February 24th, 2021
By Rehan Piracha
The government’s stance on the issue of enforced disappearances does not seem to be too encouraging.
For one thing, despite the fact that these disappearances have ruined millions of Pakistanis’ lives, and have torn apart entire families – the lack of redressal thanks to no legislation continues.
For affected families, the lack of closure prevents them from moving on. They have reiterated several times, and continue to do so even now: If their loved ones are guilty, they should be brought to court, if they have died, their bodies should be returned home.
The issue of enforced disappearances has haunted the country for decades now. The international community has several questions regarding the issue, especially as years and years have passed and those who have ‘disappeared’, are still missing without a trace.
In a briefing paper in September 2020, the Internal Commission of Jurists (ICJ) noted that the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances (COIED) failed to address entrenched impunity, leaving victims and their loved ones without any redress. The UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances has also repeatedly sought permission from Pakistan to visit the country to investigate reported cases of enforced disappearances.
The major case in point of Pakistan’s indifference towards the issue is the lack of legislation.
Even now, a long-awaited bill on enforced disappearances continues to be ‘vetted’ by the Law Ministry. The Federal Minister of Human Rights, Shireen Mazari said on February 20, that work on the Bill was indeed moving faster, now that the Prime Minister in his last cabinet meeting had directed the Law Ministry to expedite the consultative process on the draft legislation so that the bill could move to the next stage. Shireen Mazari, the Minister of Human Rights has also stated that the government wants to sign the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.
A ‘confused’ cabinet?
The MoHR had sent the draft Bill to the Ministry of Law and Justice Ministry for ‘vetting’, back in January 2019. It was not before, September 2020, that the Ministry of Interior had begun to review the draft bill. Even then, there was no deadline on when it would be finalized.
Finally, on February 16, 2021, the Law Ministry announced that a separate committee would be overseeing the recommendations for the draft bill.
“According to the Rules of Business (RoB), 1973, Enforced Disappearances, as per the Interior Ministry, fall within the purview of criminal law – not under the jurisdiction of the Human Rights ministry. The Supreme Court has ruled that no action can be taken in violation of the RoB, and the Law Ministry has brought this to the notice of the Cabinet.
“No reference on the matter from the Interior is pending before the Law Ministry. A Committee is looking into the matter holistically,” reads the statement from the Law Ministry.
On February 17, 2021, the Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Shibli Faraz told reporters in a post-cabinet briefing that the prime minister has given clear instructions to activate the bill on enforced disappearances, in a bid to ‘soothe the relatives’ of missing persons, who had been holding a sit-in for several days outside the Parliament Building at D-Chowk in Islamabad.
The protesters had refused to end their sit-in despite a raft of visits by Federal Law Minister Farogh Naseem and Shahzad Akbar, Advisor to Prime Minister on Accountability & Interior, and even Balochistan’s Zubaida Jalal, the Federal Minister for Defence Production. The protesters ended their protest only after assurances from Shireen Mazari, that Prime Minister Imran Khan will meet relatives of 13 missing persons by March 15.
Both Zubaida Jalal and Shireen Mazari had told protesters that the law will be tabled in the parliament soon.
According to Nasarullah Baloch, chairperson of Voice for Baloch Missing Persons, who headed the missing persons’ demonstration in Islamabad, officials of the law ministry had informed them that a committee would be vetting the draft recommendations for the proposed bill on enforced disappearances within six weeks.
Shireen Mazari had said that the Ministry of Human Rights bill had aimed to criminalize enforced disappearances as a separate, autonomous offense through amendments in the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) and Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC).
However, Shibli hinted that the proposed Bill on enforced disappearances would still allow the detention of suspects, from under a timeframe ranging to three to nine months.
Shibli also confirmed that the PM had given clear instructions to reactivate the bill on enforced disappearances and devise a mechanism for resolving the issue. However, the PM’s directive only came after the Islamabad High Court (IHC) issued an order on missing persons, wherein it reportedly held the government and the PM responsible for these disappearances.
‘No consultation on bill’
The government may be speeding up on their own bill, however, others find it extremely strange as to why no one has been consulted while drafting it.
On April 30, 2019, Mohsin Dawar tabled a Bill on Enforced Disappearances in the National Assembly, but it was rejected by the National Assembly. The bill had proposed amendments in PPC and CrPC to make enforced disappearance a criminal offense punishable with imprisonment for life and a heavy fine. Even the opposition parties JUI, PPP, and PMLN supported the bill. Dawar presented the Bill once again on January 26, 2021, only to have it rejected again.
The government has not consulted with any human rights organizations or with the families of missing persons, over the proposed legislation on enforced disappearances, said Harris Khalique, Secretary-General of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) while speaking to Voicepk.net.
“HRCP was never consulted over any draft legislation on missing persons,” he specified. “Nor have they consulted with any other civil society organizations.”
Given the ‘priorities’ of the present federal government regarding human rights in the country, Khalique was skeptical that a bill on missing persons would be tabled in Parliament. He said that the government had been dragging its feet since over a year now, in filling the vacancies of the chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission (NCHR) as well as the chairperson on the National Commission on Status of Women (NCSW).
“If victims of enforced disappearances, the aggrieved family members and civil society are not consulted on enforced disappearances, any bill on missing persons that the government could eventually manage to table in the Parliament, will be toothless and will lack legitimacy,” he said.
Amina Janjua, the chairperson of Defence for Human Rights, told Voicepk.net that Shireen Mazari had in fact refused to share the draft Bill on Criminalization of Enforced Disappearances. She said the proposed legislation on enforced disappearances has landed before a committee yet again, despite the fact that the matter had been languishing before parliamentary committees for years.
She also added that no consultations had taken place with civil rights organizations working for missing persons over the proposed legislation in the last two years.
She said her organizations had prepared a draft bill on enforced disappearances which was shared with parliamentary committees on human rights as well as with Mazari. “But we received no response whatsoever on that draft bill,” she said.
Controversy over figures
Meanwhile, the rights organizations have contested the number of missing persons presented by the government, adding that the phenomenon of enforced disappearances continued unabated in the country.
The government constituted a commission of enquiry on enforced disappearances on the orders of the Supreme Court in March 2011. According to the Commission of Enquiry on Enforced Disappearances, a total of 6,944 cases of missing persons had been reported to the commission from across the country till January this year. The highest number of cases were reported from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where 2,954 complaints were lodged with the commission, followed by 1,646 cases from Sindh, 1,437 cases from Punjab, 538 cases from Balochistan, 302 cases from Islamabad, 58 cases from Azad Kashmir, and nine cases from Gilgit-Baltistan.
According to the commission, a total of 4,822 have been resolved till January 2021. Out of the 4,822 cases, 2,198 missing persons have returned home, 858 individuals were found detained in internment centers, 537 were in prisons and the dead bodies of 221 were found.
Interestingly, the commission did not pursue cases of 1,008 individuals out of the total 6,944 reported missing persons stating that the cases were closed as ‘not being cases of enforced disappearances. The other reasons cited by the commission for the closure included incomplete addresses, withdrawal by the complainants, and non-prosecution of cases.
According to former HRCP chairperson I.A Rehman, the COIED figures were just the tip of the iceberg.
“However, human rights activists and campaigners doubt the government figures as many families often do not approach the commission for fear of reprisal,” he said. “The number of cases of enforced disappearances is however much higher than reported.” He had stated this on the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances in 2020.