PESHAWAR, Pakistan — In between hearings on an employment dispute and a property crime, a lawyer stood in Courtroom 3 on a recent morning to recount what seemed a terrifying offense. Fourteen months ago, he said, civil servant Adil Shah was buying vegetables when he was detained by about 10 men in military and police uniforms, and his family had not seen or heard from him since.
The judge barely blinked. There was no gasp from the wooden benches of the gallery. So routine are the grim cases of enforced disappearances in Pakistan — referred to here as missing persons — that they are now discussed like other chronic woes, such as power cuts and inflation. This northwestern city’s High Court hears five cases a day.
The disappearances are growing, according to international and Pakistani human rights organizations, which estimate that thousands of people have been kidnapped and detained incommunicado in secret prisons in the past decade. Some have been killed, they say. Exact numbers are unknown, in part because many people are afraid to report the abductions, according to Human Rights Watch.
Most of the disappeared are believed to be suspected of ties to Islamist militants or separatist movements viewed as threats by Pakistan’s potent security establishment, in particular the military’s Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency, rights advocates and Pakistani officials said.
The open secret of disappearances illustrates the grip the military establishment retains over Pakistani society, including its dysfunctional justice system and feeble civilian government, which has repeatedly vowed to stop the problem. A government commission has traced several dozen missing people and publicly said Pakistani intelligence agencies are involved, but it has held no one accountable. President Asif Ali Zardari recently approved regulations that lawyers say gave the military expanded latitude to detain and try suspected militants.
Military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas strongly denied a military role in disappearances. Many missing people are hiding in Karachi, Dubai or Afghanistan, he said, or are victims of militant infighting.
Privately, however, Pakistani officials say security forces hold many suspects because they believe the nation’s substandard police and courts would otherwise release them.
In its 2010 human rights report, the U.S. State Department referred to disappearances, extrajudicial killings and torture as Pakistan’s major human rights problems but said a “culture of impunity” surrounded crimes involving security forces.
“We urge appropriate Pakistani civilian and military authorities to investigate all credible allegations of human rights abuses and hold accountable those proven to be responsible for such violations,” said Mark Stroh, the U.S. embassy spokesman. “We have discussed allegations of human rights abuses with Pakistani officials frequently and continue to monitor the situation closely.”
But the issue is awkward for the United States, which over the past decade has provided billions of dollars in aid to support Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts and has frequently urged Pakistani officials to be aggressive in rounding up al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. Former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf wrote in his memoirs of earning millions of reward dollars by handing terrorism suspects over to U.S. custody.
Reported disappearances have swelled as Pakistan has battled a persistent Taliban insurgency in the northwest. But many reports of missing people, which run regularly in the Pakistani media, originate far from the battlefield. Human rights organizations say Pakistan has swept up an array of suspected opponents, particularly in Baluchistan province, where there is a simmering nationalist insurgency waged by the Baluch ethnic minority.
On the docket in Peshawar recently was the case of a man who, two years ago, was blindfolded by security officials in a Peshawar bank and taken away. A court clerk’s father-in-law — a cleric — has also disappeared, said Iqbal Khan Mohmand, the deputy attorney general, who represents the government but said he has little power beyond asking military authorities where a missing person is and reporting their answer to the court.
According to his relatives, Shah, 28, was a newly married junior clerk at the University of Peshawar law school, a job that required a criminal background check. Days after he disappeared, a team of uniformed officers led by an ISI agent searched the family home and said only that Shah was being held in an investigation. The family believes he is being held by the military in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, said their lawyer, whose court filing described Shah’s wife as “deprived from the happiness and joy of marriage.”
“Why are you not transferring him into police custody?” the judge asked Mohmand, noting that Pakistan’s constitution requires police to conduct criminal investigations. “This person may be an enemy, but the police know how to deal with criminals.”
Outside the courtroom, Shah’s sister, Ismat Ara, 30, said the family had no idea why he was taken.
“One year, and we are still waiting for him,” she said from behind an embroidered white veil that revealed only worried eyes.
Mohmand, a jolly man who chats up missing people’s relatives and intelligence agents lurking in the court lobby, said he did not know why Shah — or any other disappeared person — was rounded up. He handles 1,000 disappearance cases each year, he said, about one-fifth of which result in a detainee’s quiet release. But that follows months of futilely asking intelligence and military units where the person is, Mohmand said with frustration.
“As legal men, we conclude that the fundamental right has been violated,” Mohmand said. But, he added: “Most of the people, they are guilty. They are involved in some way or another.”
Two government prosecutors, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they believe they are lying when they tell judges that the military has no knowledge of a detainee’s location. One of the prosecutors said intelligence agencies keep detainees in houses in residential neighborhoods as well as in military camps, accounts human rights organizations say are corroborated by released detainees.
Some people are never found, or only their corpses are. Those released are usually terrified to speak about their ordeal, said lawyer Arif Jan, a fixture at the Peshawar High Court who said he has taken on about 100 disappearance cases.
“The modus operandi is, they release the detainee at night, with many threats,” Jan said.
Disappearances first gained attention in 2005, after Rawalpindi housewife Amina Janjua’s businessman husband vanished as he traveled to Peshawar. Janjua, stunned, said she quickly learned such cases were not unusual, and she said she now believes they are fueled by the Pakistani army’s thirst for U.S. military aid.
She has since led protests in front of Parliament, camped outside the Supreme Court and traveled the world to bring attention to disappearances. She has been to more than 30 court hearings, but her husband is still missing. The government has said he was probably killed by al-Qaeda.
If he is released, Janjua said, she will forgive. But she said she would keep pressing to stop disappearances — or, as she put it, to “try to break rocks with eggs.”
In Peshawar, families file into the courthouse quietly. On a recent morning, brothers of Barakat Ali, a court employee who was rounded up in August by men dressed in black uniforms, stood meekly as their lawyer thrust his finger in the air, calling it a “bitter fact” that Ali was in military intelligence custody.
As has become standard, Mohmand presented a denial from the ISI. The judge delayed the case. Ali’s brothers said they would be back.
Special correspondent Haq Nawaz Khan contributed to this report.