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Pakistan’s Shi’ite Minority Protests Against Forced Disappearances

FILE: Shi'ite women protest after an attack on the community on October 2016.
FILE: Shi'ite women protest after an attack on the community on October 2016.

In the southern Pakistani port city of Karachi, activists and relatives of victims of forced disappearances are participating in a nearly two-week sit-in protest to demand that authorities release or find scores of missing Shi’a.

In the latest development, police released 18 protesters on May 9. They were among the 36 protesters whom police had arrested a day earlier for organizing a sit-in outside the Pakistani president’s private residence in Karachi’s Bahadurabad neighborhood since April 28.

“This protest includes more than just the relatives of those picked up during the past four or five weeks,” activist Mohammad Jibran Nasir said. “It also includes those whose family members have disappeared during the past three, four, or five years.”

Shi’ite activists say some 80 members of the community are currently disappeared and that many of them were picked up in Karachi in recent weeks.

During the past year, forced disappearances have sparked major protests across Pakistan. As of March, the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances, a government-appointed body, had 2,178 unresolved cases. Since 2011, the commission claims to have resolved thousands of cases of forced disappearances by mostly establishing that the victims are in government custody.

Still there is no end in sight for families and communities of victims who often scramble to find any information about their disappeared relatives.

“This protest is organized by the families of victims,” Nasir says. “For God’s sake, please stop terrorizing people,” he said in an apparent reference to Pakistan’s powerful military and spy services. Pakistani authorities have mostly rejected being responsible for forced disappearances.

According to Amnesty International (AI), the victims of enforced or involuntary disappearances include bloggers, journalists, students, political activists, human rights defenders, members of religious minorities, and suspected members of armed groups. AI says that while the practice was once confined to the restive western provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, it is now pervasive in the country’s heartland and major cities.

“Enforced disappearances have long been a stain on Pakistan’s human rights record,” AI said in a statement in March. “Despite the pledges of successive governments to criminalize the practice, there has been slow movement on legislation while people continue to be forcibly disappeared with impunity.”

Shi’ite leaders say they are not asking for leniency but want the state to uphold the rule of law.

“Please don’t push us to the brink,” Shi’ite cleric Allama Raja Nasir Abbas recently said in an appeal to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. “Our youth are ready to cooperate with you. Please call them to the police station, or anywhere, investigate them and they will cooperate, but stop picking them up from their homes.”

Shi’a make up some 20 percent of Pakistan’s more than 207 million population. Shi’ite communities are spread across the country and are part of all major ethno-linguistic groups. Since the early 1980s, thousands have died in sectarian violence in which hard-line Sunni militant groups have mostly targeted minority Shi’a. Some Shi’ite militant groups have also participated in sectarian warfare. Experts and authorities say the violence is part of the regional rivalry between the Shi’ite clerical regime in neighboring Iran and its regional archrival, the Saudi monarchy.

International media reports say the ongoing disappearances of members of Pakistan’s Shi’ite community are linked to their suspected role in a secretive Shi’ite militia in Syria. The Zainabyoun Brigade was allegedly composed of Pakistani Shi’ite volunteers who have been fighting on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

But Shi’ite activists say forced disappearances are not the right approach to punishing those suspected of committing crimes.

“We will continue this sit-in protest until the authorities present all the victims of enforced disappearances in the courts,” says Rashid Rizvi, an organizer of the protest in Karachi. He says that currently some 80 members of the Shi’ite community are “missing” across Pakistan. Some 39 of these come from Karachi.

Naghma Shaikh, another activist, says they are networking with the political and civil rights organizations working for victims of forced disappearances from among Pakistan’s Baluch, Pashtun, Mohajir, and Sindhi ethnic minorities.

“If we all raise our voice against the violation of our basic human rights, it will result in improving the situation,” she told Radio Mashaal. “Every suspect needs to be presented to a court and tried, but the practice of picking up people to disappear them must end.”

Nasir Hussain Shah is a provincial minister in Sindh, where Karachi is the capital. He told Radio Mashaal that their Pakistan Peoples Party-led provincial administration is against forced disappearances.

“We have checked and ensured that the provincial police force working under our administration is not involved in such practices,” he said. “If anyone is accused of a crime, they should be dealt with by the law.”

While Pakistan’s powerful military has mostly avoided speaking about the issue, its spokesman recently implied that the country’s complex security challenges prompted them to resort to extreme measures.

“We don’t want that anybody should go missing, but one has to do a lot of stuff while fighting a war,” Pakistan’s top military spokesman Asif Ghafoor told journalists on April 29. “This is why people say, ‘Everything is fair in love and war.’”

Ghafoor added that wars are ruthless. “The armed forces of Pakistan or its security organization fight it as a duty. It is not their personal war,” he said.