Missing, presumed alive in Pakistan

I always think those posters of missing dogs or cats on lampposts are unbearably sad. Someone loves those animals. The owners are heartbroken and desperate. They go to the trouble of putting up posters. They offer rewards. And then what? Do they ever get their pets back?  I hope so.

And what about people whose relatives go missing? It’s basically the same thing: desperation, loss, a sense of helplessness.

In most cases though, you’d expect at least to get some sympathy and help from the authorities. But what if the lost person is actually missing because of the authorities?

This is the agonising predicament of people trying to trace their “disappeared” loved ones in Pakistan. There are an estimated 563 people currently held in secret “deniable detention” in Pakistan. Most have been spirited away by security services fighting Pakistan’s very own “war on terror”.

Amnesty’s new report (out today) shows how it works. A man called Masood Janjua, a 45-year-old businessman from Rawalpindi, was traveling on a bus three years ago when he was stopped and carted off by security officials. He hasn’t been seen “officially” since. Meanwhile various people have given sworn statements saying that they’ve seen Masood in the hands of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.

These witnesses should know – they were also held. But the authorities go on denying it. And meanwhile they move people like Masood around a network of secret locations.

In Pakistan they’ve got quite a selection of places to hide them in. For example, there’s a place called Chaklala Scheme III; there’s an army building called 501 Workshop in Rawalpindi (this is where they held Masood); there’s a place near Islamabad airport; another is Attock Fort; there’s Cantt. Garrison, Chaklala (near Rawalpindi airport); and another lock-up is behind the Military Hospital in Rawalpindi. There’s even supposed to be a secret ISI detention centre near Lahore zoo (that would make two places of detention then).

Move them around, deny everything: this might well be the motto of Pakistan’s authorities. President Musharraf thinks it’s all “nonsense”. Anyone missing must be “in the control of militant organisations” or “jihadi groups”, he says. So, that’s ok then. More encouragingly, though, a spokesman for the Pakistan People's party was telling the Guardian yesterday that said: "The missing persons issue is high on the agenda” of the country’s new PM.

(Meanwhile, I notice that Amnesty’s USA office is highlighting the case of a “reappeared” man who “came back from the dead” in Pakistan. There’s an event with him tomorrow night .. if you happen to be in in Washington!).

As we’ve seen with the Madeleine McCann case, when a loved one goes missing it’s well nigh unbearable. In Pakistan the reason that many disappear is broadly “political”, but it doesn’t make the means any more justifiable. Two-thirds of the prisoners who ended up at Guantánamo Bay were originally snatched in Pakistan, not least because many locals were offered $5,000 “bounties” if they denounced a supposed “Taliban” or “Al Qa’ida” person in their midst.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s spooks seem determined to hold on to their prisoners, and they’ll defy even the Pakistan Supreme Court to do so.
I’m not sure if the lampposts in Islamabad and Rawalpindi are covered with the plaintive photos of their country’s “war on terror” – but if so, it wouldn’t surprise me.

 

 

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