Six months ago, Talia Khattak, 20, was just a regular student in Pakistan. She was happily focused on pursuing a degree in computer science and taking care of her middle-aged father, who had raised her as a single parent.
But now she is campaigning to be reunited with him. Idris Khattak, a human rights campaigner and political activist, was picked up by unidentified men in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa last November.
He is believed to have joined the thousands of victims of forced disappearances in Pakistan whose fate he had researched for global human rights watchdogs.
“This will be our first Eid without my father,” Talia said in a recent video, referring to the Muslim festival of Eid Al-fitar, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. “Not a day goes by that we don’t miss him. We have been to the police. We have filed a case in the court, but nobody is telling us anything.”
Talia is particularly worried about her 56-year-old father because he is diabetic and needs regular medical care. “I appeal to [Pakistani] Prime Minister Imran Khan, Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari, human rights organizations, and the public to help us,” she said. “We want justice.”
Recalling their last meeting, Talia says that a day before his disappearance on November 13 they discussed her long train journey from Islamabad to the southern seaport city of Karachi. “He was reluctant to let me take the train. The railways are not safe, he had said, and that he had a bad feeling,” she wrote in a recent op-ed. “We reached a compromise that he would call me every hour to check on me.”
The next day, she hadn’t heard from her father by the time the train reached the eastern city of Lahore, a five-hour journey. “Puzzled, I called him. He answered to say he was very busy and that he would be staying with his friends for a few days,” she wrote. “He also added, strangely, that his phone was almost out of battery and he had left his charger at home.”
Not feeling worried, she spent the next few days planning a celebration for her father’s birthday.
“It was November 18, a day before Papa’s birthday. I was catching a train when a university mate sent me a text message saying my father had been abducted five days ago,” she told Radio Mashaal. “I was devastated. My [extended] family already knew about his kidnapping, but they were hoping he would return before I did.”
Six months later, there are still no definitive answers about Khattak’s whereabouts. A week after his disappearance, Amnesty International (AI) called on the Pakistani authorities to “immediately release Idris Khattak and other people who have been disappeared, or produce them in a civilian court to be charged.” Khattak’s driver was released a day after his disappearance. In a sign that the disappearance was not criminally motivated, no one has demanded ransom for his release. But a police investigation has gone nowhere.
Talia says her father was probing key human rights issues before his disappearance. “He was worried a few days before his disappearance but did not tell us much,” she said. “I am sure his disappearance is related to his work.”
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. Khattak had also probed abuses in the southwestern province of Balochistan, where activists claim thousands have disappeared amid a separatist insurgency.
Talia 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.”
Following months of appeals to officials and lawmakers, Talia finally reached the courts. In January, she filed a habeas corpus case in the Peshawar High Court, the top court in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. While the court ordered the authorities to locate Khattak, there has been no progress.
“We nominated the Pakistani government and its eight security agencies,” her lawyer, Tariq Afghan told Radio Mashaal. “Three of them told the court that Idris Khattak is not in their custody. Five others have not submitted their response.”
Case hearings have now been postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. As in many other cases about forced disappearances, it is unclear why thousands have gone missing and are not tried for their alleged crimes.
Talia is consumed with worry about her father’s fate. “I want him back. With the help of social media, we are finally finding our voice,” she said, alluding to her use of Twitter and other social media platforms to try to find her father.
Her campaigning has resonated. On May 21, AI launched a new campaign for Khattak’s release.
“Few punishments are as cruel as enforced disappearances and not knowing the whereabouts and fate of their loved one is a source of immense pain and anguish for Mr. Khattak’s family,” read a letter from AI to Prime Minister Khan. “Enforced disappearances have long been a stain on Pakistan’s human rights record.”
Earlier, Human Rights Watch called on Islamabad to seriously investigate Khattak’s disappearance. “Pakistan’s security forces have long been implicated in enforced disappearances, carried out with impunity,” the organization said in a May 4 statement. “Either charge or release people held in illegal secret detention centers, and hold those responsible to account.”
But 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 claims of the numbers of forced disappearances are exaggerated and that not every missing person is in government custody. The government-appointed Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances says it has solved more than 4,000 cases out of more than 6,500 cases of suspected forced disappearance since 2011.
“There are over 2,000 unsolved cases we are currently working on. Idris Khattak’s case is not among them because we do not have him in our registry,” Farid Ahmad Khan, secretary of the commission, told Radio Mashaal. “A human rights organization, the United Nations, or a family member has to register his case with us first.”
But finding victims of forced disappearances such as Khattak still remains a journey in the dark. Last year, Shireen Mazari, the human rights minister, said her Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) political party had been working to criminalize forced disappearances. “PTI lives up to its human rights commitments,” she tweeted with the news in January 2019.
But in its 2019 report on Pakistan, AI recorded little improvement. “In some cases, persons are openly taken into custody by the police or intelligence agencies, and families trying to find out where they are held are denied information,” it noted. “Some victims are eventually released or their whereabouts are disclosed to their families.”
Talia hopes they will be among the lucky few whose loved ones have returned.
“Papa taught us to be brave and optimistic,” she said. “I sleep every night in hope of a morning that will bring him back.”