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WORLD SOCIAL FORUM: A Chance to Reach ‘Missing’ Persons

Zofeen Ebrahim

KARACHI, Mar 22 2006 (IPS) - Of several local issues bound to get an international airing during the World Social Forum that opens here on Friday, most deserving is the case of persons gone ‘missing’ as a result of this country’s deep involvement in the ‘war on terror’ prosecuted by the United States, in neighbouring Afghanistan.

”They must be torturing my son. I know they do, from the newspaper reports of people who have come back (from detention),” says Nasima Bibi who is currently sitting on a ”hunger strike unto death” outside the Karachi Press Club in the hope that someone will tell her what happened to Sharif.

She and the Baloch family now plan to observe a sit-in at the World Social Forum venue. ”We were told that if we go there, some foreigners will hear about us and tell the whole world about our anguish and how the government treats its citizens,” she says tearfully in between reciting verses from the Holy Quran. ”Disappearances have been noticed over the last couple of years,” explains I.A. Rehman, chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP)

Although the HRCP does not have accurate numbers, the body estimates that ”between several hundred and several thousand” have vanished. Rehman himself attributes this alarming trend to ”a lack of respect for due process by officials involved with this so called war on terror.”

While cases are being reported from all parts of the country, most are concentrated in the Punjab, the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and also Balochistan, where a nationalist movement has turned increasingly violent in recent months.

According to the HRCP’s fact-finding efforts, some of the detainees are being held in prisons in Punjab and Balochistan while the vast majority are in places of detention that are kept unknown.

Says defence analyst Hasan Mansoor: ”People belonging to any specific ethnic, sectarian or religious group often go ‘missing’ when a conflict with the state arises or gains momentum. This time, it is the turn of nationalist groups to be hunted, mainly those of Balochi origin. However, there are some who belong to Sindhi nationalist parties as well.”

The desperation of people trying to trace the whereabouts of missing relatives is typified by the tragic story of Nasima Bibi. After her son, a newly appointed doctor at the rural health centre in Kech district, was picked up while sitting with friends at a small roadside tea stall on Nov. 17, 2005, attempts to locate him have hit a wall.

”They would sit at that spot every evening and hold their poetic and literary discourses, my brother being an ardent short story writer. There was nothing unusual about that day,” said Ghani Sharif, the younger brother. A third brother, studying law in Karachi, has taken time off from his semester to stage a protest outside the Quetta Press Club.

Local police refused to entertain their complaint on the grounds that they could not proceed against another government agency. ”We then tried to lodge one (of kidnapping) against anonymous people, but this time the excuse given was that since we knew he’d been picked up by the military intelligence agency, it was not possible,” explained Ghani.

Attempts to file a petition at a sessions court failed. The family then pleaded with the Balochistan high court to intervene. ”We’ve heard nothing positive so far and it’s been four months. When the representative from the Frontier Constabulary (a paramilitary force in the tribal areas) and the police were summoned by the court, they denied any knowledge of my brother.” The next hearing is on Apr. 5, 2006.

Secretary-General of the HRCP and a former senator, Syed Iqbal Haider terms denial of knowledge an inhuman and illegal practice. ”In the court of law they (authorities) have to disclose the whereabouts but not necessarily the charges. Here they blatantly deny knowledge of the person.” This, he added, ”gives rise to the suspicion that these allegations are unsubstantiated and there are no charges and no crime committed by the people picked up.”

Arbitrary arrests, said Haider, damaged the credibility of military intelligence agencies and is counterproductive for the U.S. cause they are supposed to be fighting for, as nobody is convinced that those detained have anything to do with terrorism.

According to Rashid Rizvi, a retired judge, the most frightening aspect of this issue is the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997, which was amended in 2003 to give ”authorities unfettered power to detain a person, that too, without disclosing charges, for a maximum period of 12 months”. Surprisingly, no one has objected to this, not even the bar council, although this is as good as ”deprivation of the right to life,” said Rizvi.

Change the faces and names and the pattern of most cases runs along the same lines as that of the Baloch family.

One of the better known ‘disappearance’ cases is that of Dr Aafia Siddiqui, named suspect by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the U.S. This doctorate in neurological science, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), was picked up in the April of 2003 and never heard from afterwards.

The sisters Arifa and Saba Baloch, who made headlines last year, after being arrested on suspicion of being would-be suicide bombers, were let off, after six months, with warnings not to discuss their ordeal.

But Ali Asghar Bangulzai, Brahim Baloch, Dr Allah Nazar Baloch are the names of a few detainees who have not been so lucky and have remained missing for over eight months.

”It’s this ‘not doing enough’ U.S. pressure (to get the Pakistan army to crack down on suspects especially in areas bordering Afghanistan) on the political establishment of President Pervez Musharraf that forces him to perform this way,” says an irate Haider. ”What the authorities don’t realize is that this callous and barbaric action is motivating peaceful citizens to militancy.”

Nafisa Shah, a woman mayor and a rights activist, also blames the disappearances on the ‘war on terror’ which, she says, has taken away what little legal protection Pakistani citizens enjoyed. “Our people, especially the poor, always had a vague citizenship as far as their rights are concerned.”

Haider agrees that by and large the victims are those who do not have the ”right connections” or are too poor ”to meet the expenses of discovering the whereabouts of loved ones”.

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