A government-appointed commission in Pakistan says it has received more than 5,000 cases of enforced disappearances in a country where the issue has prompted large-scale protests and accusations against the country’s powerful military.
In its recent report issued on May 31, the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances said it has received 5,177 cases of alleged enforced disappearances since its inception in 2011.
This number highlights the magnitude of enforced disappearances in Pakistan. During the past 15 years, families of separatists, members of ethno-nationalist political parties, peace activists, members of Islamist factions, and critics of the military have frequently accused authorities of either orchestrating enforced disappearances or failing to help in finding their loved ones.
The northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province together with the merged areas of the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas have the highest number of cases. The commission’s data says that out of 2,157 reported cases in the region, the commission has resolved 967 cases and is still working on 983.
The resolved cases include 182 instances that either did not meet the commission’s criteria for enforced disappearances or could not be pursued due to insufficient information. Many of the cases the commission claims to have “traced” typically established that the victim is currently being detained by police or security forces.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal areas were the main theater for Pakistan’s complex domestic war on terrorism. Beginning in 2003, tens of thousands of civilians, soldiers, and militants were killed in terrorist attacks and counterterrorism sweeps. Since February, the Pashtun Tahafuz (Protection) Movement (PTM), a civil rights movement from among the region’s predominant Pashtun ethnic group, has protested across Pakistan.
Ending enforced disappearances is a top demand of the PTM. It wants Islamabad to end indefinite detentions by producing the victims of enforced disappearances before courts.
Pakistan’s powerful military has repeatedly rejected the PTM’s accusations that it is behind enforced disappearances and illegal killings or that it extends clandestine support to militants. But hundreds of victims of enforced disappearances have returned to their homes in the aftermath of the movement’s large protest gatherings.
The southern province of Sindh follows Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the government’s statistics. The commission says that out of total of 1,343 cases, it has resolved 1,136.
But activists in Sindh say thousands remain missing. Sind Bar Council, a lawyer’s association in the province, is boycotting courts on June 1 to highlight the plight of victims of disappearances.
Lawyer Salahuddin Khan Gandapur, a leader of the council, says the courts have made little headway in dealing with more than 3,000 cases of disappearances in the region.
“We have a situation in which people are regularly being picked up,” he told the BBC’s Urdu Service. “Even when the courts are told about those responsible for the disappearances, they do nothing.”
Families across Pakistan often blame the country’s intelligence services for the disappearances of their loved ones.
But authorities deny responsibility. Javed Iqbal, a former Supreme Court judge heading the commission on enforced disappearances, told lawmakers in April that some 70 percent of people thought to be victims of enforced disappearances were involved in militancy.
The BBC recently reported that some 140 members of Pakistan’s Shi’ite minority have gone “missing” in recent years. Their relatives and community leaders are being told by the authorities that the men are being investigated for links to Zainabiyoun Brigade.
Believed to be made up of Pakistani fighters, the organization is seen as a Tehran-sponsored Shi’ite militia fighting for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Curiously, the government commission has only recorded 348 cases of enforced disappearances in the southwestern province of Balochistan. The commission is now reviewing only 151 of these cases because some 110 people were traced while the rest did not meet its criteria.
The vast region bordering Iran and Afghanistan has suffered from a simmering separatist insurgency by secular Baluch nationalists for nearly 15 years. For more than a decade, activists in the region have accused Islamabad of using enforced disappearances as a tool to subdue the Baluch nationalist insurrection. They accuse Islamabad of forcing the disappearance of thousands of supporters and activists of various Baluch nationalist factions.
Mehdi Hasan, chairperson of the nongovernmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, says the people categorized as disappeared can be broadly divided into three categories.
He told the BBC’s Urdu Service that one part of the disappeared are those who are being held by the country’s secret services indefinitely. He says some individuals disappear because they leave the country illegally while other are killed in shootouts or while fighting against security forces and police.
“The number of disappeared is increasing because it includes people from all these categories,” he said.
Hasan says Pakistani laws do not allow indefinite detentions because the law enforcement and security services are required to produce suspects in a court of law within 24 hours of arrest.
“What we need is to act on the laws we already have. This is called establishing the rule of law,” he said.