ISLAMABAD — They huddled in small groups under a bright orange tarpaulin, seated on rugs and prayer mats laid out end to end to protect against the chilly February ground. Some of the protesters were resting, some sharing a meal of lentil dahl and naan bread, others solemnly clutching homemade posters bearing the faces and neatly scripted names of their missing loved ones.
Infants and elderly, housewives and working professionals, entire families representing Pakistan’s so-called “missing persons” have set up a protest camp near the parliament here to demand answers on the whereabouts of their relatives. “People are pinning their hopes here,” said the group’s leader, Amina Masood Janjua. “We have no guns, no nuclear weapons. Our words and our grief is the power.”
Her husband, businessman Masood Ahmed Janjua, now 51, disappeared six years ago. She said he was last seen in Rawalpindi, a city just outside the capital, on his way to Peshawar.
Janjua is one of hundreds if not thousands who have been “disappeared” — seized in extrajudicial detentions allegedly conducted by Pakistan’s powerful spy agency, according to human rights officials. The missing are presumed by the agency to be terrorists and Islamist militants.
Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate is thought to be behind the seizures of the putative terrorists, because when those detained are allowed to go home, they say they were with the intelligence agencies, said Amina Janjua.
The ISI denies involvement with most of the cases and when it does concede involvement, the agency justifies the seizures as in the interest of stemming Islamist militancy.
Last month, the Supreme Court ordered ISI officials to produce seven of the disappeared detainees in court. The men had been tried and acquitted by the courts for attacks on military and ISI facilities but then were later allegedly reapprehended and detained by security forces. Their story was splashed across local media after the court appearance — the media even gave the group a catchy moniker, the Adiala 11 after Adiala jail where they were being held in Rawalpindi.
Photos of the men — emaciated, barely alive — gave the public a glimpse into the Islamabad courtroom where a macabre iteration of a habeas corpus proceeding played out. Only seven of the Adiala 11 appeared because four had died in detention.
It was the first time the men had been publicly seen in more than one-and-a-half years. One mother, overcome by the condition of her son, suffered a fatal heart attack the day after the hearing. Local media reported she died of a broken heart.
Human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, have called the indeterminate detention of the missing a violation of basic human rights. There are some uncomfortable but unmistakable parallels to the United States’ Guantanamo policy: Many of the men have been held for years. Scores have not been charged with any crime. But even more unsettling is the fact that they are unaccounted for — security forces in most cases do not even acknowledge holding the men.
“They go back to the old bundle of lies,” said Janjua. “’Oh, your husband was not abducted.’ ‘Oh, he was abducted by the Taliban.’”
Last week the National Assembly Standing Committee on Defense called for “zero tolerance” on human rights violations in Baluchistan, where a large number of forced disappearances are said to have occurred. Opposition leader Chaudhry Nisir Ali Khan declared that his party would move to impose a complete ban on the picking up of people illegally by the spy agency. Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry lambasted the spy agencies, telling them, “You are not above the law.”
Various politicians have visited the camp for ready-made media opportunities. “This is the problem in Pakistan,” said Janjua. “Too much lip service. We are being told that things will change and change is just around the corner. But it never comes.”
At the camp, a constant media presence provides some sense that Pakistan has not turned a blind eye. Two young girls sit on the ground comforting a fussy toddler. But when a reporter’s camera appears, the baby settles down and the girls, their faces plaintive but determined, take up their protest signs again, holding them high for the world to bear witness.