Last Thursday, five year old Sachal accompanied by his maternal grandmother appeared before the divisional bench of Islamabad High Court [IHC] comprising CJ Farooq and Justice Miangul Hassan Aurangzeb. Sachal is the son of Pakistani journalist, poet, and blogger Muddassir Naaru, who went missing from Kaghan Valley in Mansehra district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa while on a family excursion in 2018.
Being just six months old at that time, Sachal does not have any memories of this horrendous incident, which in a way is a good thing. But destiny has been rather cruel to him. In 2021, his mother suddenly passed away leaving this poor ‘half orphan’ to singlehandedly deal with the double trauma of having lost his mother and being unaware about the whereabouts and state of his father.
Naaru was also a social activist and human rights defender and had antagonised the Pakistani security forces and intelligence agencies by highlighting excesses being committed in the garb of fighting terrorism. Hence, there are good reasons to believe that these all-powerful entities considered it expedient to cause an inconvenient person refusing to be reined to simply ‘disappear’!
Enforced disappearances orchestrated by the Pakistan Army, its intelligence agencies and the para-military forces under it’s command is so commonplace that in 2021, the then IHC Chief Justice Athar Minallah had remarked that “If the press was [really] independent, the pictures of missing person’s families would have been in paper every day.” [Emphasis added].
With thousands of enforced disappearances suits languishing in courts for years, Naaru’s case too would have met the same fate had it not been for a couple of positive developments. The first lucky break came when Nuru was spotted by a close associate at a detention center meant for ‘missing people’ a few months after his disapppearance. This belied the police version that the journalist may have accidently died or committed suicide by drowning in the Kaghan River and confirmed that he was alive.
Two, Chief Justice Minallah took a very serious view of the government’s apathy in discharging its duty of protecting the people and made a scathing attack on the Pakistan Army by stating that “half of our lives were spent with non-democratic governments in power.” Noting that “Had the state existed somewhere, why would the affected family need to approach the court [sic],” he directed that a meeting between the parents and children of Naaru with the prime minister should be ensured before the next hearing into the case.
Though the meeting with the prime minister was held and many assurances were given, the Naaru case remains in limbo and Sachal along with his grandmother continue to knock on IHC’s door for justice and that’s why they were there last Thursday. And in its news report, Dawn mentions, “When Naaru’s case came up, the CJ noted how the court felt embarrassed that the matter has been lingering for five years now.” What could be more embarrassing for a country than its court publicly expressing embarrassment for its inability to dispense justice?
In another such case heard along with that of Naaru’s disappearance, the petitioner informed the court that his two sons had been missing for a very long time. Noting that this case was extraordinary and brought disrepute to Pakistan, the two member IHC divisional bench division lamented that “the state appeared to be helpless in the matter.”
This observation clearly reaffirms the fact that the burgeoning cases of enforced disappearances in Pakistan are primarily due to Rawalpindi’s lack of accountability that flows from its absolute supremacy over both the country’s legislature and judiciary. This admission revives memories of IHC senior judge Justice Shaukat Siddiqui’s 2018 revelation that “Today the judiciary and media have come in the control of ‘Bandookwala’ [army]. Judiciary is not independent…,[sic]” and how “In different cases, the ISI forms benches of its choice to get desired results.”
The fact that the Pakistan Army has scant regard for observing human rights is evident from its self-admitted involvement in enforced disappearances. Readers may recall that during a press conference in 2019, the then DG ISPR Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor, had while replying to a question on enforced disappearances said, “We don’t wish that anyone should be missing. But when it’s war, you have to do a lot of things- as they say, all is fair in love and war; war is very ruthless.” [Emphasis added].
Human Rights Watch World Report 2019 on Pakistan also mentions that “During counter-terrorism operations, Pakistani security forces often are responsible for serious human rights violations including torture, enforced disappearances, detention without charge, and extrajudicial killings, according to Pakistan human rights defenders and defence lawyers… Authorities do not allow independent monitoring of trials in military courts and many defendants are denied the right to a fair trial.” [Emphasis added].
In its editorial of October 7, Dawn appropriately stated that “The blight of enforced disappearances has become almost normalised in our society, with hardly any voice being raised against the unlawful detention of citizens,” and leaves the reader with a haunting question- “Is the state comfortable with the fact that Pakistan is seen as a lawless land, where people disappear and are arbitrarily punished?”.