By Tushar Ranjan Mohanty*
On November 12, 2021, a Baloch identified as Abdul Wahab was abducted, allegedly at the hands of the Security Forces (SFs), during a raid on his house in Dera Bugti District.
On November 12, 2021, two brothers, identified as Muhammad Essa and Abdul Haq, were taken away by SF-backed death squad members during a raid on their house in Mashkay area of Awaran District.
On the same day, the SFs whisked away two individuals from Panjgur District. They were identified as Rashid Hussain and Sajjad Baloch.
The condition and whereabouts of these people remain unknown.
Such incidents are common in Balochistan. According to the Human Rights Council of Balochistan (HRCB), in the first ten days of November 2021, SFs have forcibly ‘disappeared’ 38 people from different areas of the province, of whom nine are students, including students from the University of Balochistan. On November 1, 2021, SFs ‘forcibly disappeared’ two students from the University of Balochistan in Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan. The abductees, identified as Sohail Ahmed and Fasih Baloch, are residents of Nushki District.
According to HRCB data, at least 27 persons were disappeared in the month of October 2021. Since January 1, 2021 at least 339 people have been disappeared by the SFs from across Balochistan. Moreover, at least 298 people have been confirmed to have been extra judicially killed in 2021, thus far. Many of those killed were registered as victims of enforced disappearance and had already been in the custody of the forces.
Atrocities in Balochistan in 2021
According to HRCB data, since 2016, at least 3,738 people have been forcibly disappeared by the SFs. These include 522 in 2016; 1, 225 in 2017; 642 in 2018, 568 in 2019, 480 in 2020, and 301 in 2021 (data till November 10). Of these 3,738, just 453 have been released. But SFs have extrajudicially killed at least 1,553 people since 2016 (data till October 31, 2021).
The Voice for Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP), meanwhile, claims that more than 45 thousand people have been forcibly disappeared by the Pakistan Army, and five thousand missing persons have been ‘killed and dumped’ over the last decade.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), of the 4,623 civilian fatalities recorded in Balochistan since March 6, 2000 (data till November 28, 2021), at least 1,449 have been attributable to one or another terrorist/insurgent outfit. Of these, 471 civilian killings (291 in the South and 180 in the North) have been claimed by Baloch separatist formations, while Islamist and sectarian extremist formations – primarily Islamic State, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Ahrar-ul-Hind (Liberators of India) – claimed responsibility for another 978 civilian killings, 895 in the North (mostly in and around Quetta) and 83 in the South. The remaining 3,174 civilian fatalities – 1,760 in the South and 1,414 in the North – remain ‘unattributed’. It is widely believed that these are principally victims of the security agencies’ ‘kill and dump’ operations, particularly in the Southern region, targeting local Baloch dissidents.
Indeed, the systematic campaign of extermination of ethnic Baloch people through enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in the South of the Province remains unabated.
VBMP vice chairman, Mama Qadeer Baloch, asserted on April 27, 2021,
Pakistani state has been startled by the widespread popularity and positive reception of the peaceful struggle in Balochistan. In its desperate attempts to quell the struggle, the state formed these inhumane, bloodthirsty ‘death squads’ and gave them a free hand to operate throughout Balochistan. These groups are directly or indirectly involved in the enforced disappearance and liquidation of student leaders, journalists, rights activists and political workers.
Again, on October 27 VBMP asserted that the Pakistani authorities had failed to take any concrete measures to end “enforced disappearances” in Balochistan. VBMP stated that the organisation had asked the Pakistani authorities to criminalize the practice and fix responsibility on the people behind these disappearances. VBMP Chairman Nasrullah Baloch added that those guilty of these crimes should be legally prosecuted, and the families of the missing persons should be supported and compensated by the Government. But the law criminalizing ‘enforced disappearances’ in Pakistan has not been put into practice effectively.
The menace is a reality that Pakistan’s Supreme Court has clearly recognized time and again.
Most recently, on September 30, 2021, the Supreme Court declared the report submitted by the Balochistan Police on five missing persons “unsatisfactory.” Gulzar Ahmed, the Chief Justice of Pakistan, remarked that people had gone missing and the families had to run after the Police to register cases: “You (police) do not know how to investigate cases. A case of disappearance should have been registered by the police which could not be done.” A three-member bench, comprising Chief Justice Ahmed, Justice Ijazul Ahsan and Justice Faisal Arab, was hearing the case at the Supreme Court’s Quetta Registry. The Court had taken suo motu notice of the disappearances.
On November 21, 2021, former Senator Farhatullah Babar stated that the enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings had been going on for decades, but they were institutionalised during the regime of General Pervez Musharraf who acknowledged this in his book, In the Line of Fire: A Memoir.
Further, a Commission on Enforced Disappearances was formed in in March 2011. According to Pakistan’s Commission of Enquiry on Enforced Disappearances (COIED), it received 8,191 complaints related to enforced disappearances between March 1, 2011 (the date of inception of the Commission) and October 31, 2020. According to the Commission, of these 8,191 persons, 4,879 persons were traced – 227 dead bodies, 582 in prisons, 933 in internment centre and 3,137 returned home. The Commission ‘deleted’ cases of another 1,089 missing persons, claiming that these were “closed due to not being cases of enforced disappearances, incomplete address, withdrawal by complainants, non-prosecution. etc.” Thus, as per the commission, a total of 5,968 cases were ‘disposed of’, leaving another 2,223 cases under investigation.
Earlier, on September 8, 2020, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), a legal rights group based in Switzerland, observed that the Commission “has wholly failed to address entrenched impunity” and had not held any perpetrators of the crime to justice, even in cases where the whereabouts of the disappeared had been traced or the person had been released,” by implication, cases in which direct evidence would be available.
Despite this, the Government continues to deny reality. Balochistan Chief Minister Qudoos Bizenjo, in an interview on November 11, 2021, when asked about enforced disappearances in Balochistan, stated evasively that the Home Department was looking into the figures to determine whether the missing persons are actually missing or had fled to some other country, like Afghanistan. He claimed there were several names on the missing persons’ list who were in some foreign country. Bizenjo added that his government was working ‘in concert with other stakeholders’ to make sure that the issue is resolved and that his government was still trying to estimate an “accurate” figure for the Baloch missing persons.
On June 7, 2021, the Government introduced the ‘Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill 2021’ in the National Assembly, criminalising enforced disappearance and imposing a punishment of 10-year imprisonment for anyone found guilty of the offence. The Bill stated that a new section 52-B (enforced disappearance) should be inserted into the Pakistan Penal Code after section 52-A. The proposed section states:
Term enforced disappearance relates to the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by an agent of the state or by person or group of persons acting with the authorisation, support or acquiescence of the state, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law.
Given the background, the Bill against enforced disappearance appears to be no more than an eyewash to contain the rising protests. Indeed, it was only after five months of deliberate delay and continuous campaigning by international and national human rights organisations that the National Assembly passed the Bill on November 8. However, the Bill is yet to be become law, and will now be sent to the Senate for its passage.
As the situation with regard to enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killings worsens, there are reports of near daily and widespread protests. Most recently, protests started in Quetta and the federal capital Islamabad on November 5, after the November 1 incident in the University of Balochistan. The protestors were demanding the safe release of Sohail and Fasih Baloch as well as action against “enforced disappearances” and to stop raids on academic institutions in the province. Following the protests in the University of Balochistan, Baloch students in the Bolan Medical College, Degree College Sariab, Polytechnic College and the Science College also suspended academic activities in protest against the disappearance of their fellow students from Balochistan University.
But Islamabad’s and Rawalpindi’s heavy-handed approach to Baloch dissent and separatism, as well as the relative weakness of judicial institutions in the country, make any reversal of the current and pervasive ‘disappearances’ and ‘kill and dump’ strategy unlikely. Further, the widening footprint of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects in the province, the denial of any significant benefits to locals, and the demographic transformation that is being engineered, can only compound the alienation and anger provoked by rising atrocities by SFs and their proxies.
*Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management