AN OPEN LETTER REGARDING THE ZARINA MARRI CASE
After the horrifying story of the forced sex slavery of Zarina Marri, a young Baloch schoolteacher, at the hands of Pakistani military agencies was brought to light, many people – including members of ‘civil society’ and otherwise vocal defenders of human rights – have requested ‘verification’ of the story, which they assert needs to come from ‘multiple sources’ since it is a ‘very serious charge’ that is being leveled. (As a side, I wonder if they deem this charge ‘very serious’ because of the identity of the accused or because of the heinousness of the crime?).
The charges being leveled in this case are indeed serious, as were the charges in the Naseerabad ‘burying alive’ incident, the Mukhataran Mai case, the Shazia Khalid case, and scores of others. Like the other cases, in the Zarina Marri case too, the story has been broken by a witness (who is also a victim) of the crime (Mr. Munir Mengal) – which is usually the way such incidents come to light in the first place. In politically sensitive cases, especially those which involve state-perpetrated atrocities, verification is a particularly thorny matter and anyone with the slightest experience in trying to investigate such cases would know that access to information is enormously difficult. Thus, one can hardly expect the accused in this case to tolerate – let alone co-operate- with the investigations in this regard. Regarding the need for ‘multiple sources’ then, I certainly hope nobody is expecting the military to ‘verify’ this story, or expecting that the victim herself (whose whereabouts are unknown) will magically appear before them to ‘verify’ that she has indeed been abused. Zarina’s family has apparently fled their hometown (understandably perhaps) so local human rights agencies have not been able to confirm details about the woman.
However, in this (not unusual) situation of scarce sources and incomplete information, it becomes significant that the Zarina Marri case is based not on informal ‘rumour’ , but rather on a report released by the AHRC (Asian Human Rights Commission) which is considered both nationally and internationally to be a credible organization. (Human Rights Commission of Pakistan is a member of AHRC as well.) Additionally, the story was reported by Reporters Sans Frontiers, and there is an ICRC (International Committee for the Red Cross) report verifying sections of Munir Mengal’s testimony, which he has also given before a court in London. Anyone who wants further information about the source of these organizations’ information, their verification mechanisms etc. may contact them directly.
However, what struck me upon reading various people’s messages regarding the issue was not any inherent ‘unreasonable-ness’ in their demand for further verification. Rather, what struck me was the realization that we are partial in our choice of questioning the authenticity of certain charges. Take the ‘burying alive’ case, for example. Was our first response to request ‘further verification’ of the incident? If the story was in fact ‘verified’, by whose seal was it deemed authentic/true, were those sources considered trustworthy, and if so on what basis did we trust them? (To prevent my words from being misconstrued, let me make it clear that by raising these questions I am not trying to justify the act of burying women alive). A question thus arises: are we questioning the authenticity of the Zarina story because we are not convinced of the witness’s or RSF’s/ICRC’s/AHRC’s intentions? Did we wait until charges against Afia Siddiqui were proven/disproven before protesting for her rights? Examples abound. The fact is, there is no such thing as ‘perfect information’. It’s just about what we choose to accept, and what we choose to question.
Furthermore, it appears that we accept those charges (without asking for ‘further verification’) which fit with our mental image of the supposed perpetrator; we accept that which appears ‘believable’, and suspect that which does not corroborate with our world-view. For example, (in accordance with a certain world-view) those who are ‘backward’ are likely to bury their women alive or abuse them, sell them, etc. America “hates Muslims” hence Afia Siddiqui must be an innocent woman whose release we must fight for. (I am quoting examples from common perception, i’m sure some of you must hold contrary views but it is a general Pakistani middle-class mind-set I am talking about). Thus, because certain charges appears ‘probable’ to us, we generally don’t make the same request for ‘verification’ in those cases, and certainly ‘verification’ is not our first response upon hearing of such incidents. And that’s okay I suppose. We all do it, we’re human, we make assumptions, we believe what we want to believe, we see what we want to see…
As far as people’s image of the Pakistan military goes, I’m not sure what you all have in mind, but I’ve witnessed this Army shooting a man on sight for putting up a flag they don’t like, I’ve met scores of people have been picked up and tortured by them and their intelligence agencies for no fault of theirs… Just read for yourself about what they did in Bangladesh during the 1971 war, about the 1973-77 operation in Balochistan, about Zia-ul-Haq’s era … and then perhaps the fact that they have picked up a young baloch woman and are using her as a sex-slave wont appear to you as extraordinary and your first reaction upon hearing about this case wont be one of disbelief nor will your first demand be that of ‘verification’.
I firmly believe that this case needs to be highlighted, not only because it is a humanitarian issue regarding the unspeakable abuse of an individual, but because it is a case of systematic state oppression. She is not the only woman whose whereabouts are unknown and is reportedly being abused by military agencies in Balochistan. Its not ten or twenty, or even fifty or hundred we’re talking about, thousands are missing in Balochistan. Its not just me saying this. Read HRCP’s, HRW’s, ICG’s, AHRC’s reports, and you’ll get a sense.
In conclusion, I’d like to assure you that I am strongly in favour of ‘verification’ of the facts in Zarina’s case – but not so that a rubber-stamp of ‘authenticity’ can be placed on it but so that the perpetrators of this savagery can be brought to justice. To refrain from protests on this issue- which is essentially a means of highlighting it- until ‘further verification’ amounts to invisibilizing it and appears to me to be an excuse for inaction. On the contrary, we should certainly organize protests on this issue and launch a sustained campaign to bring this matter into the public eye, pressure the government to take action, and demand justice for this young woman and the thousands like her.