The stories of the ‘disappeared’ regularly make the headlines in local and international media. The agony felt by the families of those who are illegally detained by spy organisations is indeed harrowing. The case of the ‘disappeared’ has been fought quite vocally by the media. I often wonder if something is amiss in the grand narrative of the missing persons, especially in the way their story is often told. But first, for the record, there is no denying that the law should be supreme and any digression and ham-handed approach by law enforcement agencies should be abhorred and opposed. I have consistently written on the issue and have interviewed dozens of such families and terror suspects across the country. There is no way one can defend illegal detentions and torture cells. Yet, sometimes what strikes me is that the media portrayal of the ‘disappeared’ often glosses over the fact that, more often than not, most of the persons who are picked up do have links — sometimes solid, sometimes tenuous — with extremist and militant outfits. Some TV news networks and print journalists simply overlook this fact or possibility. The story of the missing is told as a slam dunk case: someone randomly picked up and thrown into a bottomless dungeon.
Is it really that simple? Why is it that most of the missing persons belong to a certain ideological and religious conviction? Here, I am not talking about the Baloch. That is a separate matter. This piece focuses on those who have alleged links with radical outfits. In my several years of reporting, I have consistently encountered this situation. Those who are picked up often had some grey areas in their lives due to which they were netted. It is quite understandable that the families often claim their absolute innocence. No one likes to confess to wrongdoing. Quite often the families of persons who have been involved in militancy are unaware of the activities of their relatives.
By focusing solely on the families’ plight, are we overlooking and even ignoring the other side of the story, which is perhaps darker and uglier? Some people are quick to denounce the militants after each terrorist attack and sarcastically point at the public apathy towards such attacks. But I wonder why such reflection is not employed in the story of the missing persons. Why aren’t people ready to even look at the possibility that, alongside the grim tales of torture and illegal detentions, there may also be macabre terrorist plots? Lack of coordination between different law enforcement agencies, weak prosecution, legal lacunae and an outdated law of evidence compound the problem.
I recall several illustrative examples but would cite just one. In 2007, I wrote a feature about the missing persons for The New York Times. One of the persons I interviewed belonged to Gujranwala. Muhammad Tariq was arrested in connection with the assassination attempts on General (retd) Pervez Musharraf. His ordeal in illegal custody was depressing. He denied the charges against him and said he was arrested because he used to give charity to a banned outfit. Some months later, I happened to be outside Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi. A female prisoner was being released. She had also been implicated in a case related to another assassination attempt on Musharraf. Her husband had hidden weapons in their Islamabad apartment and the police claimed that she was an accomplice in the plan. But it couldn’t provide evidence that satisfied the court and she was granted bail. It was late in the night and several people had gathered to receive her. To my surprise, I saw Mr Tariq standing there too. Upon inquiring, he replied that he was there to show solidarity for her. It dawned on me that no matter what is publicly stated, there are always linkages that bind such elements or foster affinity between them.
We must oppose illegalities in the efforts against militancy and terrorism. But such sympathy must not make us blind to the darker shadows that lurk behind the visible stories.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 11th, 2012.