Neither explicitly martial nor ethically civil, Pakistan in 2023 is experiencing an unsavoury blend of both forms — which can be termed ‘Partial Law’. The inherently authoritarian aspect of the military, newly intensified by the 9th May violence, will soon be evident in the military court trials of vandals.
Selective, biased enforcement of civil law is already visible in police invasions of homes, alleged maltreatment of those arrested, re-arrests, acquittals by NAB of PDM figures, et al. Fortunately, civil courts have begun acquitting dozens of those picked up post-9th May but the amalgam of martial authority and civil law prevails, without being formally claimed.
The inexcusable, curiously unchecked rampages on that date are being projected multiple times every day on virtually every Television news channel. Such saturation is self-defeating, especially while simultaneously, in another mass medium such as public space, portraits of the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) and the Director General, Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) have been put on display. In addition to the duality of martial and civil authority, there is the dyad of over-reaction.
The most ignominious expression of hybrid fusion is the disappearance of the prominent journalist Imran Riaz Khan, since 12th May, and of Sami Ebrahim for some days and of activist Jibran Nasir for a day. While all transgressions are contemptible, the unexplained vanishing of these three individuals are reprehensible acts.
Particularly so because none of the three acted violently. They spoke, wrote, took sides — not in concealed anonymity but openly in full public view. This writer is not always aligned with all their views, yet, one respects their right of expression. And their right to protection from unlawful force.
The civil part of ‘Partial Law’ does not even acknowledge that one of them is actually a genuine journalist. In a video on social media, the honourable Federal Information Minister responds to a question about Imran Riaz Khan’s disappearance by instantly, robustly denying that he is a bona fide journalist.
Instead, she categorized him as a partisan political person, a member of a political party and therefore undeserving to be termed a journalist. If this view had come as a second or a third part of the response, it may have been understandable and could be debated.
The shocking immediacy of unconcern, of disregard for his disappearance was most disturbing. Regardless of a human being’s political or professional credentials, the right to simply be around, to be with family, at work, or elsewhere, should surely have been the first aspect on which the response focused.
Whether in the Lahore High Court which is addressing Imran Riaz Khan’s disappearance or the Islamabad High Court that reviewed Sami Ebrahim’s invisibility until his return, both civil and military intelligence agencies reportedly denied that either of them was in their custody. Which is so reassuring.
Yet also deeply disturbing. If they were/are not with them, then who were they with, and in one case, still is? Are they surrogate or vigilante-type groups that cannot be termed “official” while also enjoying anonymity?
Ironically, denials only reinforce the nebulous nature of ‘Partial Law’. It functions in a system of surveillance that invisibly invades privacy, taps phones, records conversations, releases them at scripted or improvised stages, tracks last-known whereabouts of disappeared persons by tracing call records.
These reflect the unacknowledged yet very real capacity of both realms to wield power —- and also claim powerlessness before the Courts of Law.
A bizarre touch is added by the fact that Sami Ebrahim’s last traceable phone-determined location before his return was reportedly close to the Judicial Housing Complex in Rawalpindi. So close to justice, yet so far from it!
When ‘Partial Law’ prevails and persons go absent, multiple possibilities torment their loved ones, and well-wishers. In purely civil or in plainly martial frameworks, at least the person’s whereabouts, charges faced, trial dates, detention conditions , bail prospects are mostly known and visible. If not so, equipped with bare specifics, the media, the streets, the Courts can be used by their families and citizens to raise a din.
The horror of disappearance under ‘Partial Law’ is the starkness and silence of the unknown. How is the person being treated? Humiliated, undressed, photographed, filmed, juxtaposed forcibly with others to concoct degrading images which can be released if required, compelled to listen to threats against family members, deprived of light, food, water, sleep, interrogated, tortured, threatened, abused, forced to write self-incriminating confessions, or subject to forced reorientation, or sign a pre-prepared statement? Or, simply left alone, in a closed space from which there is no escape, no phone, no news, no indication of when the agony will end.
Often, those who return from enforced disappearances decline to share details. Very few do. That chosen, willful quietness about so loud and brazen a violation only magnifies the likely unspeakability of offences or threats against them.
The ambivalence of ‘Partial Law’ is compounded because it is learnt from reliable sources — and from some openly stated political views — that at the highest levels of both civil and military spheres, the Superior and even some of the Sessions Courts are seen as being unduly biased in favour of PTI.
‘Partial Law’ can also be multinational. It operates with impunity outside Pakistan. After the weird experience of having umpteen cases registered against him in all Provinces, an outstanding Pakistani temporarily departs his country. He is then encouraged to move from Dubai to Nairobi — only to be murdered in cold blood.
The so-far inexplicably unsolved, tragic assassination in Kenya of the courageous journalist Arshad Sharif in November 2022 reflects the dire need for both the civil and military spheres to ensure holistic, not selective and partial application of law, to respect human dignity, prevent disappearances, killings and darkest despair.
‘Partial Law’ weakens and demeans Pakistan far more than it punishes or damages a political party or its leaders, be they law-abiding as they should be, or irresponsible and destructive. Let the declared, known Law of the land — Law that is just and fair, not Partial and arbitrary — be applied to all, without fear or favour.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2023