(The issue of enforced disappearances is now seen as one of the biggest hurdles in the way of Islamabad’s efforts to make peace with the Baloch people)
Since December 30, a group of two dozen boys and girls, accompanied by a few adult women, have been squatting outside the Quetta Press Club, braving the biting cold that sweeps through Pakistan’s Balochistan province at this time of the year. The group is on a daily hunger-strike, protesting the disappearance of a father or a brother, allegedly after they were taken away by state intelligence agencies.
Holding photographs of their missing family members, these children say they will sit there indefinitely, until they get some news of their family members.
In the group are the young sons and daughters of Ali Asghar Bungalzai, a 38-year-old Quetta tailor. For months after he was picked up in October 2001, military and intelligence officials reportedly kept giving reassurances to Bungulzai’s family that he would be released soon, but that did not happen. Between 2006 and 2007, the children – all of them then under 20 years of age — stood outside the press club for a full 371 days, demanding that their father be restored to them. They were persuaded to leave only after the Governor of Balochistan assured them that he would take a personal interest in tracking down their father. But Bunglazai remains missing to this day.
A woman in the group told journalists that she was looking for her brother Zakir Majeed Baloch, a leader of the Baloch Students Organsiation, who went missing on June 8, 2009, allegedly after being whisked away by an intelligence agency. She said she was trying to get human rights organisation to exert pressure on the government for the recovery of her brother and other missing Baloch.
Majeed went missing while he was travelling by road between Mastung and Khuzdar. He had been picked up twice before, in 2007 and 2008. After his release in 2008, he said he had been detained and tortured at the Qulli camp, a military detention centre in Quetta Cantonment.
There are plenty of similar stories. Mushtaq Baloch, also a BSO activist, disappeared in March 2009. He was in the first year of his intermediate course at the Degree College in Khuzdar and was picked up along with his friends and fellow student activists Kabir Baloch and Ataullah Baloch.
Some months after he went missing, an unidentified caller phoned Mushtaq’s family with the information that body was lying at a location in Mach in Bolan district. His brothers rushed to Mach but found nothing. Since then, there has been no news of any of the three boys.
While the issue of enforced disappearances in Balochistan is a continuing tragedy for the affected families, for the alienated province, it is yet another festering wound inflicted by Islamabad after the Musharraf regime began military operations there in 2005 to quell a low-intensity separatist insurgency, which is often blamed on India.
By the government’s own estimate, there are 1300 cases of enforced disappearances. But according to the Voice For the Missing Baloch Persons, the organisation that is behind the protest outside the Press Club, at least 8,000 Baloch are missing after being picked up by the army, or the paramilitary Frontier Corps, or one or the other intelligence agency.
The protesting children recently were joined by a sizeable number of women as they marched to the Provincial Assembly to draw attention to their cause. The rally was unusual in itself. In Balochistan, it is only the rare woman that is seen outdoors.
“In a society where women hardly step out of their homes, if these women have taken to the streets in protest, there has to be a very good reason,” Nasrullah Baloch, the convenor of the organisation, told The Hindu..
The issue of the missing persons is now seen as one of the biggest hurdles in the way of efforts by the PPP-led government for reconciliation with Balochistan. In November 2009, Islamabad announced a package of political, administrative and financial measures for the restive province.
The package is called the Aghaz-e-Haqooq-e-Balochistan (The Beginning of the Rights of Balochistan), the clunky title managing to convey two things: one, that the Baloch people and the province had been deprived of their rights, and; two, that this package was the “beginning” of the reconciliation process.
But it was rejected by even moderate Baloch politicians. A major criticism was that it contained only a promise to consider in the undetermined future crucial concessions such as constitutional reforms for provincial autonomy. Baloch politicians were also angered by the announced “demilitarization” replacing the military in the province with the Frontier Corps. The paramilitary evokes more dread in the province than the Army.
Writing in the Dawn newspaper, Sanaullah Baloch, a young leader of the Baloch National Party, who resigned from the Senate last year to highlight what he called the government’s indifference towards Balochistan, said no reconciliation would be possible unless the constitution was changed for maximum, even “asymmetric” devolution. He called for international mediation and facilitation, and for international guarantors to underwrite all promises made by Islamabad to the Baloch people.
The BNP at least still believes a solution is possible within the framework of the Pakistan federation. Not so many others. According to Rashid Rehman, editor of the Daily Times newspaper, the government has failed to appreciate that the atmosphere in Balochistan has undergone a dramatic change.
“The demands that have now emerged are far more radical than anything before. Now the Baloch are talking about separation, secession, independence, and it’s being talked about openly, it is being discussed in the political space,” said Mr. Rehman, who fought in the 1970s Baloch insurgency on the side of the guerillas.
A major narrative in Baloch discourse is the province’s “betrayal” by successive governments in Islamabad, he said, and hence the new demands for international guarantors and third-party mediation. The minimum that “even a halfway house package” would have to contain, according to him, is provincial autonomy through changes in the Constitution, which would allow all decisions for the province to be made in the province. Crucially, it would give the province control over the natural gas found under its territory and any possible oil finds.
“The relationship with the centre will have to be reversed completely, no less,” said Mr. Rehman.
The government, meanwhile, has taken some tentative confidence-building steps, in line with the measures announced in the package. In December, it withdrew 89 cases registered against political leaders and activists, including Brahmdagh Bugti, president of the Balochistan Republican Party, who is alleged to be leading the insurgency in the province, Balochistan National Party president Sardar Akhtar Mengal and Jamil Akbar Bugti, the son of the late Nawab Akbar Bugti.
But the missing Baloch hundreds – or thousands – remain missing, despite the promise in the package to release those against whom there are no charges and produce the remaining before a competent court. A total of five missing people are reported to have returned home after the package was announced.
In Jan 2010, the Supreme Court also added its voice to the cause saying that reconciliation in Balochistan was impossible unless the missing were traced.
“This is the biggest humanitarian crisis in Balochistan right now,” said Mr. Nasurllah Baloch of the VFMBP, “and the elected government should play its proper role in tracing them. Press charges against them if you want, but produce them before a court”.
But the question often asked is if the elected government really has the power to bring back the missing and put an end to the practice of enforced disappearances. It is well-known that the security establishment plays a big role in shaping Pakistan’s Balochistan policy. Some would say that the insurgency makes this necessary, but it is widely acknowledged that this has tied the government’s hands from doing everything it can to heal the wounds in Balochistan.
Revealingly, there have been several cases of enforced disappearances since February 2008, when the PPP came to power and Asif Ali Zardari offered an “unconditional apology” to the Baloch, pledging to “embark on a new highway of healing and mutual respect”. Mr. Nasrullah Baloch alleges that people have gone missing even since the package was announced, including Sana Sangat, a leader of Brahmdagh Bugti.
Despite the difficulties, government circles remain optimistic that the Balochistan package will soon start working its magic. At the end of December, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani visited Balochistan and held a mid-sea cabinet meeting off Gwadar. It lifted the national mood somewhat. But more to the point, on the call of the Baloch National Front, Gwadar and two other districts observed a total strike on the day of his visit, while in Quetta, the families of the missing people marked the day with a protest march.
Reasons behind rejection of the Government’s Commission for Missing Persons
By Nasurullah Baloch, Chairman, Voice of Baloch Missing Persons
In 2010, a Commission was founded by the Pakistan Government to probe the missing persons’ cases and trace those still missing and unaccounted for. On 16 July 2016, this Commission presented its report to the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Then, the head of the body, (retired) Justice Javed Iqbal circulated a statement, in which he blamed Voice for Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP) for non-cooperation in resolving the challenges in Balochistan.
The VBMP admonishes the allegation of the mentioned Commission, citing falsification. In fact, VBMP conducted meetings with the Commission’s officials and offered its full cooperation. The Commission vowed to take action against the perpetrators, in cases where victim families had provided sufficient proof. The Chair of the Commission had said that no authority or institute would be pardoned, regardless of its influence or power, because the Commission was fully mandated to implementing the law in its true spirit.
The evidence was provided, which confirmed involvement of State institutions in the abduction and dumping of mutilated bodies of Baloch political workers in Balochistan. This Commission’s attitude toward the missing persons’ families, however, was not polite and the Commission has produced no results regarding missing persons in Balochistan. Despite the presence of solid evidence, the Commission has refused to hold the culprits accountable for committing severe human rights abuses in Balochistan.
The following are points outlining the extent of the State’s inhumane activities in Balochistan:
1- In 2012, in court, the investigative officer read out Statement-161, and in the meantime the court convicted Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Balochistan head, Mr. Sidique, and issued orders for his arrest. Additionally, on 3 June 2010, Hafiz Hussain Ahmed and a number of other witnesses’ statements were recorded, which also implicated Mr. Sidique as the perpetrator. Even then, the Commission avoided enforcing the arrest order and taking any sort of action against him. The enforced disappearance of Ali Asghar Bangulzai by State agencies was confirmed in an on-record report of the Commission. Furthermore, the Commission said in their report that it is essential to determine which State agency has taken Mr. Bangulzai. The information gathered obligated the Commission to take disciplinary action against offenders and secure the safe release of the forcibly disappeared Mr Bangulzai. But without reasonable explanation, his unresolved case was carelessly & callously disposed-off by the Commission from the list of enforced disappeared persons. The Commission offered only absurd remarks, stating that the case does not have anything to do with enforced disappearance at all.
2- In 2007, Mr. Mohd. Iqbal Baloch was disappeared. Several years later, in 2010, the National Crisis Management Cell submitted a report to the Commission advising them that “The Frontier Corps had arrested Mr. Mohd Iqbal Baloch in injured condition. While he was in transit to Quetta he succumbed to his wounds.” A Frontier Corps (FC) colonel also verified the arrest of Mr. Baloch, in writing. That document was produced before the court, in a proceeding, and in that it was clearly admitted that Mr. Iqbal Baloch had been arrested in a wounded condition. The same FC officer also signed the mentioned document. Regrettably, despite such blatant evidence in the documents, the courts did not make any progress in the case, the incident was dismissed, and the documents related to the case disappeared. The VBMP repeatedly appealed for provision of a copy of the document, and for re-inclusion of the same in the proceedings, but the court never heeded to this call, and no corrective action was taken against the FC for such an unlawful act.
3- On 3 September 2009, FC personnel, arriving in 3 vehicles, arrested 7 students inside the Balochistan University compound. The arrested students were identified as Chakar Marri, Hidayatullah Bangulzai, and five others. Afterwards, a few of those arrested that day were released. The organization VBMP approached them and convinced them to appear as witnesses in the abduction cases at the Commission. When they appeared in front of the Commission and gave their statements, the Commission and the Frontier Corps behaved as though they were offended. In court, the matter was also argued in detail. All the evidence and ground reality directly implicated the FC, but it was not recognized by the Commission, despite the (Magna Carta) slogan that no one is above the law and the law is effective against all. Successively, the students who appeared before the Commission to record their statements were subjected to abuses by the FC in the form of raids on their respective residences, and they were harassed in various way, as retribution.
4- In the meantime, many mutilated bodies were found dumped. These bodies were identified as those whose cases were proceeding at the Government Commission, and this justice providing body took no measure against the spiteful acts, and impolitely disposed off cases of those slain. One particular example is the discovery of the mutilated remains of Mr. Jalil Reki on 24 November 2011. Another example is that of Sana Sangat Baloch’s mutilated body, which was found dumped in Balochistan on 13 February 2012. Both of these cases were registered with the aforementioned Commission. Many similar incidents occurred when the Commission was working on cases. Mutilated bodies of the abductees were continually dumped by State agencies. But the self-claimed mandated body did nothing to halt this series of inhuman atrocities. The evidence was provided and witnesses’ statements recorded before the Joint Investigation Team (JIT).
Additionally, the relatives of missing persons and their organization, the VBMP, appealed to the Commission to stop disposing the cases. Furthermore, the victim families, through VBMP, demanded access to the deceased persons DNA tests and autopsy reports. On the basis of all relevant attained information & evidence, those determined to be wrongdoers must be penalized, it was demanded. Unfortunately, all pleas, recommendation, and suggestions were dismissed, and no action was taken to suspend or prevent these inhuman practices.
5- In June 2012, the head of the Commission (retired) Justice Javed Iqbal was appointed. During his first visit to Balochistan, within three days of proceedings, he concluded a verdict, which was made public through a press conference. By his judgment, State agencies were acquitted of any accountability for the abduction and dumping of mutilated bodies of Baloch political workers, with no logic or judicious reasoning provided. It is inconceivable how this Commission processed thousands of missing persons’ cases in only three days time; and also derived a fair decision in this short period. This statement of the Commission manifested the reality of the extent of bias and prejudice in the State judicial system. Therefore, the organization Voice for Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP) rejected the Commission’s conclusion; additionally, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) showed no confidence in the Commission’s resolution. On 7 April 2016, both organizations (VBMP & HRCP), expressed concern before the Chief Justice of Pakistan during a proceeding in the Supreme Court regarding the Commission. Apart from this, it must be noted that agency officials, who are accused of involvement in the enforced disappearances and dumping of mutilated bodies in Balochistan, are themselves members of this Government Commission; therefore, it is futile to expect justice from this body.