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Thousands Could Be Freed In Pakistan After Security Law Scrapped

24 Oct 2019 Gandhara - RFE/RL

A recent ruling by a provincial high court in Pakistan could prompt the authorities to release or present to courts thousands of victims of forced disappearances.

A copy of the October 17 move by the Peshawar High Court, the apex court in Pakistan's northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, outlines how to handle the thousands of accused persons held under various versions of the Actions in Aid of Civil Power Ordinance.

Pakistani and international human rights campaigners have opposed since it was first implemented in 2011. But it was retroactively implemented from 2008 to provide the Pakistani security forces with legal cover for arbitrary detentions and other abuses committed during security sweeps in the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Provincial Administered Tribal Areas (PATA). Last year, Islamabad merged the two regions into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where the provincial authorities quietly updated the law in August.

Last week, a bench comprising two high court justices determined that the Actions in Aid of Civil Power law infringed on the constitutional rights of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s estimated 35 million residents. The judgement ordered provincial police to seize control of detention centers run by the armed forces.

“He [the inspector general of police] is ordered to release all the internees who have not been charged,” the detailed judgement obtained by RFE/RL’s Gandhara website noted. “All those who have been charged shall be brought before a competent court of law.”

The court ruling highlighted the manner suspects detained under the law were dealt with by the security forces and spy services.

“We have witnessed in a number of missing persons cases that they detained [people] for years and years,” the judgment noted while referring to cases of forced disappearances. “In about 15 to 20 percent cases, suddenly [the detainee] appears before the court and says he has been released by the [intelligence] agencies and on the assurance of not disclosing anything.”

The ruling specifically mentioned the abuse and lack of legal access available to detainees despite spending years in military detention centers, locally called internment centers. “They are denied meeting with their families. Nor is any charge communicated to them. Neither is any time given for persecuting them,” the judgement noted.

In recent years, forced disappearances have emerged as a major issue across Pakistan. Members of ethno-nationalist political parties, separatists, Islamists, and even human rights campaigners and bloggers have reportedly been disappeared by the security forces. Most are detained on the suspicion of being engaged in “anti-state” activities, but their cases have hardly made it to open courts. While the authorities have released some victims due to lawsuits or protests, thousands remain missing.

In late September, a government-appointed Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances says it registered 6,372 cases since its formation in 2011. Local and international rights watchdogs, however, say the number of disappearances is underreported.

The commission claims to have resolved some 4,140 of these cases by tracing victims or determining they were kidnapped or went into hiding because of criminal cases. Some of them are traced to military-run detention camps across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In September, the commission traced four victims to internment centers in the province. With 2,679 cases, the province has the highest number of forced disappearances among all four provinces and regions of Pakistan.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in general and FATA and PATA in particular became the main theater for Pakistan’s domestic war on terrorism after the demise of the hard-line Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan in 2001. By 2003, local Taliban groups emerged in these regions. Allied with the Afghan Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, these groups coalesced into an umbrella alliance called Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) or movement of the Pakistan Taliban in 2007.

In 2008, the Pakistani military began large-scale military operations to reverse Taliban control in FATA and PATA. For years, Pakistani and international campaigners criticized the Actions In Aid of Civil Power of undermining the human rights of the predominately Pashtun residents of FATA and PATA.

The court verdict acknowledged that the armed forces can be called on to support civilian authorities but noted that Actions in Aid of Civil Power Ordinance “clearly shows a violation of all human rights enshrined in the constitution.” It observed that Pakistanis “under no circumstances can be put to the mercy of the armed forces for an indefinite period, or for investigation, persecution, or trial.”

The verdict has been widely welcomed. “We greatly admire this court verdict,” lawmaker Ali Wazir told Radio Mashaal. “We have been campaigning against injustices such as illegal killings, the demolition of houses, and forced disappearances. We are now grateful for this decision.”

Wazir is a leader of a civil rights initiative, the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM). Since its emergence in 2018, the movement has consistently highlighted forced disappearances as one of its key grievances.

Sangeen Khan, a lawyer based in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s capital, Peshawar, says the court decision will help end arbitrary arrests, prolonged detentions, and forced disappearances.

“Keeping suspects in detention centers indefinably will now be tantamount to kidnapping,” he told Radio Mashaal. “Handing over the supervision of these internment centers to the police means that all the detainees there will be presented before a court of law.”

Khan noted that the government can still challenge the verdict in the Supreme Court or apex court of Pakistan. Some litigants have already challenged the Actions in Aid of Civil Power in the apex court last week.

Authorities, however, have not yet indicated whether they will challenge the verdict or swiftly act to implement it. In July, however, the army formed a special cell in its general headquarters to look into cases of forced disappearances.

“Those [individuals] with state are under legal process,” military spokesman Asif Ghafoor said at the time. “There are many who got killed fighting as part of TTP against the state of Pakistan,” he said while reiterating the government positions that authorities are not behind all cases of forced disappearances. “Such individuals are also to be accounted somewhere while listing the missing persons.”

Radio Mashaal correspondent Zafar Khan contributed reporting to this story.

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