Enforced Disappearances in Pakistan Raise Questions Over Role of Secret Services
Family members of missing Pakistanis people hold their relatives' pictures at a protest rally of Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) in Karachi
It was noon on May 11, 2022 when Feroz Baloch, a student of Arid Agriculture University Rawalpindi, took his books and headed to the university library. But, he never made it to there and went missing. His whereabouts remain a mystery to this date.
His cousin and roommate in the same university complex, Rahim Baloch, noticed he was missing by late evening, when he didn't return to the campus as he usually would.
"First I sent him a WhatsApp message, but it was not delivered," Rahim told DW.
"I tried calling him and found his number switched off. I assumed that Feroz's mobile phone might have run out of power and that he would be back soon," Rahim recalled.
"As time passed, I grew more and more worried. I tried calling his home in Turbat, Balochistan, to ask his parents if they had any contact with him recently but got no answer as it was late in the evening and his family was already asleep," he said.
"We stayed awake the whole night, waiting for Feroz to return. By the next day, we tried to inform the university administration about Feroz going missing, but the university administration took no notice of it. We went to the nearby police station to report him missing. The police refused to file a complaint and told us that only blood relatives can do so," Rahim added.
Noor Bakhsh, Feroz's father who is a government servant in the Balochistan police department, told DW he soon lodged an FIR (First Information Report) for his missing son.
"It was May 12, when Rahim informed us about Feroz going missing," Bakhsh recalled.
"The news was like piercing right through my heart. I had to gain a lot of strength to inform his mother and siblings about this incident. Since that day, we can't have a peaceful night's sleep. I and my family keep awake the whole night, missing and praying for the safe return of Feroz. The peace and happiness of our family have been destroyed. We are facing eternal grief and we have forgotten to smile. My wife has fallen ill since she got to know that our son is missing."
The disappearance of Feroz Baloch has raised awareness of people going missing. Since 2000, when then military ruler General Pervez Musharraf overthrew Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government to form his authoritarian regime, the issue of enforced disappearances has risen to prominence.
Hundreds of thousands of people from all spheres of life started to disappear. Those of Baloch and Pashtun ethnicities were the most targeted. In March 2011, the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances (COIOED) was formed to work on the issue.
According to recent figures released by COIOED in July 2022, a total of 8,696 cases of missing persons have been reported. While 6,513 of these cases have been solved, 2,219 are still pending.
Pakistanis raise the issue on the International Day Against Enforced Disappearances
Statistics don't reflect true picture
Gohar Mehsud, an Islamabad-based senior journalist reporting on human rights issues, said: "The COIOED figures are too low compared to the actual numbers. The commission was formed in 2011 and the disappearances begun in the year 2000. Moreover, it is really hard for the people from the far-off areas of Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh, and ex-FATA, to access the commission and report their missing ones."
According to rights movement Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), over 5,000 Pashtuns are still missing.
PTM chief Manzoor Ahmad Pashteen told DW that people are still not aware of how and who to reach out to when reporting their loved ones missing. PTM members visited different areas on their own to collect this data. Pashteen accuses Pakistani security and intelligence agencies of preventing agencies like those he represents of doing what they can to help.
"Security agencies have put heavy restrictions on me and there are certain areas I or other PTM members are not allowed to enter and we cannot gather statistics from those areas," he said.
According to the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP) there are some 6,500 people from the minority who have been registered as missing.
In 2019, the Balochistan government and VBMP reached an agreement that enabled the NGO to gather data regarding missing persons through a verification process that allows immediate family members to register their cases by filling out a government-provided form. VBMP recently started sharing this data with the Balochistan government.
"2019 and 2020 were the years when the recoveries grew more than the reported cases — which was relieving. During this period, some 1,050 new cases were given to the Balochistan government out of which 560 people were recovered. But since 2021, the enforced disappearances have significantly increased," Nasrullah Baloch, chairman of VBMP, told DW.
"The recent crackdown on Baloch students began after a highly educated young woman, mother of two Shari Baloch, blew herself up outside Karachi University to target Chinese nationals in April 2022. Shari was a teacher, and a university student too, and this diverted the attention of the security agencies toward academia. Since then, some 300 students throughout the country have forcibly disappeared," Nasrullah added.
Another student from the Arid Agriculture University, on the condition of anonymity, shared with DW how families are living in fear.
"Our families sent us outside Balochistan to keep us away from the serious security situation in the province. It is very hard for them to afford our educational and living expenses here. They sacrifice most of their income to provide us with a safe environment for us to study and learn. Now it has got really hard for us to focus on our education due to the fear of enforced disappearances," he said.
"Our fellow students and the teachers openly criticize our dressing, our culture and call us 'fellows or terrorists.'"
Baloch students are particularly vulnerable
'Security agencies trying to terrorize Balochs'
Regarding his cousin, Rahim said: "Feroz was a very reserved and shy person, with minimum friends and social circle. He used to spend most of his time in the university library. He was very passionate about his studies and wanted to become a teacher. He was well aware of the poor literacy rate of Balochistan and was ambitious to put his share in eliminating illiteracy from the province."
Meanwhile, rights activist Imran Baloch told DW: "After some incidents happened in the last few months, security agencies are trying to terrorize Balochs, especially innocent students, just to cover up their failure to combat terrorism in the country."
These cases "are some of those hundreds of students forcibly disappeared by the state institutions in the last couple of months," Imran added.
Advocate and rights activist Iman Mazari is the one perusing Feroz's case in court. While sharing the developments on Feroz's case with DW, Mazari said that initially the case was registered with the Lahore High Court Rawalpindi Bench. On the second hearing, the judge dismissed the case stating that a commercial inquiry (by COIOED) had been called and the parallel proceedings cannot take place.
"Recently, Feroz's case is in the Islamabad High Court for the inaction of the COIOED, where a hearing is expected on September 7," Mazari said.
Secret services not under the domain of law
Former senator and ex-chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Afrasiab Khattak, told DW that in his term in the Senate, he formed a special committee to investigate the enforced disappearances. The committee found the country's intelligence agencies, notably the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), were involved in the enforced disappearances.
"I approached the defense ministry with the suggestion to form a transparent law to bring secret services agencies under the domain of law. Despite multiple reminders, the defense ministry didn't respond to my request. Secret agencies don't want to follow any legal procedure which ends their authority and impunity," Khattak said.
Edited by: John Silk
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