What can one say when the Attorney General of Pakistan discloses to the Supreme Court that “the security agencies in Pakistan are holding at least 700 people indefinitely without trial in connection with the war on terror”? Is he actually not pointing a finger at the army that all these years has been denying the involvement of its intelligence agencies in any such act? As an immediate reaction my thoughts go out to the hope that this statement must have created for the relatives of the missing persons.
The Attorney General has also informed the Supreme Court that these men cannot be released; not until the military operation being carried out by the army is over. On balance, one cannot blame the intelligence agencies for arbitrarily detaining such a large group of men considering that in many ways the responsibility to safeguard and protect the lives of the people of this country also rests on their shoulders. But no matter how hard we try to justify such detention, it is illegal, unethical as well as unconstitutional. So what do we expect the army or the state to do? Before we, as a society, can proceed further to debate the legality/illegality or righteousness of the detention issue, it must at least be ensured that these men don’t disappear altogether and live to undergo a fair trial in future. To achieve this, the minimum that the judiciary can do is to ensure that all these men are properly identified and their next of kin informed about their custody at the hands of the security agencies.
The state cannot afford to lose control, it will if it fails to dispense justice. It is not the number of dead in the war on terror that the state should fear. It is the living victims of state injustice of this war, who live with their anger and hate, that can actually interfere negatively with the state’s ability to exercise control.
If insurgencies can only be weeded out by winning the hearts and minds of the local population, which hearts and minds will we win by resorting to such methods? One thing is for certain; the state must reduce the ‘civilian cost’ of this irregular war that it fights. The cost includes the civilians that continue to disappear and are presumably being either exterminated or detained by the security forces. Such state actions in fact negatively affect the state’s long-term counterterrorism policy.
It is time that the veil of secrecy that shrouds all such detentions by the security forces is lifted. The army and the state must distinguish on how they treat the combatants and the noncombatants. Also, in the civilian areas where the army is actively engaged in combat activities it may consider creating ‘civilians detention tracking cells’. Such set-ups are likely to serve at least three main purposes. The first is an official framework for immediate information on the status of the detained civilians. The second is that it demonstrates that the army values the civilian lives. And the third is that it allows direct access to information for relatives of detained civilians. This all is done till the time the detainee’s fundamental rights remain suspended for the duration of the military operation. It is during this period that the relatives of detainee’s must know that military authorities hold the detainees and they are alive and well.
Let’s not forget it was our own intelligence agencies that created an environment in which the militant groups flourished and were also empowered. The Pakistan Army needed them at that time to maintain military strategic balance and control against an external threat. Today, it is the same intelligence services that now detains these elements to help the state rediscover its lost balance and control. One can only hope that the cycle is not repeated and the people of this country are spared the ignominy of suffering the consequences of our poor strategic plannings and failures.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 14th, 2013.
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