EXCLUSIVE: “The Supreme Court no longer talks of the missing persons”

An exclusive interview of Nasrullah Baloch, chairman Voice for Missing Baloch Persons (VMBP) with The Baloch Hal

Interview by Malik Siraj Akbar

If there is one issue one cannot skip while talking about Balochistan, it is indeed the case of numerous missing persons who have allegedly been whisked away by the state intelligence agencies. Former military dictator General Musharraf , who instigated the conflict in Balochistan, is gone; his policies predominately continue to misrule the gas-rich province. The Baloch Hal spoke to chairman of Voice for the Missing Baloch Persons, a platform that has brought together all the families that simultaneously mourn and await the return of a missing person. Excerpts:

THE BALOCH HAL: When and why was the Voice for the Missing Baloch Persons (VMBP) formed?

NASRULLAH BALOCH: Voice for the Missing Baloch Persons was established on October 27, 2009. It entirely comprises of the family members of the people who have gone missing after having been whisked by the state intelligence agencies. Since the issue of the enforced disappearances has caused a great humanitarian crisis in Balochistan, we formed this organization to locate the other families in different parts of Balochistan whose loved ones have also gone missing so that we could stay in touch with them and wage a collective struggle for the safe recovery of the missing persons.

The organization provides legal assistance to the families of the missing persons by helping them to register cases of the missing person and lodge petitions at the courts.

Through this platform, we are endeavoring to draw the attention of the United Nations and the international human rights organizations that the intelligence agencies in Pakistan are violating the country’s constitution by kidnapping Baloch political workers, intellectuals, doctors, students and people from all walks of life. All the missing persons are kept in illegal torture cells where they undergo inhuman torture. They are, worst still, denied the right to hire a legal consultant and face the courts of the land to defend themselves. These people even do not know under what charges they had been arrested and held in official custody in various torture cells.

TBH: How many families did it take for formulate this organization?

NB: There are people from all over Balochistan who are working with us. A few years ago, people from only a few districts were missing now the role of the agencies has expanded to all over Balochistan and people have been picked up from breath and width of the province. It is this reason that we have district coordinators in most districts. Significantly, all of our district coordinators and office-bearers in Quetta come from the families of the disappeared people. You will get to see such people in our organization whose brothers, fathers, uncles, sons, cousins etc. have gone missing. They have applied all tactics to get their relatives released but doomed to failure. Everyone has a sob story to tell you. Now, we are struggling together for the release of our people from illegal custody of the agencies.

THB: There is the impression that the issue of the missing persons in Balochistan and elsewhere in the country ended with the exit of Pervez Musharraf government. What is your tack?

NB: This is untrue. While presenting the Balochistan Package in November 2009,  Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani had promised to the all the affected families that their loved ones would return home on the eve of the Eid. This did not happen, barring a few individuals who were released by the authorities.

Hundreds of people have gone missing from Balochistan during the present government. People who went missing during Musharraf regime have not returned home yet. During this so-called democratic government, the issue of missing persons has further worsened. Contrary to Musharraf junta, prominent Baloch nationalist leaders and political workers were picked up by the secrete services, incarcerated in various torture cells and killed during detention. Subsequently, their bodies were thrown away in deserted places. This clearly manifests the level of deterioration of the state of affairs with our people during the democratic government. We believe, the pace of whisking people away has tremendously expedited during this government.

TBH: It is widely believed that Pervez Musharraf sacked Justice Ifthakar Mohammad Chaudhary for his proactive approach toward the issue of the missing persons. Now that Justice Chaudhary has been restored as the Chief Justice of Pakistan, how much has that helped to recover the missing persons?

NB: We have to painfully complain that the chief justices of Supreme Court of Pakistan and the Balochistan High Court have not taken any action on the pending petitions of the missing persons’ families. Prior to his dismissal, Justice Ifthakar Chaudhary had generated a little hope among us for the recovery of the missing persons by boldly taking action against the disappearance of the people in Balochistan. However, he has fully ignored this outstanding issue after his restoration.

The Judiciary is not playing its due role in the missing persons’ case. We believe that the intelligence agencies even dictate the Supreme Court of Pakistan. You see Ithakar Chauhary, before his dismissal by Pervez Musharraf, was so powerful that his strict action would culminate in the recovery of a missing person within hours. Previously, the CJP used to hear the missing persons cases on Bench One. But now these cases have been shifted to Bench Two which has really dejected the families of the missing persons.

TBH:  Tell us on the basis of your interactions with the families of different missing persons. What kind of socio-economic and psychological problems do they go through once someone goes missing?

NB: I am sure you can understand that majority of the people who are whisked away are the bread-winners for their respective families. Disappearances cause extraordinary economic hardships for the aggrieved families. On the psychological front, they go through an equally agonizing phase by endlessly speculating about the whereabouts of their missing persons and the possible circumstances under which they would be languishing. At the same time, they remain uncertain whether their beloved ones are dead or alive. They wonder if they should forget the people about whose whereabouts they are utterly clueless or they should continue to cling with hope for their possible return. This pain can be felt only by those whose dear ones have gone missing.

We should at least be told which law or convention in the world entitles a country or its institutions to keep people in solitary confinement where even the arrested man does not know what the charges against him/ her are. Likewise, the families are kept in dark about the location of the detained persons.

Under these circumstances, the children of the missing persons remain constantly apprehensive. They, for economic reasons, give up going to schools. They stop socializing with the other kids in their surroundings believing that they would also be whisked away by the state functionaries. These children suffer from various psychological illnesses.

TBH: What is the level of moral and financial support Voice for Missing Baloch Persons gets from different political parties of Balochistan, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and various human rights groups?

NB: Presently, our organization does not receive any kind of monetary assistance from any political party or human rights organization. We, the family members of the missing persons, contribute money in spite of all the economic hardships we are undergoing to run the organization.

As far as the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan is concerned, we wrote a letter to its chairperson, Asma Jhangir, seeking help for a long march to Islamabad which the families of the missing persons wanted to arrange. We informed her that these families had already been devastated after the disappearance of their members and they were unable to pay the expenses to travel to Islamabad to protest the injustice they are suffering. In response, Ms. Jhangir told us to contact IA Rehman, the HRCP Director. On his part, Mr. Rehman too apologized, saying his organization could not help us financially to pay our expenses to travel to Islamabad. Thus, all of us had to arrange finances on our own as a last resort.

Political parties in Balochistan have not been helpful to us in terms of extending financial support. However, they have always stood with us in solidarity whenever we established hunger strike camps to press for our demands or held protest rallies. Leaders and activists of these parties have offered unlimited moral support to us.

TBH: Tell us about your recent visit to Islamabad. What took you there?

NB: Basically, we wanted to inform everyone in Islamabad that the present so-called democratic government was not only pursuing General Pervez Musharraf’s anti-Baloch policies but a lot more Balochs had also gone missing under its misrule.

The tour was very successful. For instance, Justice Javid Iqbal started the hearing of missing persons’ case at the Supreme Court by referring to the family members who had been forced to travel a long way to Islamabad to protest against this illegal phenomenon.

Actually, we also wanted to meet the officials of the United Nations in order to inform them about our ordeal. Much to our disappointment, we were not allowed to meet the UN officials as they latter said they were not allowed by the Pakistani government authorities to meet us. They said the issue of the missing persons was very ‘sensitive’ and their meeting with us amounted to violating the UN mandate the world body had while working in Pakistan. Our meeting with UN officials, they said, could cause problems for them

TBH: What is the exact number of the missing per sons in Balochistan? The nationalists say around four thousand people have gone missing but the government rejects these figures by terming them “exaggerated”. Human rights groups also complain about not having the exact figures. What information do you have?

NB: Primarily, you should know that the military operation in Balochistan started in early 2000s and it is still taking place in different parts of the province. That has been ten years by now. When we started a survey to ascertain the actual number of the missing persons, we came to know that 400,000 people had migrated from Kohlu and Dera Bugti districts to different districts in the wake of the armed conflict initiated by the government. Based on our meetings with the affected communities, we figured out that the nationalists’ claim about thousands of Balochs having disappeared was valid.

Despite hardships, we managed to collect the data of 1100 missing people.

The government stance about incomplete profiles of the missing persons is invalid. For instance, Chief Minister Nawab Mohammad Aslam Riasani is on record having confessed that he had been notified by the state secrete services about the arrest of Jalil Rekhi, central secretary information of the Baloch Republican Party (BRP) in February 2009.  Where is Jalil Reki now? Why does not the Chief Minister get him released? Similarly, a joint investigation team told the Supreme Court of Pakistan that there was ample evidence that Ali Asghar Bungalzai, my uncle, was in the custody of the agencies. Yet, nothing has been done to recover him from his captors’ custody.

TBH: Are any women or children also missing in Balochistan?

NB: Yes. Recently a twelve-year old student of class six, Naseebullah Langov, was picked up from Qili Ismail area of Quetta. He has gone missing since then.  Abdul Ghani Selachi,16, is another teenager who disappeared one and half years ago. The case of Zarina Marri was never probed which confirms the notion that a lot Baloch girls are also missing.

Voice for Missing Baloch Persons is keenly investigating the matter of women’s disappearances. We are confronted with scarcity of resources to present the cases of the missing Baloch women before the media. Since we are all the victims of this practice and face drastic financial hardships, we are striving to compile data about the missing women and children.

In Balochistan’s context, you have to understand one thing: It is a tribal set-up where people do not easily and openly talk about issues pertaining to women. People generally prefer to hide the injustices done to the women because they assume they would be disgraced if the other people in the community come to know about their women being jailed or molested. Therefore, they hesitate talking to the media. Thus, the issues go unreported for ever.

TBH: Interior Minister Rehman Malik has said many times that scores of these missing persons have willingly gone abroad. How would respond?

NB: If the government provides evidence of at least one single person listed in with us as a missing person who has gone to Afghanistan or Dubai, we will permanently give up our struggle for the recovery of all missing persons. The government has been lying in order to cover its ugly deeds in Balochistan.

Take the example of Murad Khan Marri who had been held in the official custody for some eleven months. His family members joined us in Karachi and Islamabad to protest against his disappearance. A case was registered against his disappearance and the media was also informed that he had been whisked away in front of his brother from Hub in Lasbella district by forcefully bringing him out of a car. The government staged a drama when it finally resurfaced Murad Khan Marri saying that he was entering Pakistani territory from Afghanistan. They also declared him as an India agent planning to carry out terrorist strikes inside Balochistan.

TBH: On more than one occasion, the Home and Tribal Affairs Department, Government of Balochistan established desks at the Civil Secretariat and advertised in the local media asking the families of the missing persons to come and provide full details about their relatives. The government complains that not many family members of the missing persons turn up for to cooperate with the government in such initiatives. Why is that so?

NB: A lot of people did approach the official desks purportedly meant to help in the recovery of the missing persons. The government collected the data of at least 75 people from such initiatives where people went and provided details of the disappeared. Why has not a single man returned home after the lapse of one year even though the families of the missing persons approached the government again and again? The Chief Minister of Balochistan had issued a verified list of 992 missing persons. No action has been taken yet to recover these missing persons listed in the official list.

TBH: How easy was it for the families to register the profiles of their missing members with the government officials?

NB: It was very hard. Many families are threatened and blackmailed by the government functionaries when they go to register a case or file a petition. They are pressurized to give up their struggle for the recovery of the missing persons. Similarly, when these people go to different police stations or the courts to register a first investigation report (FIR) or a petition, they are approached by the government intelligence agencies’ personnel who threaten them of dire consequences. Such attitude is further discouraging the people to come forward and register any complaints with the government as they fear they would come under the radar of the agencies and end up as the next victim of enforced disappearances taking place in the province.

The government has created such a situation of fear and uncertainty that the family members of the missing persons even refuse to meet with the representatives of Voice for the Missing Persons even although we are working for their welfare. They politely refuse to meet or talk to us saying that it could cause more problems for their relatives being held in the official custody.

TBH: Do the individual families only face this kind of harassment by the government? Does your organization also come under similar obstacles and pressure?

NB: When we went to Islamabad last month to raise our voice, we were harassed for four long hours. The intelligence agencies took away our banners and the pictures of the missing person that we were carrying with ourselves. They said they would not let us protest there.

Khuda-e-Dad Baloch, finance secretary of VMBP, was arrested, tortured and interrogated recently by the government forces. They registered a case of sedition against him for his active participation in the campaign for the release of the missing persons.

We are uncertain about the fate of the remaining members of the group as who is going to be the next one among us to be picked up and put into a torture cell as a punishment for our peaceful but organized campaign against disappearances in Balochistan.

TBH: Does your organization receive any kind of support from the international human rights groups? What kind of help do you expect from them?

NB: We believe the issue of missing persons is the worst humanitarian crisis created in this part of the world in this century. We expect the international human rights groups, such as the Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Asian Human Rights Commission, to intervene in Balochistan where thousands of people have gone missing.

Our organization needs financial support from these prominent groups in order to conduct detailed surveys of the missing persons and expose the grave violation of human rights taking place in Balochistan.

We would like to appeal to the United Nations to send an independent fact-finding mission to the operation-stricken parts of Balochistan to investigate the violation of human rights in the province. The UN team should visit the families of the missing persons and ascertain the actual number of the missing persons. The UN or the European Union have got the resources, expertise and the credibility to undertake this task.

TBH: How do you see the future of the missing persons in the backdrop of the current political situation of Balochistan and in rest of the country?

NB: We do not see any possibility of the release of all the missing persons by the current government because it is not serious at all in resolving this matter. Islamabad has always cheated the Balochs with void promises. This will continue again and attention from the real issues would be diverted through different packages.

People are still disappearing on daily basis. The way forward is not very promising. Until the United Nations and the European Union (EU) intervene and take notice of the grave violation of human rights in Balochistan by the security forces, I personally do not think that thousand of missing Balochs will ever recover from the official custody.