passing of the bill that criminalises these acts in 2021, the overall response by the State has been inadequate. The State has not investigated any case and has not charged anyone involved in any enforced disappearance cases.
The issue is especially alarming in Balochistan due to the growing independence movement in the province. In particular, Baloch students or highly-educated people in the province have been the target of secret services. As mentioned earlier, thousands of them are still missing or have been tortured or murdered by intelligence agents. Families of victims have been reluctant to report their cases due to their fears of being threatened by secret services.
Yet, the international community has not done enough to address the issue in Pakistan. Although human rights activists and civil society actors have been quite active in drawing attention to the issue, more steps are needed to be taken by intergovernmental organisations and the UN, besides statements, reports, and speeches, that could help tackle the issue in Pakistan. For instance, the UN can conduct independent investigations in Pakistan to acquire a more accurate picture of the situation of enforced disappearances in the country. By organising investigations, the UN can also contact the families of missing people and have more detailed information on how Pakistani secret services conduct enforced disappearances and pressurise families to remain silent. Yet, it can be quite challenging for the UN to receive approval from the Pakistani government on holding investigations, as Pakistani authorities would not possibly be open-minded toward such a request. In addition, human rights organisations and States have to come together at the intergovernmental level and vigorously push Pakistani authorities to alleviate the issue, and sign and ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.
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 Among the disappeared people, there is also the spokesman of the party, Asad Khan Achakzai, who has been missing for more than year (Asian News International, 2021b). The party was the largest Pashtun nationalist party in the country in the years between 2008 and 2013 and governed the province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa in those years (The Christian Science Monitor, 2008). The party describes its political vision as left-wing and secular with the endorsement of social egalitarianism (The Christian Science Monitor, 2008). The party also advocates democracy and autonomy of Pashtunistan (Dawn, 2020b). It is strongly against the Taliban movement in the region, which is why its members have been targeted by the movement several times (Rondeaux, 2008).
 The Criminal Laws (Amendment) Act (adopted on 8 November 2021).