Human rights defender denied civilian court trial

Idris Khattak
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At a hearing at the Peshawar High Court on 13 January 2021, the Khattak family appealed that as a civilian, Idris must be tried in a civilian court and not a military court. This appeal was denied in an order published on 28 January 2021. More information about the charges against Idris were revealed in the judgment published on 30 January 2021. He has been charged on multiple counts related to spying and other conduct “prejudicial to the safety or interests of the State” under Section 3 of the Official Secrets Act (OSA) as well as section 59 of the Pakistan Army Act, 1952 – which gives military courts jurisdiction to try civilians for some offences under the OSA.

This "offence" seems to be a meeting with Michael Semple in July 2009 - over ten years before his enforced disappearance. The court order dubs Semple as an MI6 agent. At the time of the meetings, Semple was a fellow at Harvard University's Carr Center for Human Rights and had been a high-ranking UN and EU official in Afghanistan for 20 years. He was expelled from Afghanistan for "unauthorized activity in 2008." Semple is currently a professor at Queen's University in Belfast.

The court order makes no mention of Idris’s enforced disappearance, or any accountability that the authorities must face for keeping him apart from his family, and his family being kept in the dark of whether he was even alive.

After significant pressure, Idris’ daughter Talia was granted a 20-minute meeting on 7 October 2020. During the supervised meeting, she was not allowed to speak to him in their native language of Pashto (which they normally converse in) and could not ask him any questions about the case. He told her that the charges against him were “bogus.”

Since then, there has been no contact between him and his family or his lawyer and he remains arbitrarily detained. Even though there is proof of life, his current whereabouts is unknown. Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Pakistan is party, civilians must not be subjected to the jurisdiction of a military court.

Idris Khattak has worked as a consultant with Amnesty International and other international human rights NGOs. For years, he has documented a wide range of human rights violations and humanitarian crises in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas. 

He was on his way home from Islamabad when his rented car was intercepted near the Swabi Interchange of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The only other person in the car was the driver with whom Idris Khattak has travelled frequently. The driver was also picked up with Idris Khattak on 13 November 2019. His family only found out about his disappearance once the driver was released the night of 15 November 2019. 

On the night of 16 June 2020, the Ministry of Defence finally admitted that they have Idris Khattak in their custody, and this was reiterated by a hearing held by the Joint Investigation Team on 17 June 2020. 

In Pakistan, enforced disappearance has been used as a tool to muzzle dissent and criticism of military policies.   The individuals and groups targeted in enforced disappearances include Sindhis, Baloch, Pashtuns, the Shia community, political activists, human rights defenders, members and supporters of religious and nationalist groups, suspected members of armed groups, and proscribed religious and political organisations in Pakistan.

The current government of Imran Khan promised to criminalize enforced disappearances through legislation. However, no such legislation has even been tabled in the parliament. Shireen Mazari, the Minister for Human Rights, has stated that government wants to sign the International Convention for Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances, but no progress has been made on this front. Instead, the practice of enforced disappearance continues in the country with impunity.

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