In-Depth Arena

In unsafe custody

Updated 18 Aug, 2016 02:39pm
– Illustration by Marium Ali and Rohail Safdar
– Illustration by Marium Ali and Rohail Safdar

Muslim Khan was once a much sought after man: Pakistani and foreign journalists would scramble to talk to him and the government had placed a 10-million rupee reward for his capture — dead or alive. As the spokesman of the Swat Taliban during their brutal rule in the valley, he could be seen on television screens justifying unjustifiable acts of cruelty. With his flowing grey locks and black silk turban, he would address the media in accented English, defending the Taliban’s fight against the Pakistani state and society as means to rid people of vice and infidel influences. Sometime in September 2009, the security forces announced that he had been arrested along with another Swat Taliban commander, Mahmood Khan.

Muslim Khan has been virtually non-existent since then. He never made it to a Saidu Sharif court that was hearing several cases against him and many other prominent Taliban leaders, on charges that included attempted murder, kidnapping, attacks on government installations, high treason and murder. In late January 2010, many months after his arrest by the security forces, the court declared him a “proclaimed offender” liable to be convicted and punished in absentia. The various lists that government officials submitted to the Peshawar High Court, of people being interrogated at army-run internment centres, also did not contain his name or that of Mahmood Khan.

Just as he had all but faded out of the public imagination, he made a surprise comeback late last month. A small news report appeared in some sections of the media in the last week of August that he had died sometime in 2014 while he was in the custody of the security forces. Mahmood Khan had also reportedly died in similar circumstances at around the same time. There is no official confirmation of their deaths as yet and there are no media reports of their funerals or burials.

Zuhra Yusuf, chairperson of the Human Right Commission of Pakistan, condemns the deaths in custody as a grave violation of the human rights of those detained.

Minar Khan, a teenager from Shin Drang area in Bara tehsil of Khyber Agency, was returning home from Matani, a village on the outskirts of Peshawar, on February 10, 2012, when he went missing. His father, Noor Muhammad, moved the high court in Peshawar for his recovery after spending 21 futile months looking for him through other means. On June 24, 2014, the director of the legal section at the federal defence ministry admitted to the court that Minar Khan was “interned at the Kohat Internment Centre”. The judge hearing the case ordered the government to allow Noor Muhammad to meet his detained son.

Less than a month later, Noor Muhammad sent an application to an oversight board at the internment centre, seeking the court-ordered meeting. Weeks later, he was informed that he could meet his son on September 5, 2014. He went to the centre that day but the meeting never took place — he was instead given the body of Minar Khan. “He had black spots on his left thigh,” recalls Noor Muhammad, but he does not have medical evidence to prove it. He also claims the internment centre officials handed over Minar Khan’s body to him only under the strict condition that he would never get an autopsy performed on it.

Tahir Ali, a resident of Parmoli village in Swabi district, experienced the same situation twice over.

On June 28, 2012, he was with his brother Liaquat Ali in the surgical ward of the Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar, where the latter’s wife was being treated for an ailment. Suddenly, there was a lot of commotion around his sister-in-law’s bed. “Security officials in plain clothes raided the ward, picked up my brother and bundled him into a double-cabin pickup van with no number plate,” Tahir Ali tells the Herald. About three weeks later, his teenage brother Zawar Ali was also picked up from their poultry farm on Ghulaman Road in Parmoli.

Tahir Ali admits Liaquat Ali was an activist of the proscribed Jaish-e-Muhammad and would collect funds for the organisation in and around his village. But Zawar Ali, a ninth grader, “had nothing to do with” such activities.

Hearing his petition against the confinement of his brothers, the Peshawar High Court ruled that Tahir Ali had the right to visit them in detention. “After getting the order, I filed an application with the concerned authorities to let me meet my detained brothers.” He was told to be at the internment centre on a mid-August day in 2014 — with an ambulance. When he reached the centre, officials handed over the body of Liaquat Ali. A month later, he received the body of Zawar Ali in the same way.

Like Noor Muhammad, Tahir Ali claims seeing suspicious marks on the bodies of his brothers, but adds that their autopsies were “not allowed by the internment centre authorities”.

Mustafa, a young man arrested from Akakhel area of Bara tehsil in Khyber Agency, also came out of the Kohat Internment Centre dead. His brother, Saddam Husain, claims spotting black marks on his thighs. According to the internment centre officials, he had died of hepatitis.

Such disappearances in the custody of security forces and subsequent deaths in captivity are not specific to high-profile Taliban leaders and fighters. A Peshawar-based criminal lawyer claims more than 70 such incidents have been reported at just one army-run internment centre in Kohat.

Mirzali Khan, 24, also a resident of Akakhel and detained at the same centre, was apparently in good health when his mother was allowed to see him on May 25, 2013. On September 5, 2014, his family was told to be at the centre urgently. His brother Bakhmali and three others were received, at the centre, by a soldier in plain clothes. “He placed before me a paper on which it was written in Urdu that my brother had died of hepatitis. I signed it, and my brother’s body was handed over to me,” says Bakhmali.

The Peshawar-based lawyer argues the extraordinarily high number of deaths at the centre, even if they were all from natural causes, should alarm the federal and provincial governments. “If the number of casualties in Kohat [internment centre] is so high, the medical superintendent must be asked how these deaths have occurred,” he says.

The Peshawar High Court did in fact summon the medical superintendent in at least one case to explain just that. The day he was scheduled to show the death records from the centre to the court, the case was urgently withdrawn. Perhaps, the petitioner was feeling threatened, says the lawyer.

Some deaths at other internment centres, too, remain unexplained. Jamshed Khan, for instance, was arrested from Sakhakot area in Mardan on August 4, 2009 along with two others — Wazir Bahadur and Wajid Ali. When Bahadur was later released, he told a lawyer in Peshawar that both Jamshed Khan and Wajid Ali were killed in a blast at the building they were being detained somewhere in Khyber Agency.

Rahmatullah, a resident of Fazal Bandai in Swat, died in custody some time after his arrest in January 2010. His family got to know about his death through someone who was detained with him but was released later.

Muhammad Arif Jan, a Peshawar-based lawyer, has filed habeas corpus petitions for over 100 missing persons, reportedly detained at the 32 army-run internment centre in different parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and its adjacent tribal areas. He fears the number of people having died in custody at these centres could be higher than is currently known, given that thousands of people are being interrogated and next to no information about them is released. The total number of missing persons in Pakistan is 3,000 to 4,000, and 75 per cent of them are from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, says Jan.

Zuhra Yusuf, chairperson of the Human Right Commission of Pakistan, condemns the deaths in custody as a grave violation of the human rights of those detained. Autopsy is a legal right that the heirs of a deceased person have, if they suspect the death to be abnormal, she says. Security forces not allowing autopsies to take place for deaths at internment centres may mean that they are worried about the likelihood of their involvement in those deaths, she adds.

Yusuf observes that human rights issues, presently, are on the back-burner in Pakistan. She blames deaths in custody on the ever-multiplying, stronger-than-ever anti-terrorism laws passed in the last two years. These laws, she says, “have encouraged our security forces to carry on with illegal acts”, such as custodial deaths.

This was originally published in Herald's September 2015 issue. To read more, subscribe to Herald in print.