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EDITORIAL: The issue of missing persons has assumed the characteristics over time of a 'black hole' from which neither many of those subjected to enforced disappearance reappear, nor does information about their whereabouts and welfare. In what may be considered a strong message delivered to the government, law enforcement machinery, and even (by implication) the state widely perceived to be behind the heinous practice, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) has directed the government to immediately remove the Secretary Interior, Secretary Defence, Inspector General Islamabad Police and the concerned Station House Officer (SHO) for their failure to provide protection to the citizens of the country. On July 25, 2020, IHC's Justice Mohsin Akhtar Kayani wrote in his judgement in the case of a missing person, Suleman Farooq Chaudhry, that the Joint Investigation Team's (JIT's) report clearly states that the 27-year-old electrical engineer was picked up by the law enforcement agencies, but they are not interested in producing him before the court or releasing him despite the court's direction. Therefore, there is no other remedy except to proceed against them. The court also imposed a fine of Rs two million on each of the above-named officials. The court directed these respondents to nevertheless take concrete steps to ensure recovery of the abductee within one month. The judgment further revealed that Suleman Farooq Chaudhry has been missing since October 4, 2019. Justice Kayani noted that the JIT report was submitted in a sealed envelope, reflecting that this was a case of enforced disappearance. On the other hand, not a shred of evidence is on the record to connect the missing person with any anti-state activities. No doubt, the government will appeal against the strong strictures passed by the IHC. However, the IHC judgement fares through the legal process, there is little doubt that the judgment has touched a raw nerve and exposed once again the heinous practice of enforced disappearance that has led to thousands missing in Balochistan and hundreds more all over the country, including the federal capital Islamabad.

What began as an extra-legal practice in Balochistan to counter the nationalist insurgency (including the notorious 'kill and dump' policy) some two decades ago has by now appears to have assumed the contours of a deliberate policy of the state throughout the country. Those disappeared include dissidents, critics, journalists, and all those differing with the government in power. As long as such dissent or critique remains within the bounds of the Constitution and the law, there are no grounds for subjecting the holders of such views to the unwanted attentions of covert operatives. And even if, in the view of the state some red line has been crossed, this does not give it carte blanche to take the law into its own hands and disappear. In a civilised, democratic society regulated by the rule of law, no matter how serious the alleged breach of constitutional and legal boundaries, the task of the law enforcement machinery (overt and covert) is to arrest the accused and present him/her before a court of law for adjudication. That course is the exception rather than the rule in our polity. So much so that some years ago, a Commission on Missing Persons was set up with great fanfare, with now National Accountability Bureau (NAB) chief retired Justice Iqbal as its head. To say that the Commission has signally failed to provide any meaningful relief or succour to the agonised families of the missing is to put it politely. Better late than never though, if the powers that be realise finally that these illegal practices of disappearing people, subjecting them to ill treatment, and dumping some of them is likely to have the opposite effect to that intended. Far from inducing the kind of paralysing generalised fear amongst people the perpetrators may be aiming at, such cruelty is more likely to swell the ranks of the disaffected, and persuade some of them to take to means other than peaceful protest if such injustices continue.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020