Islamabad, Pakistan – Human rights group Amnesty International has called for Pakistani authorities to end the use of enforced disappearances as a tool of state policy, as it releases a new briefing documenting the effect of such illegal abductions on the families of those who go missing.
The briefing, titled “Living Ghosts”, was released by the United Kingdom-based rights group on Monday, and is based on interviews with 10 family members of people “whose fate remains unknown after they were abducted by Pakistan’s security services”.
Researchers also spoke to the victims of enforced disappearances who have since been released.
“Enforced disappearance is a cruel practice that has caused indelible pain to hundreds of families in Pakistan over the past two decades,” said Rehab Mahamoor, Amnesty International’s acting South Asia researcher.
“On top of the untold anguish of losing a loved one and having no idea of their whereabouts or safety, families endure other long-term effects, including ill health and financial problems.”
Enforced disappearances have long been documented by local and international rights groups in Pakistan, and in 2011 the Pakistani government formed a commission of inquiry to document and investigate cases of the disappeared, known in Pakistan as “missing persons”.
Since 2011, the commission has received complaints in at least 8,154 cases, of which 2,274 remain unresolved, according to the commission’s monthly report for September 2021.
In 2020, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), a legal rights group based in Switzerland, said the commission “has wholly failed to address entrenched impunity” and had not held any perpetrators of the crime to justice, even in cases where the whereabouts of the disappeared had been traced or the person had been released.
Earlier this month, Pakistan’s lower house of parliament passed a bill that, for the first time in the country’s history, defined and criminalised the practice of enforced disappearances.
It defined the act as the “illegal and without lawful authority arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by an agent of the State or by person or group of persons acting with the authorisation, support or acquiescence of the State”, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the fate of the disappeared person.
Rights groups, however, have criticised the proposed law – which is still pending passage in parliament’s upper house before it can become law – as not doing enough to hold perpetrators to justice. A controversial section of the law also criminalises “false allegations” of enforced disappearance, subject to five-year imprisonment and a 100,000 Pakistani rupees ($570) fine.
“These amendments provide loopholes for authorities to continue forcibly disappearing people and would discourage families of victims from reporting cases of disappearance,” Amnesty said in its briefing paper, arguing that the proposed bill “is deeply flawed and does not meet the standards of international human rights law”.
‘Severe physical torture’
In interviews with family members of the disappeared, Amnesty documented allegations of authorities refusing to file police reports in cases of enforced disappearances allegedly carried out by the government, court orders or summons not being acted upon by intelligence or other security services and numerous other rights violations.
“Most of the families of forcibly disappeared people who spoke to Amnesty International said that not only were they unable to use the legal system to locate their loved ones, despite the constitutional safeguards and the applications of the Penal Code as a protection against enforced disappearances, but that they had considerable difficulties even filing a First Information Report (FIR) with the police,” reads the briefing.
The report also documents allegations of intimidation of victims’ families in order to stop their activism or legal follow-up on the issue.
Zakir Majeed, an ethnic Baloch student activist in the southwestern city of Quetta, was abducted on June 8, 2009, in the presence of two friends. Amnesty quotes Majeed’s sister as saying she was threatened “with the same fate as her brother if she did not stay silent”.
In another case, a man was abducted in 2014, and seven years later, an individual identifying himself as being a member of the police intelligence service contacted his brother “asking for more information about his brother to process the case”.
Rather than resulting in his brother’s release, the exchange resulted in the unidentified man conducting a raid on the victim’s home and abducting his younger brother on March 9, 2021.
“[The man] told Amnesty International that he received a message through a family member from law enforcement agencies warning him not to speak up, to stop attending protests and to take down all his posts on social media trying to draw attention to the abduction of his brothers,” Amnesty’s briefing reads.
“But what else can they possibly take from us that they haven’t already?” Amnesty quotes the two disappeared men’s brother as saying.
Researchers also spoke with the victims of enforced disappearances who have since been released.
Inam Abbasi, a writer and publisher, was abducted by unidentified men on August 4, 2017, and released 10 months later.
In addition to numerous physical ailments that are the result of the “severe physical torture he was subjected to”, Amnesty researchers said Abbasi also displayed multiple symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which could be triggered by ordinary incidents such as the ringing of a doorbell.
“I believe that someone has come to take me away again,” Abbasi told Amnesty.
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.