Missing persons

Editorial Board
Wednesday, Sep 14, 2022

It is ultimately the primary responsibility of any state to ensure the safety and security of its citizens. If people start disappearing without a trace and state institutions express their inability to do much about it, it leads to a rather insecure people with little faith in the proverbial ‘system’. Encouragingly, the Islamabad High Court seems to also find this situation quite untenable and has been pursuing the missing persons issue for some time now. Equally encouragingly, now Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif – appearing before the court – has expressed his resolve to reunite missing persons with their families. The state’s response – as Justice Minallah put it – must be ‘commensurate with its responsibility’. Just expressing innocence or inability to track the missing persons is neither convincing nor a plausible excuse. We have seen that those who go missing are often tarred as terrorists or traitors. If someone is accused of a crime, the solution is not to lock them up and throw away the key but to present evidence in court to secure a conviction. Our poor investigations and prosecutions have been used as an excuse for illegal, indefinite and often unacknowledged detention. Those who do emerge after their disappearances have often been too scared to speak of their experiences. The constitution explicitly states that no person can be deprived of liberty or freedom without due process of law yet an enforced disappearance followed by a whispering campaign is often enough to tar someone as guilty. Our legal and moral duty requires that each and every person who is missing be tracked down and either produced in court or allowed to return home safely. Anything less is an abdication of the state’s duty to its citizens.

While the court can provide a constitutional forum to hear such cases, the investigation and prosecution in such cases is the sole responsibility of the executive organ of the state which controls – or should control – all state institutions. The families of the missing persons have been running from pillar to post – from one commission to another and from committee to committee – but there has been a deafening silence from all quarters. There has been no redressal by the state or even the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances, which was established in 2011 and is headed by Justice (r) Javed Iqbal. Worse, there have been some serious charges of sexual harassment levelled against Justice (r) Iqbal by several women who had gone to complain about enforced disappearances of their family member(s).

The plight of the families of the missing is heartbreaking on many levels. They have no idea where their family members are; they have no place to turn to for real help; and they have been protesting now for years in some cases – only to be gaslighted by successive governments, state authorities and even fellow citizens. There is no closure for most of these families as they are unable to find any answers from the state. The apathy on display by the state in this regard is damning of the state’s ability to protect its own. One hopes that with the IHC taking on this issue seriously, the current government takes the required steps to at the very least take the shrouds off the enforced disappearances question for an honest look at an issue that has been our lot for far too many years now.