Features | Society | South Asia

Without a Trace

By Bronwyn Curran for

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.

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.

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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.

Janjua’s father is a retired army colonel who was once a brother-in-arms with Musharraf.

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“He confirmed through his army contact that all this information is correct,” Amina says.

Amina now leads 400 wives, siblings, and elderly parents of the forcibly disappeared in lobbying authorities to trace them. “The disappeared are all simple people, without any influential contacts to fight for them. They are the earning members of their families, hence their families are now in crisis. Often their wives are uneducated, unable to earn a living and bring up children on their own.”

Atiq-ur Rehman disappeared on his wedding day in 2004. His father has gone mad with despair and has been confined to an asylum periodically. His mother is on anti-anxiety pills. Both are in their 70s. Their son was a scientist with Pakistan’s Atomic Energy Commission in his mid-20s.

“Atiq was waiting for the marriage ceremony to start. Suddenly police entered and took him away. The bride was sitting in another room waiting for her groom. No one had the courage to tell the girl,” Amina recounts.

“The family tried to lodge kidnapping charges at the local police station. But police said they could not register charges because the intelligence agencies are involved.” Four years on there is still no information about him, although it has been confirmed that police handed Rehman over to the army.

“They are poor people and they had educated him with much difficulty. He’d attained a PhD in physics.”

Amina keeps a chilling record of the disappearances. At most recent count it was 546. The list includes those who’ve been released from extra-judicial detention, and some who’ve been traced to the notorious US detention centre at Guantánamo Bay.

The majority are from the southern provinces of Balochistan and Sindh, which both harbour nationalist groups campaigning against central government exploitation of their resources.

HRCP’s Haider, who represented the families in the Supreme Court hearings in 2006-2007, says very few of the disappeared are associated with religious groups. “These people are picked up at random,” he says. “Sometimes it’s just to settle a personal vendetta.”

Take the case of Imran Munir, a 35-year-old businessman based in Malaysia. On a visit home to Islamabad he was picked up after a dispute with an ISI brigadier over a woman. After more than a year of detention and torture, he was advised by prison guards that he should “confess” to being an “enemy agent” to avoid death or Guantánamo Bay. His “confession” under torture earned him a treason charge and, despite being a civilian, a military court trial. On the chief justice’s orders he was produced in the Supreme Court in late 2007. He was in such a shattered physical state that the top judge ordered him confined to hospital in Islamabad. Munir wrote a 10-page account of his ordeal, which included details of hooding, beatings, electric shocks, and sleep deprivation in between long interrogations. He said he was ready to testify about his experience and reveal that he had seen Masood Janjua in an army detention centre in Rawalpindi. Martial law came down before his date in court. He is still in hospital under guard.

Amina has gathered detailed accounts of torture from those who have emerged from arbitrary detention.

“They’ve been handcuffed, manacled, blindfolded, hooded, sleep-deprived. Denied food, water and toilet for three days at a time. Their mouths and eyes are sealed. Some face three days of interrogation followed by electric shocks. No bathing is allowed. They are beaten. Bones are broken, muscles ruptured. They get haemorrhoids everywhere. Most contract tuberculosis, hepatitis B or C or all three. They are mentally damaged. Some recognise nobody. In the one tiny cell they must eat, urinate, and pass faeces. One ex-detainee said he saw neither sunlight nor any person for a year. He never even saw his interrogators.”

Raza was a Shia student in his 20s living in Karachi when a bomb attack killed several prominent Sunni leaders in 2006. He was picked up in random sweeps of Shias, traditional rivals of Sunnis in Pakistan, as authorities tried to find the bombers. After four months he emerged from detention, without any charge. Late that year he testified to Amnesty International about his experiences and was warned to be careful as there was a risk he could be picked up again for talking to the human rights group.

Raza tried to elude detection by heading to Lahore to stay with his uncle. Three days later riot police and paramilitary forces staged a dramatic daylight siege of his uncle’s house. Commandos sprinted across neighbour’s rooftops, the street was barricaded and the house surrounded. Commandos burst in and took Raza away. The brazen openness of the raid enabled the Human Rights Commission to make such a public outcry that Raza re-emerged from unofficial detention a week later. He’s never been charged.

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The releases are usually covert and, according to Haider, elaborate stories can be concocted to explain the detentions. Two Baloch sisters were taken from Karachi. Eighteen months later, police produced them under pressure at a press conference and alleged they were would-be suicide bombers. “This is just to show their performance to Uncle Sam that ‘Hey, we are doing more than enough’,” Haider says.

The girls were quietly sent back to their families, but with strict orders to never speak of their detention.

“That’s when their families tell us to leave them alone. Until the release, they treat me as their best friend, seeking my help. After the release, they say ‘Thank you, don’t bother us any further’.”

In his autobiography In the Line of Fire, Musharraf writes of massive sums received by Pakistanis from the CIA for the handover of alleged suspects. In a chapter titled Manhunt, he says 369 suspects were passed to the US.

“Various Pakistani individuals have earned bounties totalling millions of dollars. Those who habitually accuse us of not doing enough in the war on terror should ask the CIA how much prize money it has paid to Pakistanis,” the president boasts.

The exchange of bounties for detainees without charge or trial has spawned accusations that intelligence agencies are “selling” prisoners.

“The detained people are portrayed as suspects by our own agencies so that they can be sold to the US,” Amina says.

“No proof is required. It’s entirely extra-judicial. They are sacrificing their own people, and violating the rights of their own people just to get American dollars.”

Haider believes the covert arrests are done at the behest of the US. Washington has never publicly expressed concern at the arbitrary, forced disappearances, he points out.

There are fears the vast majority will never be traced. “Some of the people have been on our list for five years, seven years. They may not be alive any more,” Haider says. But Amina still hopes to see her husband again.
“It’s clear that my husband is being held illegally by the intelligence agencies. He’s in the Chaklala Garrison in the army cantonment area near the airport. I go there sometimes and stand out the front. I can feel him, I can smell him.”