The release of Taliban detainees in the peace process is a contentious issue – and the government’s embarrassing mix-up on the matter showcased just how sensitive it is.
The government seemed in disarray on Thursday responding to leaked news of the release of 16 ‘non-combatant’ prisoners of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in South Waziristan Agency.
After the Prime Minister Office denied in a statement that the 16 released prisoners had anything to do with the TTP, the Ministry of Interior later confirmed that the release of 19 ‘non-combatant’ TTP detainees belonging to the Mehsud Tribe had indeed taken place. The release of ‘non-combatant’ detainees, as demanded by the TTP, has been a contentious issue from the outset – with some officials having earlier denied that security forces are even holding any non-combatants.
The release of prisoners, meant to inject fresh impetus into the peace talks, was initially reported late Wednesday night. However, by Thursday afternoon, the government, through a statement from the Prime Minister House, issued a rebuttal.
“It is clarified that there has been no authorisation given from the Prime Minister in this regard (release of prisoners),” said a spokesperson of the PM House in a strongly worded statement to the reports. “Moreover, it is clarified that the release of some prisoners involved in petty crimes by the Political Administration has been wrongly connoted as release of Taliban prisoner,” it added.
Meanwhile, South Waziristan Political Agent Islam Zeb also rebuffed news reports about the release of 16 prisoners. Talking to journalists on Thursday, he said that those released were common tribal men.
He said these men were arrested as they were suspects for routine criminal cases, but after investigation, they were proven innocent and hence, released. These released people have nothing to do with the Taliban or terrorist activities.
However, hours later, the PM House rebuttal was contradicted by the Interior Ministry when a spate of unofficial messages were forwarded to media houses requesting that the information of the released detainees be carried – and even provided a breakdown of the release by date. However, there were inconsistencies even within these messages. After initially placing the number of “non-combatant Taliban prisoners belonging to the Mehsud tribe” at 16, a breakdown of the date of release put the total figure at 19 – three released on March 21, five released on March 25 and 11 on March 28.
One official, commenting on the mix-up, blamed a communication breakdown.
But the matter seems to suggest a larger covertness gone wrong. Aside from the conflicting numbers and contradicting statement, even Taliban intermediaries remained tight-lipped on the issue – which further caused confusion on the matter.
“We do not have first-hand information,” Professor Muhammad Ibrahim told The Express Tribune in response to a question whether the government had released 16 prisoners from the list TTP had given. “We have learnt about this development through the media,” he added, suggesting an unlikely – or bizarre – scenario wherein the TTP intermediaries would not have known about the release of the detainees for days when it was the intermediaries who had taken up the issue with the government and had been pressing them to move on the issue.
Responding to a question about the next meeting with the government, Ibrahim said, “We are expecting to a have a meeting in the next couple of days.” He, however, did not give a specific date.
The TTP is said to have shared with government negotiators a list of Taliban ‘non-combatants’ – mostly women, children and the elderly – who they claim are in the custody of the security forces. The government has also called for the release of some high-profile figures held hostage by the Taliban.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 4th, 2014.