January 8th, 2021
By Rehan Piracha
New cases of missing persons tripled across the country in 2021 as 1460 new complaints were filed as compared to 415 complaints filed the previous year, according to data from the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances.
Organisations representing families of missing persons say enforced disappearances are seeing a strong resurgence in the country despite claims to the contrary by government ministers. Out of the 1460 new cases, over a thousand new cases were reported from Balochistan alone in 2021.
Despite a six-year high figure of new cases, the COIED also set a record in disposal of new cases over previous years. The commission disposed of 1381 cases in which around 1073 missing persons reportedly returned home to their families. Interestingly, overwhelming majority of those returning home belonged to Balochistan, where 910 missing persons reunited with their families after various periods of disappearance, according to figures given by the COIED.
VBMP disputes COIED figures on return of missing persons
However, Nasrullah Baloch, chairperson of Voice of Balochistan Missing Persons, an organisation representing families of victims of enforced disappearance in Balochistan, disputed the COIED’s figure of 900 missing persons returning home in the province.
According to Baloch, most of them had returned home in the previous four years and not in 2021 as claimed by the COIED. “The number of missing persons recovered were less while enforced disappearances witnessed an increase in Balochistan,” Baloch told Voicepk.net.
“Over a thousand missing persons that were recovered had returned home in the previous four years and not in 2021,” Baloch said. He said families of missing persons and the VBMP representatives had several meetings with the federal government officials as well as one with the prime minister in Islamabad. “In our meeting with Prime Minister Imran Khan, he assured us that the missing persons would be recovered soon and the issue of enforced disappearances would be resolved in line with laws of the country,” Baloch said. Unfortunately, the prime minister did not fulfill his promises of recovery of missing persons, he said.
In November 2021, the Balochistan High Court has ordered the provincial government to constitute a parliamentary committee to look into cases of missing persons. “Despite a lapse of two months, the provincial government is yet to form the parliamentary committee,” he lamented.
Baloch said Zia Langove, advisor on home affairs, had assured him in a meeting that the committee would be constituted soon.
Speaking to Voicepk.net, Amina Masood Janjua, chairperson of Defence of Human Rights, termed the jump in missing persons’ cases shocking and alarming. “These figures belie claims of ending enforced disappearances made by the ruling Pakistan Tehrik Insaf government upon assuming power,” she said. According to her, the number of cases of enforced disappearances could be higher than 1460 cases reported by the COIED. “These cases might not include cases being heard by high courts and those reported to human rights organisations,” she pointed out.
“This apparently means that the PTI government is either powerless or oblivious of stopping enforced disappearances happening right before their eyes in the country,” she said.
Janjua said the PTI government had failed to enact an affective legislation to curb enforced disappearances despite four years of its tenure.
“The PTI government allowed insertion bill of an amendment in the bill on enforced disappearances passed by the National Assembly that would penalise complainants with imprisonment and fine in case their complaints are judged false,” she explained, adding that such legislation if enacted would lead to a rise in enforced disappearances by discouraging families and victims from filing complaints.
‘Internment centres are Pakistani Gitmos’
Apart from missing persons, the COIED has traced hundreds of missing individuals who were detained in internment centres under the Action in Aid of Civil Power regulation imposed in erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas in 2011. Under the regulation, security forces could indefinitely detain individuals suspected of involvement in terrorism without being produced before a court. The provincial government reenacted the regulation though an ordinance upon the merger of FATA with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2019.
The Peshawar High Court struck down the ordinance and ordered closure of all detention centres in the province. However, the Supreme Court stayed the PHC judgment on appeal filed by the provincial government. A five-member bench has not set a date of hearing for the appeal in the last two years.
According to COIED, close to two-thirds of the total of 936 missing persons traced in internment centres belonged to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In 2021, 79 missing persons were located in internment centres. Here again 65 of them belonged to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Human rights activists and campaigners have termed the Action in Aid of Civil Power regulation a draconian law that provided a legal cover to enforced disappearances. Interestingly, the regulation has been used to detain individuals not just in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa but across other provinces and regions in the country. Out of the total 936 individuals detained in internment centres, 91 belonged to Punjab, 41 were residents of Sindh, 20 were from Islamabad, three came from Azad Kashmir, two from Balochistan, and one individual from Gilgit Balitistan.
According to Janjua, the internment centres are the Guantanamo Bay camps of Pakistan. “The inmates have no legal recourse against their internment,” she explained. “These are often missing persons picked up in tribal areas and declared to be detained in internment centres,” she said.
Unlike normal prisoners, those detained in internment centres had no regular family visits or allowed food brought by relatives. “Family members are allowed 10 to 15 minutes meeting with them and the visit too comes after several months,” Janjua said. She said there were reports of many deaths of inmates in the internment centres.
Around 8,000 individuals were detained in internment centres in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, according to an estimate provided by Shabbir Gigyani, a lawyer representing families of detainees in internment centres. The authorities have remained tightlipped about the number of internment centres and inmates detained in these facilities. Gigyani had petitioned the Peshawar High Court for details of inmates and internment centres in the province but no response had been received yet.
Similarly, the Sindh High Court had directed the authorities to disclose the number of internment centres but the government lawyers told the court that the information had not been received from the federal government.
Over half of the 2264 missing persons’ cases pending with the COIED belong to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Janjua faults provincial government leaders and political leaders for not highlighting the plight of families of the missing persons in the province as compared to their counterparts in Balochistan. “Political leaders like Akhtar Mengal and others have spoken up about suffering of families of missing persons in Balochistan but we don’t see many leaders in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa doing likewise there,” she said.
‘No respite from enforced disappearances in Sindh’
According to COIED, 40 missing persons returned home in Sindh while dead bodies of four other missing residents were traced in 2021. The commission has 170 cases pending in Sindh till December 31, 2021. In 2021, the COIED received 57 new cases in the province.
“A total of 170 persons including 100 linked with Sindhi nationalists are missing in Sindh,” said Sindhi Inaam, president of Sindh Saba, an organization representing families of missing persons linked with Sindhi nationalist groups.
Inaam said his organisation had reported 70 missing persons in the province in 2021. According to him, the figure did not include cases reported to organisations representing Shia and Urdu-speaking missing persons in the province.
He lamented that there was a bar on mainstream media regarding coverage of incidents of enforced disappearances in Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh. He said authorities had resorted to picking up women and children of nationalist-leaning activists in a bid to silence them.
In Punjab, 62 new cases were reported while 43 missing persons returned home in 2021. The COIED said 266 cases were pending in the province. In Islamabad, 15 new cases were reported and 12 missing persons returned home there. Azad Kashmir reported two new cases while no cases were reported from Gilgit Baltistan in 2021.
The commission also deleted 113 cases in 2021, bringing the total number of closed cases to 1,115. The commission closes cases if it finds the complaints not to be of enforced disappearance or the complainants withdraw their cases.
Voicepk.net sent to a written request to the chairman of the COIED for elicit his response to the jump in new cases in 2021. However, no comment was received from the COIED till the filing of this report.