Without a Trace


Masood Janjua had a comfortable routine as a small businessman and part-time preacher in Rawalpindi, near the Pakistani capital Islamabad. He usually came home at night to his wife and three young children. Heading west to Peshawar by bus one day in July 2005, he vanished.

His wife Amina received anonymous calls in the days after his disappearance.

“Don’t worry. Your husband will be coming home,” the voices told her. Three years on, he still hasn’t arrived.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

No one will tell his family where he is, why he was picked up, or what he is suspected of. But he has been seen in an army detention cell two kilometres from his home.

Janjua is one of around 550 Pakistanis recorded by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) as “missing” since their suspected detention by army intelligence agents under President Pervez Musharraf’s military dictatorship. They started disappearing a few months after September 11, as Pakistan’s collaboration with the US in the war on terror swung into high gear. The missing include political activists, dissidents, professionals, religious conservatives and suspected extremists.

They are the “disappeared” of Pakistan, and a renewed bid by relatives to find them is emerging as a major test of where power really lies in Pakistan’s new political order. A civilian government was elected with a landslide victory in February after eight years of military rule by the former army chief. But Musharraf clings to his un-elected presidency, apparently with the backing of the US, representing the control that Pakistan’s powerful army still wields.

After repeated orders by the Supreme Court late last year, the government traced 102 of the missing. Most were found held without charge in army detention centres or notorious remote-area jails but none has been produced in an open court. Officials told the court that a few were “under-trial” prisoners facing secret military courts and the closed-door anti-terrorism court.

The former Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry ramped up pressure on security authorities in October to appear in court and explain the fate of the missing. The hearings into their disappearance had begun in 2006, in response to pleas by relatives and the HRCP. Chaudhry was first sacked in March 2007 as his hearings gained momentum, bringing a sudden halt to the court probe into the highly sensitive issue. On his reinstatement in July, Chaudhry immediately resumed the missing persons cases. On November 1, he ordered that some former “disappeared” be produced in court to testify at the next hearing and give evidence of others they saw in detention. Musharraf’s response was unforgiving: martial law. He sacked the chief justice again and 44 other senior judges, took TV channels off-air, suspended parliament, and rounded up scores of lawyers.

“Judicial activism,” Musharraf thundered, was paralysing the administration. He lashed out at Chaudhry’s summonsing of senior officials. He accused the courts of being lenient on terror suspects and thereby raising security risks. In a bold-faced contradiction, he freed 25 militant fighters the next day in a deal with a die-hard Taliban militant leader. The hearings into the missing persons went cold.

“The case of the disappeared has been in the deep freeze of the Supreme Court ever since,” says HRCP secretary-general Iqbal Haider, who has worked on the disappearances since 2002. “Before we could force the authorities to give more details on the forced disappearances, there was a coup against the judiciary”.

The post-martial law judges handpicked by Musharraf have refused repeated requests to resume the hearings.

A year after Janjua’s disappearance, a man in plain clothes appeared at his wife’s office.

“He introduced himself as a telephone operator with the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence agency). He said he wanted to help me,” Amina Janjua recounts. “To prove his position, he repeated to me verbatim a phone conversation I’d had with a human rights worker. He said, ‘I work in the department intercepting phone calls. Your husband was picked from Rawalpindi and was held first in cell 20 I-9. Colonel Habibullah interrogated him. Then he was sent to prison cells in Kashmir.’ The man said I could help my husband by handing over a list of all the phone numbers used by us and our children.” She handed them over and never heard from the man again.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief