The fading brown of the soft cardboard files carries an ominous sign. The pile stacks high on the table. The court clerk’s struggle is obvious as he pours through each file, only pausing to push back his spectacles or spit his gutka. The clerk must arrange the 181 missing persons’ cases fixed for the day.
“It’s a huge ‘board’ of cases,” says the clerk, Amjad, bent over the pile of complaints regarding disappearances of citizens. “Yesterday, we spent hours arranging the 181 cases for the hearing today,” he tells The Express Tribune. “Now, we must arrange them again to send them to the relevant branch till their next hearing,” explains the frail-looking man.
Thursdays are the busiest for the staff and the judges at Court No. 4 at the Sindh High Court’s principal seat in Karachi.
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“All the cases of missing persons are fixed for hearing every Thursday,” explains the court’s reader. “The judges even have to hear some urgent cases in their chambers,” the official tells The Express Tribune, before scurrying off to the judges’ chamber.
Who are these ‘missing persons’?
Citizens, who are allegedly taken away by law enforcers and detained without their whereabouts being disclosed to their families, are called ‘missing persons.’
In Pakistan, the families of thousands of citizens, whom the law enforcers had picked up in random operations for having alleged links with Taliban-style militant groups, had petitioned the high courts across the country to intervene and get them any bit of information about their detained loved ones.
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“Detaining a citizen without disclosing any plausible reason and then not disclosing their whereabouts to his/her family is a severe violation of the fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution,” a senior lawyer told The Express Tribune. “The high courts, which are empowered by the Constitution’s Article 199, can intervene in the executive’s actions where the basic human rights are violated,” explains the lawyer.
With the religious militant groups losing ground to law enforcers, the Sindh High Court also saw the number of missing persons’ cases decrease. Some, however, have been pending for years, such as the petition seeking repatriation of Pakistan neuroscientist, Dr Aafia Siddiqui, who stood trial in the US court on allegations of attempted murder of American soldiers at Afghanistan’s Baghram Airbase.
Missing in Karachi operation
The number of missing persons cases surged again in September 2013, as the Rangers and police launched a joint operation in Karachi. Though the operation received massive public appreciation, some of the citizens, whose relatives were picked up by law enforcers in random raids, have moved the courts against them.
Concerned over the growing violations of human rights, the then SHC Chief Justice Mushir Alam had decided to fast-track hearings of missing persons cases in 2011. Under his instructions, the new brown-colored file covers were introduced to distinguish the detention cases from others.
“CJ Mushir Alam would himself hear the cases of missing citizens every Thursday till late in the evening. Even after normal working hours, these cases were heard till 6pm,” reminisced a clerk, who worked with Justice Alam until his elevation to the Supreme Court.
The missing persons’ cases are to be given priority on a par with those filed by senior citizens, widows and orphans. Lawyers allege, however, that the cases keep lingering on as the law enforcers do not cooperate with the courts.
Action against law enforcers
These views have been supported by recent directions issued by the two judges, who hear the detention cases every week. The bench issued bailable warrants for arrest for the SSP of the Central Investigation Agency, Farooq Awan, on October 8 for not complying with the court’s directives to recover a missing student, Muhammad Faisal.
“Issuance of the arrest warrants by the superior courts means severe disobedience has been committed by the officials. It means disrespect,” explains a senior lawyer, Muhammad Farooq, who represents the family of Faisal, a second-year student of the Ship Owners College, who went missing in January 2012.
The family blames the law enforcement agencies for having detained their son without any reason and for not sharing information about his health or whereabouts.
On the same day, the judges had also issued non-bailable warrants for the arrest of the Anti-Violent Crime Cell’s Inspector Ajmad Kalyar for not filing a report regarding the record of calls made from a cell number used by the alleged kidnappers of business management student, Ali Raza.
Raza, 22, had disappeared in April 2011 and his family claims the law enforcers have detained him, but are not disclosing his whereabouts since.
‘A brutal act’
Zohra Yousuf, chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), terms it a brutal act. “Anyone who is believed to be a criminal should be brought to court. When someone is picked up, the relatives go from one police station to another and then approach the courts. This is very painful,” she lamented.
In 2010, the federal government had constituted a three-member judicial commission on enforced disappearances to investigate the cases of missing citizens and submit a report of the genuine cases to the interior ministry to initiate necessary action.
Yousuf claimed, however, the inefficient performance of the judicial commission had again put pressure on the courts to deal with the missing persons cases. In the majority of these cases, the law enforcers were themselves involved in the detentions, which is why they kept delaying the proceedings.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 1st, 2015.