How Imran Khan Betrayed Pakistan’s Missing Persons

Recent Features

Features | Politics | South Asia

How Imran Khan Betrayed Pakistan’s Missing Persons

The former prime minister had been outspoken about addressing the issue of enforced disappearances. But even before his ouster, Baloch had long since given up hope that he would take action.

How Imran Khan Betrayed Pakistan’s Missing Persons

Nasrullah Baloch, center bottom, leader of the Voice of Baloch Missing Persons, speaks while people hold placards and portraits of their missing family members during a press conference in Islamabad, Pakistan, Saturday, February 20, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Anjum Naveed

Imran Khan recently became the first Pakistani prime minister to be ousted from power via a vote of no confidence. The former cricket star turned politician made several promises that he and his government couldn’t live up to in their three-and-a-half years of governance. One such promise was to resolve the missing persons’ issue.

Before becoming the Prime Minister, Khan was a regular and prominent guest on Geo TV’s show “Capital Talk,” hosted by renowned anchor and journalist Hamid Mir. On the show, Khan criticized intelligence agencies for kidnapping people without evidence and he did not mince his words. “Once in the government, it is going to be me against the security agencies in case a single person goes missing during my government,” Khan proclaimed.

In his book “Pakistan: A Personal History,” he proudly claims that he “led the first demonstration with the families of missing persons outside parliament [in 2003].”

Khan became the 22nd prime minister of Pakistan after the controversial election of 2018, which his opponents termed as “rigged.” Shortly after, Dr. Shireen Mazari, the human rights minister in Khan’s cabinet, began to prepare the much-awaited bill to criminalize enforced disappearances. Mazari had long claimed that her party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), is a pioneer in working on legislation to change the situation.

Khan’s uncensored criticism of the intelligence agencies and his promises gave a faint hope to hundreds and thousands of missing persons’ families in Balochistan. The southwestern province of Pakistan is plagued by both an insurgency movement and counterinsurgency operations that violate human rights, such as enforced disappearances.

As time passed and nothing happened, however, the desperate families lost hope.

In February 2021, at least 15 families of missing persons from Balochistan came to protest in Pakistan’s capital to push Khan and Mazari to fulfil their promise.

“We came to remind Imran Khan and Shireen Mazari that they have to bring back our loved ones who were forcefully abducted and criminalize enforced disappearances,” said Sammi Deen Baloch, who has been campaigning on behalf of her missing father, Dr. Deen Muhammed Baloch, for over a decade.

The families weathered the harsh winter nights of the capital for five days, staging a sit-in outside the Islamabad Press Club, but not a single government representative came to visit them. They were eventually forced to take their protest to D-Chowk, close to the parliament.

Baloch recounted that many students had come to support them. At least 10 were arrested for a day and a lot of obstacles were created for them before they reached D-Chowk.

Eventually, Mazari visited the aggrieved families and assured them that Khan would meet them in a month’s time to discuss the issue of missing persons.

Baloch, along with two other family members of missing persons, met the then-prime minister on March 18, 2021.

“We had different expectations from the PM because we had been assured that when the PM will meet us, he will give us some information about our loved ones, who were missing for years,” said Baloch.

She added, “PM did not make any promises or give us any reassurances. He just said he wants the issue of missing persons to be resolved. He said he would personally meet the Chief of Army Staff to discuss the cases, and would give us some information about our loved ones. We asked for a time-frame. He asked us to wait for a month. But nothing happened.”

The bill banning enforced disappearances was introduced in Pakistan’s parliament in June 2021 and passed by the National Assembly in November. However, it never passed the Senate, and last month, Mazari said that the bill on missing persons had itself gone “missing.”  The Diplomat reached out to Mazari for a comment but didn’t hear back.

Khan was ousted from power through a no-confidence vote in parliament on April 9. The bill on missing persons was never made law.

Hafeez Baloch and Racial Profiling of Baloch Students

Amid silence from the government, enforced disappearances continue in Balochistan.

Abdul Hafeez Baloch, enrolled in Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, went to his hometown, Khuzdar, Balochistan, in February but never returned to his school. Baloch was reportedly abducted from an academy where he was teaching.

His father told BBC that “three masked armed men came in a black surf car and forcibly took Abdul Hafeez to an unknown location in front of his students.”

Intelligence agencies are generally alleged to be involved in the enforced disappearances cases; however, Pakistan’s security agencies have regularly denied being complicit in disappearances.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) expressed concerns about reports of a fresh wave of enforced disappearances in Balochistan and on the abduction of Hafeez Baloch.

Baloch students staged a protest in front of the Islamabad press club. A case was registered in the Islamabad High Court against Hafeez Baloch’s abduction and racial profiling of the Baloch students at university campuses across the country.

In its response, the Islamabad High Court noted, “There cannot be a graver grievance [than] for a citizen to feel that he/she is being subjected to racial profiling or is not being treated equally.”

Imaan Hazir Mazari, the lawyer of Hafeez Baloch, said that “the last order of the Honourable Court notes that the Baloch students should not feel scared to return to their hometowns as a result of this profiling – that is an acknowledgment of the trauma and insecurity these students have been living in for many months now (and others before them). Measures are to be taken by the Interior Ministry and others in this regard.”

Mazari added that it is deplorable and distressing, but most Pakistanis are not aware of the situation in Balochistan due to a media blackout.

“When parents in those circumstances, against all odds, sacrifice to send their children to the Federal Capital, Punjab, or elsewhere so that they can have a safer existence, these students are profiled on campuses, which are meant to be safe and enabling spaces for them to learn, grow, and express themselves without fear,” Mazari told The Diplomat.

Critics say that the administration of QAU did not pay heed to the issue of racial profiling of Baloch students.

“If these students had been heard by QAU administration, they wouldn’t have had to come out onto the streets in the first place. There has been a massive failure on the part of QAU in allowing this profiling, harassment, and intimidation of Baloch students to take place on its campus,” said Mazari.

Weeks later after protests across the country and the court intervention, Hafeez Baloch reappeared. However, charges of terrorism were registered against him in Balochistan and he has been imprisoned since then. His lawyer, family, and activists term the charges as “fake.”

Imaan Mazari said that the matter is still ongoing in the court, but what is important is that the voice of the Baloch students has reached the constitutional court and subsequently those in government and the bureaucracy.

“For those in the corridors of power to hear these voices is a first step toward rectifying the wrongs that have been perpetrated over decades,” she added.

But one could argue that in the past the courts have taken notice of the gross human rights abuses and enforced disappearances in Balochistan, but the situation remains the same. Human rights activists in Balochistan say that unless the perpetrators are punished and held accountable nothing would change.

And that brings us back to Khan’s broken promises and the “missing” bill on enforced disappearances.

The Never-Ending Issue of Enforced Disappearances

According to the Voice for the Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP), an organization that keeps a record of missing persons, more than 5,000 people have been forcefully abducted over two decades in Balochistan.

“During Imran Khan’s tenure, 430 missing persons were recovered while more than 600 went missing,” said Nasrullah Baloch, the chair of VBMP.

“Since Shehbaz Sharif took oath as the prime minister, three people have been abducted. As per unconfirmed reports received by VBMP, on 19th April 2022, 7 more people were abducted including a female,” he added.

The issue of missing persons is not confined to Balochistan. The former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), bordering Afghanistan, have reportedly seen the forced disappearance of thousands of civilians.

In Balochistan, political workers, students, rights activists, insurgents, and their sympathizers or facilitators have been forcefully abducted. Whenever there is a rise in separatist attacks and rights activism by the Baloch – as is occurring today – an increase in missing persons is also seen.

Many Baloch have raised eyebrows over mega development projects such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and multibillion dollar copper and gold Reko Diq projects. They claim the national resources of Balochistan are being exploited by the center and multinational companies.

Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur, a renowned Baloch rights activist and columnist, said that before one talks about the missing persons issue it is necessary to see and understand the broader perspective of why people go missing. Without touching this important aspect there can never be any improvement or clarity, he said.

Talpur explained that a sizable majority of Baloch people reject the mega development projects and secret deals on Saindak and Reko Diq, which they see as instruments of bringing about demographic changes, population displacement, and economic apartheid. But anyone subscribing to this view is considered a traitor by the central government, and because holding this view is not a crime the only way to deter people is to intimidate them by disappearing people.

He added, “This is an unending cycle of oppression and resistance, as Baloch despite all the losses suffered have continued to resist and the state doesn’t relent in its oppressive policies.”

According to Talpur, there isn’t a single political party in Balochistan that is willing to voice the sentiments at the root of the issue of missing persons, for this would mean a direct confrontation with the state. However, these parties do not shy away from falling back on the missing persons issue for their political redemption.

The Balochistan National Party-Mengal (BNP-M) joined an alliance with Khan’s PTI with six demands and on the top of the list was the demand for the release of Baloch missing persons. After two years, the BNP-M left the alliance, stating that none of their demands were fulfilled.

Sardar Akthar Mengal, the chief of BNP-M, has been a vocal voice against enforced disappearances. He played an important role in ousting Khan and threw his support for the new government led by Shehbaz Sharif.

A few days ago, while speaking on a Twitter space, Akhthar Mengal expressed his disappointment with the PTI and Khan’s handling of the issue of enforced disappearances. He also said that he was not hopeful that the current government would resolve the issue.

On hearing this, Sammi Deen Baloch asked him why, if they are disappointed, Akhthar Mengal and Dr. Abdul Malik, the head of the National Party (NP), wouldn’t join the missing persons’ families to protest against the current government.

He did not directly say that he would do so.

Many critics of the BNP-M do not believe that the party is serious in taking substantial steps for the cause.

“BNP-M is a political party and not a revolutionary one. It wants to work within the system and because it itself doesn’t have enough members to bring about a change, so it compromises with parties that matter at the moment,” explained Talpur.

When the families of missing persons staged protests in Islamabad, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, the vice president of the ruling party Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the daughter of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif – and niece of current PM Shehbaz Sharif – visited the families and criticized Khan’s government for not resolving the issue. But few hope for concrete action from the PML-N now that it is in the prime minster’s seat.

“While political parties are out of power, they raise the issue of missing persons as this stance garners support for them and their democratic credentials are enhanced and reinforced. But after they come to power, they realize talking about the missing persons will ruffle the feathers of quarters that are powerful,” said Talpur