Tales of the missing
By Malik Siraj Akbar
A Baloch woman, the mother of a young man who has been missing for several months, says it is against the traditions of the land for women to leave their homes. Yet, they have now been forced to get out and sit on hunger strikes to protest the disappearances of their sons and fathers.
The mother has no clue about her son’s whereabouts except that he was whisked away by the secret agencies because of alleged links with the banned Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA). She is not the only woman in Balochistan who desperately awaits her son’s return; the numbers are increasing.
Arrests and disappearances of young political activists and other citizens by the intelligence agencies is becoming routine affair in tension-ridden Balochistan. Every second home has a painful tale to narrate but all have one thing in common: they swear that their kids had no links with the BLA.
Some estimates put the number of illegal detentions at one hundred young men; others say the number is much higher. “These people are kept in illegal confinement in inhuman conditions and are routinely tortured. The legal procedure requires that the challan must be submitted within fourteen days. But in most cases no first investigation report (FIR) is registered nor are these people produced before a court of law,” Zahoor Ahmed Shawani, president of Balochistan chapter of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), told TFT. Shawani also says the practice is alarmingly increasing with all segments of society, including the police and the judiciary, helpless before the intelligence agencies.
“They are at liberty to pick up anyone from anywhere who they then detain and torture at Quetta’s Qili Camp. Neither the police nor the judiciary takes notice of these illegal detentions,” says Kachkol Ali Baloch, Balochistan’s leader of the opposition.
Incensed over the abduction of their beloved, families of missing people have tried all means of protest, but to no avail. The eight children of 38-year-old Ali Asghar Bangulzai, a tailor by profession who was whisked away by the intelligence agencies on October 18, 2001, sat on hunger strike to press the government for their father’s release. It was the longest hunger strike ever staged by children in the history of Pakistan and lasted 331 days. Not a leaf stirred.
Bangulzai’s family told TFT that he was first picked up by the secret agencies on June 1, 2000 but released within 22 days. He was picked up again, along with a friend, Mohamamd Iqbal and since then, no one knows what became of him. His family says personnel from an intelligence agency came to their house and assured that Ali was safe and sound in their custody. While Ali’s companion, Iqbal, was released, Ali seems to have gone missing for good.
“We met with the head of the intelligence agency in the presence of MMA leader Hafiz Hussain Ahmed. The official confirmed that Ali was in their custody and would be released soon,” Nasrullah, Ali Asghar’s nephew says, adding that later the official of the same agency backtracked from his promise and denied that Ali was in their custody.
In a similar incident, Hafiz Saeed Bangulzai went missing on July 4, 2003, the day when sectarian killings rocked Quetta. “Some personnel came to our house and assured that Hafiz would be released soon after investigations,” Allah Baksh, the former’s father says. “That has not happened; my son has not come back.”
Saeed’s family also filed a habeas corpus petition in the Balochistan High Court. The Court was informed on March 31, 2004 that Saeed was in the custody of Crimes Branch, as he was needed in a ‘sensitive case’. He would be set free, it was said, once he was proved innocent. The court directed the concerned department to allow Saeed’s mother to meet him. But the meeting was denied, though no one knows why. Later, agencies even denied that Saeed was in their custody. Since then, the family has resorted to all tactics to get Saeed released but have failed. Saeed remains missing and the family’s search continues.
Ali and Saeed are just two examples of illegal detentions; there are many more such stories. The families of the youths that have gone missing say that there is no trace of them. Agencies deny that these men are in their custody. No FIRs against them can be located at any police station. Police officers brazenly confess that these men have been picked up by ‘shadowy forces’ about which the police can do nothing. Evidently, the police refuses to register a missing complaint or do anything to search for these people. The families have also failed to get justice from the courts despite filing countless petitions. What is going on?
A similar fate awaited Munir Mengal, managing director of the first Balochi language TV channel, Baloch Voice, when he arrived at Karachi airport on April 4 from Bahrain. Munir’s family members, who have gone on a hunger strike in Khuzdar district which has entered its 30th day, disclose that Munir was stopped by the immigration cell of Federal Investigation Agency (FIA). “His only crime was that he wanted to promote Balochi culture by inducting the first Balochi satellite television channel,” says Zakia Karim, Mengal’s sister.
Presently, strident demos and indefatigable hunger strikes are organised all over Balochistan to protest the illegal detention of these missing persons. But nothing seems to be working. A few other names among the missing people are that of a noted Balochi poet, Hanif Sharif. He went missing on November 18, 2005. The families of Ibrahim and Ghoram Saleh, two brothers, Rahmatullah Shohaz, Haji Jan Mohammad, two other brothers and three friends Noor Mohammad Mari, Mir Ahmed Mari and Jamand Khan Mari, all below 18, complain that their men were picked up by secret agencies. The families also maintain that agency personnel keep visiting their homes and pressure them into calling off their efforts to get the men released or be prepared to face dire consequences.
As early as March 17 last year, some seven activists of the Baloch Students Organisation (BSO) including its chairman, Dr Imdad Baloch, and president Dr Allah Nazir were picked up from a flat in Karachi. They were shifted to an unknown location where they were tortured and investigated about the BLA. Despite repeated assurances by the government that the BSO activists were not in official custody, massive province-wide protests by supporters of the outfit compelled the agencies to release four of the BSO men.
“It was a very painful period. They meted out inhuman treatment to us. We were kept in separate dark rooms, hung upside down and beaten with clubs,” recalls Dr Imdad of BSO while talking to TFT. He says they were interrogated about the command and control system and the financial sources of the BLA.
Though Imdad and three of his companions were lucky to be released, three of his comrades, including Allah Nazir, still remain in custody. They have not been produced before a court of law. Nazir’s family says his physical and mental state has considerably deteriorated after the confinement of more than one year.
Most analysts are of the view that such tactics will further alienate the Baloch youth. “How many people will they pick up and put into torture cells? The Baloch can’t be suppressed. We will fight for our rights till our last drop of blood,” vows a BSO member.