By I. A. Rehman
SINCE the issue of Covid 19 has been decided — that those who cannot avoid getting infected cannot be saved — and those in command are not open to changing their view, there is no point in talking about the epidemic for the moment. Instead, let us divert our attention to a festering sore that seems to have disappeared from the executive’s radar altogether.
Last month, APP reported that the chairman of the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances (CoIoED) had through his personal efforts disposed of no less than 4,523 cases of missing persons till April 30, 2020. Great credit is due to retired justice Javed Iqbal who despite his heavy responsibilities as NAB chief has not given up the chairmanship of the commission on disappearances. The number of cases disposed of till May 31 has risen to 4,544 (out of 6,674 cases reported to the commission over nine years). But these figures conceal the unmitigated suffering of thousands of families who have been virtually dying every day out of fear that their loved ones will never return.
The CoIoED figures for Balochistan have never satisfied any keen observer. Between March 1, 2011, and March 1, 2020, only 483 cases were reported till May 31, 2020. It is said 334 cases have been disposed of and that only 164 are pending. Who can believe these figures?
The 6,674 cases reported to the CoIoED represent a smaller figure for enforced disappearances because the larger number has not been reported for a variety of reasons. Out of the 4,544 cases disposed of, 3,598 persons are said to have been traced but the number of persons who are said to have returned home is 2,053. The other persons said to have been traced include 823 detainees at internment centres and 510 in prisons facing trial, while 213 have died and 948 cases were dropped as not being instances of enforced disappearance.
A preliminary question is: why did it take the authorities such a long time to trace the missing persons who were rotting in internment centres and prisons? And the fact that even by the CoIoED’s reckoning 2,130 cases are still pending is cause for concern. That is not a small number of lives at stake.
What is the situation now after nine years of efforts by the CoIoED to recover the missing persons? This year’s figures show that in January, there were 50 new complaints and 69 were disposed of; in February, the figures were 48 and 42; in March, 24 and 37; in April, 33 and 10; and in May, 13 and 21.
The most significant fact about this year’s figures is that enforced disappearances are still being reported. Even during the last three months, when Covid-19 had made travel and postal communication virtually impossible and the CoIoED office was not supposed to be open, 70 new complaints were received. That many cases could not have been reported cannot be denied. Enforced disappearances thus remains a live and critical issue.
What does the CoIoED say about its achievements from February to May 2020? In February, 29 people were traced, 14 returned home, 15 comprised the rest of the cases — ie cases dropped, dead bodies found or persons detained or on bail. In March, 20 were traced, 19 returned, 17 comprised the rest. In the same order, the April figures show six, five and four, and May 14, 13 and seven.
An analysis of 41 persons who are said to have returned home shows that 14 of them belonged to Punjab, nine to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, six to Islamabad, three each to Karachi, Azad Kashmir, and the tribal agencies, two to Balochistan, and one to Gilgit-Baltistan.
Among those who are said to have returned home, the number of people saying that they had gone away somewhere without informing their families has shown a sharp increase. The possibility that these persons made up such stories in order to escape retaliation by law-enforcement agencies certainly deserves to be probed.
Many other cases attract suspicion of concealment. Shahid Husain from Karachi was reported missing in 2015. It was in January 2020 that he was said to have returned home. No information is provided as to where he had been for more than four years. Maulana Gul Zada from Peshawar disappeared in 2017 and was found on Feb 26, 2020 to have returned home. Similarly, Abdullah from Peshawar disappeared in 2016 and was reported to have returned on Feb 6, 2020.
Abdul Wahab from Rawalpindi disappeared in 2014 and said he was kept in confinement for two and a half years. By whom? Muhammad Aslam from Muzaffargarh was picked up from a bus in 2017 and released after two and a half years. He could not recognise his tormentors. Nasar Abbas from Bhakkar was picked up in July 2017 and released in December 2019.
Subhan Allah from Lahore was lucky. He was picked up in May 2019 and released in December the same year. Rahimullah from Rawalpindi was also fortunate. He was picked up in August 2019 and released the same month. Muhammad Yafis Naveed from Multan was abducted on Aug 8, 2019 and released on March 5, 2020.
It was the duty of the CoIoED to ascertain who had picked up the persons mentioned here and report them to the competent authorities for necessary action.
The need to seriously address the issue of disappearances is clear. For years, the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances has been calling upon the government to reconstitute the present commission, increase its financial and human resources, and declare enforced disappearance a criminal offence.
The government must also release the 2010 report prepared by three retired judges that will reveal how disappearances are effected and by whom. It is also time Pakistan ratified the UN convention on the subject. A bill to declare enforced disappearance was introduced in parliament in 2014 to make disappearance a criminal offence. If the government wants to make a better law the time is now.
(The writer is peace and human rights advocate, and a veteran communist, journalist and writer. A protégé of the great Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, he became chief editor of the Pakistan Times newspaper in 1989. He is also Secretary General Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).