In Pakistan, State-Sponsored Abductions Expand to New Regions


Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa recently urged the institution he leads to ramp up efforts to fight fifth generation warfare.
By Fifth Gen war, the Pakistan military general meant that country’s enemies, mainly the US and India, have launched an information war against Pakistani military to taint and subvert its role as a protector and guardians of Pakistan state, society and frontiers. Military leaders have repeatedly called out social media and online platforms and individuals that criticize the role of military. According to two successive directors of the military’s media wing, there is a need to silence these critics by launching an information war to counter-attack the ‘enemies of the state.’ Publicly, the generals pedal the need to build a counter-narrative and urge the people to rally behind the institution, but on the ground the tactics they employ are much more than propagating a counter-narrative.
During the last two years, Pakistan has seen a rising and sweeping wave of abductions and torture of journalists, civil society leaders, human rights defenders and social media activists. Lately the situation has become so dreadful that not a day is passed without reports of abductions and torture of dissenting voices. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Pakistan federal Union of Journalists, Reporters Sans Frontiers, Committee to Protect Journalists all have expressed alarm over this spike in enforced disappearances.
A typical abduction happens when armed gunmen riding pick-up trucks and jeeps intercept the target in broad daylight on a road, market, outside workplace or home and bundle up and drag him/her to their vehicle and speed away. Almost all victims who choose to speak after their ordeal say that their abductors were intelligence agencies operatives, mainly from the Pakistan prime intelligence agency ISI. They torture the victims sometimes for days and months and most of them are released quietly on a road outside their town from where they were picked up. Most of those who are lucky enough to return home go into silence or later leave the country. But many are not that fortunate. They remain incarcerated in an illegal internment center for weeks and months, and sometimes tortured bodies are dumped to be found by locals.
All this is happening with complete impunity. The Government never even tries to find out who the abductors were even if there is CCTV footage available as was the case with the recent abduction of journalist Matiullah Jan and with human rights defender Idris Khattak who is still missing after 10 months. Khattak’s case shows the helplessness of courts who were told by the military court that Khattak was in Military Intelligence custody but could not be produced, nor his whereabouts revealed event to the country’s high court.
Jan’s case was taken up by political parties and country’s highest Supreme Court. Yet after two months government and the court have failed to identify his abductors let alone charge them.
Cracking down on dissent through abductions and torture is not a recent phenomenon. Pakistan that is ruled by its military directly or indirectly for almost all its 73 years of existence, witnessed a campaign of organized abductions and torture by the military in 1971 civil war that created Bangladesh and recently it is engaged in protracted insurgency in Balochistan where the favourite weapon against Baloch insurgents and common man is abduction-torture-kill. Since the current government of Prime Minister Imran Khan came to power in a controversial elections, the theater of the crackdown and its frequency has expanded and increased.
The new terrain is Punjab and country’s capital Islamabad, while the abductions ongoing in Balochistan and interior Sindh. Punjab is nerve centre of Pakistan from where its political and military elite comes. It has a higher than average literacy rate in the country; the abductions are creating a backlash and waves of resentment that the military is not used to handling.
Many, especially politicians and intelligentsia from smaller provinces of Sindh and Balochistan, say that the military in Pakistan has been the dominant ruling force in the country right from the very beginning because Punjab has always supports the military and never risen up to challenges the extra-constitutional role of military. This is the first time that military and its intelligence agencies have run amok with impunity in the heartland of Punjab and this, exacerbated by coercion and heavy handedness with which a popular Punjab politician and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif is being treated, can create unease and unrest within the rank and file of military top brass that is already bitterly divided over the question of way forward for the country – aligning with China and Iran or staying with the US and Saudi Arabia.