Ihsanullah, 39, was working with a telephone company when military officials took him away on March 29, 2012, suspecting him of having links with the Taliban. Hailing from the Sambat area of Swat district’s Matta tehsil, which, until 2009, was the bastion of Swat-based Fazlullah-led religious militants, he returned home a week later — dead. His relatives say Ihsanullah, who has left behind three young daughters and a son, was in good health when he was taken into custody but his captors told his family that he had suffered a stroke.
There may have been a reason for his arrest. The Herald’s investigation reveals that one of Ihsanullah’s uncles, Ahmed Jan, was a Taliban commander for Matta tehsil and was killed by security forces following his arrest in Karachi in 2010. Ihsanullah was detained earlier this year, along with his brother Kareemullah, for allegedly having close links with senior leaders of the Taliban in Swat. According to members of their family, the two were first kept at a security-forces camp at Matta Degree College but were later shifted to a secret prison in Matta tehsil’s Shangwati area. Though Ihsanullah and Kareemullah were detained separately and could not see each other, they were still able to talk due to the close proximity of their detention cells.
It was from his cell in Shangwati, in early April, that Ihsanullah told his brother that he was feeling unwell. The previous night, he reportedly told Kareemullah that day, that his interrogators had forced him to hold a piece of metal with a live electric current running through it. At 10 pm that night, Ihsanullah was moved out of his cell only to be brought back by midnight. His brother is said to have heard his anguished cries for the remainder of the night. The following morning, Ihsanullah was shifted to Saidu Teaching Hospital where his relatives were allowed to see him. By noon, he was dead. Officials gave his family a CT scan report which stated that he had suffered a stroke. Whether the report is genuine or not, his relatives are not sure, as they were not present when the scan was conducted. The army also released Kareemullah the day his brother died.
Umer Ali, 35, was living in Kharayri village in Matta tehsil when he died in a similar manner. His brother Aizaz Ali tells the Herald that he, Umer and his father had surrendered to security forces during the military operation in Swat in mid-2009 after their names appeared on an official list classifying them as terrorists. Their father was released after a few days but the two brothers were shifted to a military camp at Matta Degree College. Soon they were shifted to a military detention centre in Sambat area from where they were then moved to another military detention cell at the Pakistan-Austrian Institute for Tourism and Hotel Management (Paithom) in Gulibagh area. They were officially marked as ‘grey’, meaning that the authorities weren’t convinced they were innocent but that there was also no incriminating evidence linking them to the Taliban or to acts of terrorism. Aizaz was released in November 2010 but a day or two after his release some policemen came to his family house and informed him that his brother had died in custody. “My father and some other villagers went to Paithom to receive his body,” Aizaz says. Umer was severely tortured while he was detained at Paithom and he used to complain of severe back pain because of which he was unable to walk properly, claims Aizaz.
In another incident, Ghafoor Khan, a resident of Dadaara village in Swat district’s Kabal tehsil, returned home dead in July 2012. His relatives tell the Herald that he had been under detention for 17 months before his death. His younger brother Shah Gul Amber says that some military officials told their family that Ghafoor was hospitalised in a medical facility set up at Mingora Circuit House. When they reached the place, they found him dead. The military said tuberculosis was the cause of his death.
Sher Ali, 46, another resident of Dadaara village, also died in custody. His brother Sher Alam says he himself had handed over Sher Ali to the military authorities in April 2010. On June 15, 2012 the family came to know that Sher Ali was admitted at the Saidu Teaching Hospital but when they reached there he was already dead. The official reason for his death was cardiac arrest. “I am not powerful enough to fight my case against the security forces which hold all the power in our country,” says Sher Alam. But still he has a problem with the way Sher Ali died. “If my brother was suffering from a cardiac illness, the security forces should have brought this to our notice so that we could make arrangement for his treatment.”
On August 22, 2010, Bakht Zameen, 37, died hours after he was taken into custody. His elderly father Muhammad Ameen says his son was picked up by military men from his grocery shop in Kharayri village at noon the same day. After torturing him for a couple of hours, the military officials asked a local rickshaw driver to take him to a hospital, says Ameen. The driver coincidently belonged to the same village that Bakht came from and took him to his shop. By the time his family joined him, Bakht was alive but unconscious. He died within an hour while he was being shifted to a hospital. Ameen says the military authorities did not allow him to get an autopsy done to determine the reason for Bakht’s sudden death.
Local journalists in Swat have recorded only a few of the 110 or so cases of deaths in custody that have taken place over during the past two years. All of the dead were detained without having been arrested formally, let alone having been charged and tried in a court of law. These detentions received a legal cover through a presidential ordinance, called Actions (in Aid of Civil Power) Regulation, 2011, issued in the summer of 2011 and applicable in Swat and the tribal areas. The regulation provides the military with power to detain and interrogate people indefinitely without having to produce them
Even though security agencies say that all such deaths were natural, officials have never claimed even in a single case that the dead person was not in their custody. However, human rights activists, and the families of the victims, allege that the dead were subjected to severe mental and physical torture, which is what caused their deaths.
Such allegations first exploded into the public square with news reports that some members of the so-called ‘Adiyala 11’ had died while in custody of security agencies. These 11 alleged terrorists were taken away from Rawalpindi’s Adiyala jail in May 2010; since then, two of them have died in detention in tribal areas and two others have breathed their last after they were shifted by security agencies to a hospital in Peshawar.
Malik Jrar Hussain, a Peshawar-based lawyer and council member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, says there are many cases of deaths in custody where military authorities have not allowed the families of the dead to get autopsies done, creating suspicions about the cause of their deaths. First and foremost, he says, cause of death should be established by a neutral authority. “And if it is proven that the death is not natural, then liability should be imposed on those responsible for it,” he says.
But as the families of the Adiyala 11 have found, there is little legal or judicial recourse available in such cases. In spite of all the media attention that the Adiyala 11 case has received, the Supreme Court has been unable to ensure that the detained members of the group are set free as they have been acquitted of all charges by a high court, let alone find out how and why some of them have died.
In fact, families of some detained persons have now developed a new fear: that the prisoner may turn up dead if you move a court for his recovery. A Mingora-based lawyer, who does not want to be named, verifies this. The growing number of deaths in custody has stopped relatives of detained persons from filing habeas corpus petitions with courts fearing that such petitions may place their detained relatives’ lives in danger.
Lawyer Hussain knows of at least two such cases. The relatives of two detained persons – one from Dir and the other from Swabi – recently contacted him to file legal petitions for their recovery but later they nixed the idea. They think that filing cases against state agencies can result in the extrajudicial killing of their relatives and of their deaths in custody, he says. For now they still hope that the detained persons will come back home some day, but no one knows what may happen once the courts start hearing their cases, Hussain adds. They may turn up dead, just as so many others already have.