One year after the disappearance of human rights activist Idris Khattak, the Pakistani authorities have allowed him to see his daughter.
Talia Khattak, 20, says she was contacted last month about the chance to meet with her father, whom she has not seen since he was picked up by unidentified armed men in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in November 2019.
“I was on my way to university when I received a call,” she told Radio Mashaal on November 18. “The person on the other end introduced himself as my father’s defending officer and said, ‘Get ready to meet him’.”
“I wanted to have my lawyer and uncle with me, but I was told only I am allowed,” she added.
The family of Idris Khattak, a human rights campaigner and political activist, alleged that the intelligence agencies took him. Following months of appeals to officials and lawmakers, their case finally reached the courts. In January, they filed a habeas corpus case at the Peshawar High Court, the top court in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
While the court ordered the authorities to find Khattak, there was no apparent progress. However, the government’s lawyers admitted at an October hearing that Khattak is indeed in the custody of military intelligence, according to Talia Khattak. Earlier in June her lawyer Latif Afridi said that in an official letter Pakistan’s Defense Ministry admitted that Khattak is in the custody of Military Intelligence, a spy service. According to Amnesty International Khattak was being charged for espionage and leaking government secrets under a colonial-era law, the 1923 Official Secrets Act.
The admission was not enough. International human rights organizations have built a mounting campaign for the Pakistani government to release him. “The Pakistani authorities must immediately disclose the whereabouts of Idris Khattak and lift the veil of secrecy surrounding his case,” said Amnesty International (AI) on November 12, the anniversary of his forced disappearance.
Campaigning combined with the court proceedings helped Talia Khattak see her father at least for a brief time. She was taken to Mangla Cantonment, a Pakistani military garrison in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, to the house where her father was being held.
“I was told the meeting would last 20 minutes. Neither I nor my father was allowed to speak in Pashto, our native language, during the meeting. We were also not allowed to speak about the case,” she said.
“My heart was beating fast when I entered the room where my father was. I saw that he had stretched his arm to me. ‘Welcome, welcome,’ he said, smiling. I was trying not to cry and wanted to show my father that I am strong, but I couldn’t control my tears at that moment. It was so painful,” she recounted.
Since his abduction, Talia Khattak has been particularly worried about her 56-year-old father because he is diabetic and needs regular medical care.
“My father told me a paramedic checks on him twice a week. He is given breakfast and loads of books for reading. That is what he told me. I am not sure if this is true or if he was told to say this to me,” she said, adding that despite losing some weight he appeared in good condition and had a fresh haircut and shave. “It looked like he was prepared for this meeting. Even his words and sentences seemed rehearsed.”
Talia Khattak says her father was investigating key human rights issues before his abduction. “He was worried a few days before his disappearance but did not tell us much,” she said. “I am sure his disappearance was related to his work.”
Idris Khattak had consulted for AI and probed forced disappearances by the security forces in the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The region bordering Afghanistan is now merged into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and was a main theater of Taliban violence between 2003 and 2014. He had also investigated abuses in the southwestern province of Balochistan, where activists claim thousands have disappeared amid a separatist insurgency.
Talia Khattak says her father is a compassionate man who raised two daughters on his own. She was 6 and her sister was 9 when he and their Russian mother separated. “Papa never made us miss our mom,” she said. “He used to make us breakfast, change our clothes, and comb our hair before dropping us at school. He always strove to build a bright future for me and my sister.”
Idris Khattak is being tried in a military court. His lawyers have launched an appeal to transfer his case to a civilian court, a request backed up by AI. “The Pakistani authorities must bring him before a judge in a civilian court to rule on the lawfulness of his arrest and detention. Amnesty International has serious concerns about the use of a military court for the trial, given these courts’ disregard for due process, human rights, and transparency,” AI said in a statement on November 12.
Previous appeals to provide answers to families of victims in Pakistan have not ended forced disappearances, which began in Balochistan after a separatist insurgency emerged two decades ago. Suspected Baluch separatists and alleged Islamist militants in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and elsewhere were kept in indefinite detention by Pakistani spy and security forces. In recent years, members of political parties, sectarian groups, bloggers, and other activists have also been forcibly disappeared.
The Pakistani authorities maintain that the numbers of alleged forced disappearances are exaggerated and not every missing person is in government custody. The government-appointed Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances (COIED) says it has solved more than 4,748 cases out of 6,831 cases of suspected forced disappearance since 2011. This does not include Idris Khattak’s case.
“We have a form on our website which is also available in local government offices. Families can complete it to learn the whereabouts of the disappeared person. We send that to security agencies, and when the joint investigation is complete we know whether a person is detained or not. I have no record of Idris Khattak’s case here. If his case has been brought to the courts, there is nothing for us to do. Our work is done,” Pervaiz Ahmad, a registrar at COIED, told Radio Mashaal on November 17.
For Talia Khattak, her struggle to bring her father home is far from over. “We are waiting for the courts to give us a date for a hearing,” she said. “It is a painful wait. This whole thing is painful, but I am not giving up. I will continue my struggle until my father is back home.”