Guernica Magazine’s October issue has a really powerful piece about Pakistan’s missing persons, people who have disappeared under the government label of “terrorism suspects” since the 9/11 attacks, (many from Balochistan). Guernica’s J. Malcolm Garcia wrote, “Guilt or innocence is not the issue. To impose terror on suspected terrorists, to maintain a grip on power, ah, now that is a strategy, eh?”
According to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2010, Pakistan’s Interior Ministry has estimated that 1,100 people “disappeared” under the military regime of Pervez Musharraf, a number that “is almost certainly an underestimate.” HRW added in its assessment, “The Zardari administration promised to resolve these cases, but it has made negligible progress. Pakistan has yet to sign the international treaty banning enforced disappearances.”
One man who disappeared in 2005 was Masood Janjua, the husband of Amina Janjua, a housewife-turned-activist, a woman who reportedly “took on” the government and the ISI to find and rescue her husband, subsequently inspiring others whose family members also disappeared under the Musharraf regime. Back in 2007, Frontline/World’s David Montero interviewed Janjua, who said, “When a person is desperate for their loved one, the person most dear to me, the person who I can’t live without…I have to give my life [to find him].” Guernica Magazine, in their piece, wrote,
More days passed [since Masood's disappearance]. The days turned into weeks, months, years. Still no Masood. Now forty-six, Amina alternates between fear, sadness, and puzzlement when she speaks of Masood’s five-year absence…But now instead of despair, a weary, hardened resolve to find him compels her. They had been married sixteen years when he went missing. Twenty-one years now, when she includes the five years he has been gone. She tries not to think what another five years will be like without him.
Montero spoke to former law minister Wasi Zafar in the aforementioned Frontline/World piece, “Pakistan: Disappeared.” Zafar told the PBS journalist, “If he’s a terrorist, he loses his rights…If in developed countries it can be done, then why not here?“
Zafar’s statement begs the question – if someone is a suspected terrorist, does he (or she) have the right to a lawyer, to call their family? By virtue of still being a suspect, arbitrarily taking away these people’s rights before they have been proven guilty is and should be considered a violation of human rights, a fact that makes these suspects of terror and anti-state activities victims in the eyes of international law.
According to HRW, “In October 2009, the government amended the country’s anti-terrorism laws through presidential ordinance to further curtail the legal rights of terrorism suspects. Under the ordinance, suspects can be placed in ‘preventive detention‘ for a period of 90 days without benefit of judicial review or the right to bail.” The organization added, “Confessions made before the police or military are now deemed admissible as evidence despite the fact that torture by Pakistan’s police and the military’s intelligence services continues to be routine.”
Guernica’s piece is especially thought-provoking because it humanizes the many “persons” who have disappeared in Pakistan, some of whom lawyer Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui believes were “given over to U.S. authorities in exchange for cash and are held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, or Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan.” Masood Janjua was a father and a husband, a man who went hiking and skiing “on a whim” with his family. Sheraz Arshad, the son of Mohammad Arshad, was an 18 year old who “smiled easily but shyly,” who wanted to join the army “for the opportunities an army career would present to a young man born in a humble village.”
Garcia noted one particular exchange between Amina, who now runs Defense of Human Rights, and a woman whose son disappeared:
If my son is alive, I want him here, and if he is dead, I want to know about his death, a woman dressed entirely in black tells Amina. Her son has been missing for a year. Amina holds her hand. We won’t complain to anyone if he’s dead, the woman says. We just want someone to tell us.
Though the numbers of people who have disappeared are often depicted as part of a faceless statistic, the testimonies of their families – their pain, their loss, and their struggle – should be a constant reminder of how very human this issue is, and what a gross violation of human rights is committed unabated on a regular basis within our own borders.