The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Imran Khan used to criticize enforced disappearances. Why is he silent now?

Kaneez Sughra, wife of kidnapped Pakistani journalist Matiullah Jan, shows a photo of her husband to journalists in Islamabad, Pakistan, on July 21, 2020. (Anjum Naveed/AP)
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Hamid Mir is a Pakistani journalist and author.

Sachal is a 3-year-old Pakistani boy. Lately he has spent long hours sitting outside a court in Islamabad with his grandmother, waiting to hear news of the father who was snatched from him when he was just a few months old. Sachal’s father, the journalist and poet Mudassar Naaru, suddenly disappeared when the family was on holiday in August 2018. He hasn’t been heard from since. Sachal’s mother, Sadaf, who led a brave and determined search for answers, passed away last month. The pain of the past three years was too much for her to bear, contributing to a fatal heart attack.

Enforced disappearances — in which people are torn away from their loved ones and held in undisclosed locations without any notice — are sadly not new to Pakistan. The roots of this injustice reach back to the military rule of Gen. Pervez Musharraf. People in different parts of the country were abducted without arrest and held outside the protection of the law. Musharraf began the practice ostensibly for the sake of the “war on terror.”Today, by contrast, people such as Naaru can disappear after making a critical Facebook post against alleged rigging in the 2018 election. One of the few politicians who did raise his voice back then was Imran Khan, who is now Pakistan’s prime minister.

Back then, Khan was the sole member of his party in Parliament. In his memoir, “Pakistan: A Personal History,” Khan proudly notes that he “led the first demonstration with the families of missing persons outside parliament [in 2003].” Khan was a prominent guest on the Geo TV show I’m now banned from hosting, “Capital Talk.” He criticized intelligence agencies for kidnapping people without evidence.

Khan’s appearances on my show triggered Musharraf’s rage. One day, the then-dictator summoned me to his residence and said, “You invite this mad sportsman every second day, he speaks in support of suspicious people picked up for their involvement in terrorism. Don’t invite him again.”

I ignored Musharraf’s order. One day, at a demonstration outside Parliament, Khan introduced me to Amina Masood Janjua, the wife of businessman Masood Janjua, who was abducted in 2005. Amina is among the bravest people I know. She continues her work fearlessly, 16 years after she last saw her husband. She once participated in my show along with Khan.

For the past three years, since Khan became prime minister, Amina has been seeking an appointment with him. She wants to remind him of the promise he made to her and the other wives, mothers, sisters and daughters anxiously waiting for word of their loved ones. There are thousands who looked to Khan for hope. One of them is Sammi Baloch, the daughter of Deen Mohammad Baloch, who was kidnapped by security forces in 2009.

Sammi was only 11 at the time. She first came to Islamabad to protest in 2010. Four years later, she walked for 1,600 miles from her home province of Balochistan with other families of the disappeared. She was forced to return with no answers. But she tried again in March this year, hoping Khan’s government would be different. “He always claimed on your show that he will end enforced disappearances,” she told me. “I will remind of him of his words and will appeal for help.” She met Khan but returned without her father.

The families of the disappeared are protesting mostly in Balochistan, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Baloch families have been sitting outside the Quetta Press Club for more than 4,000 days. Sindhi families are on a hunger strike outside the Karachi Press Club for many days. They are present where everyone can see them, but few stop to hear of their pain.

Politicians such as Akhtar Mengal, president of the Baluchistan National Party (BNP-M), supported Khan’s government in 2018 and introduced a list of 5,128 missing persons only from Baluchistan in the Parliament. Mengal withdrew his support for Khan in 2020. He told me that “450 out of 5,128 missing people returned in three years, but 1,500 more disappeared in the same period.”

The open wounds of enforced disappearances in Pakistan can only be healed by truth and justice. The protests of Pakistani women recall comparable efforts by their counterparts in Latin America, who have struggled to draw attention to loved ones who fell victim to past dictatorships. Truth commissions have helped some of them to find answers. Many of their countries have also appealed to Pakistan at the U.N. Human Rights Council to learn from their history and end the cruel practice of enforced disappearances. A commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances has been working in Pakistan since 2011 but to little effect. The International Commission of Jurists expressed its disappointment with the inquiry commission’s performance last year.

Under international pressure, the Pakistani government recently introduced a bill outlawing enforced disappearances. It’s a welcome step, but it won’t be enough. Laws mean little when they cannot be implemented. Pakistanis such as Sachal, Amina and Sammi need to know the truth of what happened to their loved ones. Moreover, every Pakistani needs the guarantee that no individual or institution is above the law. Prime Minister Imran Khan used to stand for these principles when he was out of office. He needs to remind himself of his own words.

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