The missing link

Published: May 10, 2012

The writer is a correspondent with The New York Times and is based in Islamabad. The views expressed in the article are his own

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.

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Reader Comments (17)

  • Naveed Ahsan
    May 10, 2012 - 10:38PM

    What a brave article. wonderfully written.Bravo!

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  • ashok
    May 10, 2012 - 10:48PM

    Why “missing” Baloch are different from non-Baloch “missing” persons?

    Let us call a spade a spade. These are NOT “missing” persons. They are ABDUCTED persons.

    May be missing-abducted persons if not presented in the court after abduction.

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  • May 10, 2012 - 10:57PM

    great analysis. balanced and on point.

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  • Uzma ashraf
    May 10, 2012 - 11:19PM

    fairly written, and boldly acknowledged, the side that’s conveniently ignored owing to herd behaviours!!!

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  • Ruffail Mazari
    May 10, 2012 - 11:36PM

    I second ashok here.

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  • Yoda
    May 10, 2012 - 11:37PM

    @Ashok: It is clear that he meant that the issue of the Baloch was a separate matter, completely different from the cases of those with links to terrorist organisations and therefore, mentioning it in this article would have been inappropriate. He definitely does not appear to be trivialising that issue.

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  • May 11, 2012 - 12:32AM

    Great article. Although I hate most politicians, I think that we are way too critical of them. Maybe there actually was a good reason to abduct those people. Remember, our agencies/government cant’t disclose everything to the public; they have to be discreet about some things. Again, I’m not saying we shouldn’t question such issues, but should also look at the other possibilities.

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  • Muneer
    May 11, 2012 - 1:13AM

    @Said Chaudhry:
    where is the balance in this analysis ?

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  • Muneer
    May 11, 2012 - 1:24AM

    “But first, for the record, there is no denying that the law should be supreme …”

    Media is only highlighting that in the case of the abducted persons the law is not being followed … THAT, certainly is a slam dunk case and due to the human suffering it creates it must be highlighted ad nauseum.

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  • Imran Con
    May 11, 2012 - 2:21AM

    I’m sure plenty have links. But, the very fact they have links could allow this illegal detention to be legal if only they were charged with it. Have I not seen charges pressed on officials having alleged links to banned groups? What’s stopping such charges being submitted on those they pick up? Without them doing it they take attention away from what would be positive publicity for them and instead turn it into them being yelled at for the hundredth time for acting as though they are superior to all other institutions and can get away with whatever they want resulting in a fight for dominance at the expense of positive developments.
    I’m sure public opinions would change if they did. I’m also quite sure it wouldn’t draw the political-attention-seeking SC so much, either, in any way other than something that would have to be positive for the innocent and negative for the terrorist organizations.

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  • You Said It
    May 11, 2012 - 7:33AM

    What’s the author’s point? That media should paint these guys as terrorists because the intelligence agencies suspect them of conspiring in a terrorist plot?

    In the eyes of the law, a person is either guilty or not. IF there is not enough evidence to convict, what should the media do – turn a blind eye to their abduction, torture and disappearance because they have gray areas in their lives?

    There is a simple choice here: Pakistan can either become a country where rule of law prevails or it can become a lawless failed state. With journalists collaborating with intelligence agencies to legitimize illegal detention and disapperarance, we’ve taken a step closer to being a failed state.

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  • You Said It
    May 11, 2012 - 7:49AM

    To summarize the author’s ingenious argument: No evidence has been found that missing persons are terrorists. So let them be punished on suspicion.

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  • Feroz
    May 11, 2012 - 8:44AM

    Every society and country runs on the basis of laws and equal Justice is promised to all. If terrorists cannot be convicted because laws are infirm, terrorists sympathizers abound or witnesses are threatened – the lacunae needs to be addressed. Law enforcement agencies cannot take on the role of a kangaroo court and dispense justice as they see fit.

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  • Naveed Abbas
    May 11, 2012 - 12:08PM

    Affirmative. Truly a balanced and a poignant post. The good cop and a bad cop concept must not be ‘conveniently ignored’ by the top leadership. The writer has mentioned a factual picture and needless to say that justice and power must be brought together, so that whatever is just may be powerful, and whatever is powerful may be just. Thanks a lot for being ‘just’.

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  • Razi Kazmi
    May 11, 2012 - 4:06PM

    A realistic analysis. The author had genuinely pointed out the missing link. I am sure the court and the media knows it all but for reasons unknown make an issue of a non issue. I m sure agencies do not have personal grudges against such people,

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  • Uneeb Janjua
    May 12, 2012 - 2:01PM

    A well balanced analysis – rare to find these days. I wish media in today’s age learn’s from the writer of the article how to analytically portray both sides of the story based on real life experiences and observations. Brilliant!!! A must read

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  • Jhanzeb khan
    May 12, 2012 - 7:29PM

    This is a not a bold article coz the writer did not mention the complete faliure of Judiciary I quote one example when the Manawa police station was attcked one terrorist belong to waziristan was red handed arrested and shown live on news channels but our judiciary also give him bail onther case of Sofi muhammad whole of Pakistan know that he is a terrorist but still his case is in progress.Our courts released thousands of known terrorists.Recommend

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