James Palmer / San Francisco Chronicle Foreign Service – 2009-06-09 21:55:46
RAWALPINDI, Pakistan (June 7, 2009) — Huzfia Sharif toddles over to a photograph of a smiling man with neatly combed hair and a graying beard perched on a living room shelf.
“I want to go to Papa,” the 3-year-old boy says in Urdu while grasping a bulky picture frame before pressing his mouth affectionately against the image of his father, Abid Sharif, who he has never seen. “He thinks that photo is his father,” said Zahida Sharif, 42, Huzfia’s mother and Abid’s wife.
Sharif, a physician, was 50 when he disappeared from the city of Peshawar a month before Huzfia’s birth. The father of three sons is among the hundreds of people who vanished during the rule of former president Pervez Musharraf (1999-2008), according to Defense of Human Rights, a national organization based in this northern city.
Since its formation in 2005, Defense of Human Rights has registered 640 disappearances. Since then, 150 have been released and 70 have been located and are still in custody. The group also estimates that as many as 10,000 people disappeared during Musharraf’s rule, including 6,000 in the southwest province of Baluchistan, where separatist groups have long sought autonomy.
Rise in ‘Disappearances’
“Enforced disappearances” – as kidnappings and illegal detentions are commonly called – were extremely rare in Pakistan before 9/11, according to Amnesty International. The ensuing U.S. war on terror gave the Musharraf government an opportunity to take its critics off the streets, rights activists say. They allege the missing come from a broad spectrum of economic and social classes, including political activists, poets, medical professionals, shopkeepers and laborers.
“The army is torturing its own people,” said Amina Janjua, who co-founded Defense of Human Rights soon after her husband, Masood, vanished three years ago after boarding a bus in the capital, Islamabad.
Under Article 10 of Pakistan’s Constitution, authorities must produce a person before a judge within 24 hours of a person’s arrest or detention. However, the country’s security forces widely ignored this law under Musharraf in the name of fighting terrorism, according to a report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. The report also states that the number of missing is hard to gauge because “people might have preferred silence to coming out in the open about a disappearance and risk upsetting a government agency holding a missing relative.”
The families of the missing say the ambiguity of not knowing the fate of their relatives is especially cruel. “It’s very damaging physically and emotionally,” said Janjua, 44, a single mother of three children between 12 and 16.
Pledge to Find the Missing
Even though Farooq Naik, the new Minister for Law, Justice and Human Rights, has pledged to find the missing, frustration with the new administration of President Asif Ali Zardari runs deep. Zardari succeeded Musharraf last year. “The government has made promises to help us but nothing has happened,” said Zahida Sharif.
Naik was unavailable for comment for this story but he has asked family members to provide his office with information and has promised U.S. Ambassador Ann Patterson that he would move quickly to locate the missing. Pakistan’s fragile government, however, may not be able to move that quickly.
The military is battling Taliban and al Qaeda insurgents in the tribal areas of the Northwest Frontier province along the Afghanistan border, and Washington continues to send drone air strikes against suspected militants in the region. At the same time, Pakistan’s economy has slumped so badly the government has sought assistance from the International Monetary Fund.
“The new government has done nothing substantial since taking over,” said Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui, a Supreme Court lawyer in Rawalpindi who represents several families of the missing.
Supreme Court Hurdles
Another significant issue affecting justice for the missing is the nation’s Supreme Court. In 2007, Musharraf removed 55 of the Supreme Court’s 95 judges, including chief justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, citing interference with his counterterrorism efforts. In March, all judges who had not retired due to the age limit were reinstated.
As a result, hearings scheduled for missing persons were delayed. In the eyes of many, the judiciary is the only hope of locating the missing, and frustration is evident among families and their advocates.
For Janjua, the situation is not only a personal struggle for her and her three children, but a stain on her country. “If one person goes missing in the U.S., then the whole justice system would be turned upside down,” she said. “Judges or no judges, we’re going to fight for our rights and keep struggling. Only death can stop us.”
E-mail James Palmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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