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Few answers for the families of the disappeared

Updated 05 Dec, 2017 01:49pm
A child holds a placard in Karachi as part of a protest this October calling for the recovery of missing persons | Online
A child holds a placard in Karachi as part of a protest this October calling for the recovery of missing persons | Online

As the days passed by, Muhammad Ali* was getting fed up of living. Handcuffed and often fettered, he could hardly sleep in his small cell. Screams from nearby cells would often keep him awake.

He was taken into custody by some unknown personnel of some unknown intelligence agency from a North Karachi neighbourhood in late spring this year. “Many people wearing masks and clad in civilian clothes came to my house in about 15 vehicles. They broke through the main entrance, entered the house and made all male members of my family stand in one corner. They searched the house thoroughly and collected books, papers and some other things from my bedroom. Then they took me out of the house,” he says.

They blindfolded Ali, covered his head with a piece of cloth so that nobody could see or recognise him and put him in a vehicle that immediately sped away. After a journey lasting about half an hour, he was taken out of the vehicle. He was made to wear clothing made of an uncomfortable nylon-like material. “Then they started slapping me in the face,” he says. The slapping went on for quite a while. He was subsequently helped down some stairs and pushed into a small room, he says.

“The next morning, [they took me] to a different room and threw a volley of questions at me, accompanied by kicks and punches. They asked me questions about my life. They also asked me which organisation I belonged to,” he says. “For a number of days, I would receive severe beatings and abuses on a daily basis. I was often kept awake at nights and told to stand up for hours. Sometimes, I would be told to do squats ceaselessly if I wanted to avoid being subjected to electric shocks.”

The beatings and abuse stopped after about 10 days. His blindfold was also removed. He could finally see that he was living in a five-by-five foot room, wearing an orange jumpsuit. A closed-circuit camera watched him constantly in the cell and he noticed, through the grilled portion of the bottom of his cell’s door, that someone was constantly marching in the corridor. “Sometimes I would see the feet of other prisoners while they were being taken to a washroom” — a door-less compartment where the detainees were tied to a hook as they relieved and washed themselves, while a guard kept a close watch on them all the while. “All the officials always had masks on their faces,” he recalls.

For the 40 days that Ali spent in detention, he was considered a missing person by his family.

It was not his first experience of going missing, although, according to him, it was the longest and the hardest time he had spent in detention. An activist of the Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), he has been detained three times in about one-and-a-half year, he says. “I am amazed why there is no coordination between different intelligence and security agencies. After one of them lets me go, another picks me up.”

Ali recalls how he was told during his latest detention to confess that he belonged to Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an anti-Shia terrorist group with ideological affinities with ASWJ. His captors wanted him to help them arrest other anti-Shia militants. “In return, they promised to give me money and help me settle abroad,” he claims. “I could offer them no help since I do not have any links with any terrorists.”

Aquib Khan Swati, a 24-year-old undergraduate student associated with ASWJ, was taken into custody from his residence near Baloch Colony off Sharah-e-Faisal road in Karachi during the early hours of August 17, 2017. He remains untraceable.

“A policeman accompanied those who put my son in a four-wheel truck. They also took away my mobile phone as well as that of my wife,” says his father, Shaukat Swati, a retired employee of K-Electric. The family is native to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Hazara district.

The family of Muhammad Aslam, another missing ASWJ activist, also came to Karachi from the same province but from a different region (Balakot in eastern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) when he was a child. As he grew up, he started teaching the Quran at a madrasa in Scout Colony, a working-class locality in Karachi’s Gulshan-e-Iqbal area, where he also lived. He would sell caps and prayer beads to earn extra money. On December 14, 2013, a group of people came up to him near a mosque in his neighbourhood and took him away.

“Those who took my husband with them were accompanied by officials of the Sindh Rangers,” says his wife, Sobia Aslam, who was given the news through eyewitness accounts. “I dialed his cell phone number the night he was abducted but it was powered off. The next morning, some unknown callers started calling me. They threatened me of dire consequences if I tried to trace my husband or raise my voice for his recovery,” she says. She was warned that she too would become a missing person if she made any effort to find Aslam. “Those calls continued for several days,” she says.

Aslam was 32 years of age when he went missing. His wife, who teaches the Quran to children in her neighbourhood, and his only daughter, who was eight years old at the time of his disappearance, are both hopeful that he will come back home one day because, as Sobia says, “He did not commit any crime.” But they have also prepared themselves for the worst. “If they have killed Aslam, they should tell us so that we stop dreaming about his return.”

Mohammad Jamil Akhter, father of missing Nabeel Akhter | Fawad Hasan
Mohammad Jamil Akhter, father of missing Nabeel Akhter | Fawad Hasan

Danish Aqeel Ansari left for Lahore on a business trip on August 26, 2013 according to his family. A day later, he reached his destination and called his mother. Then his phone went silent. Eight days later, on September 3, two people visited his house in Karachi’s Gulistan-e-Jauhar area. “They introduced themselves as the officials of an intelligence agency and told us that Danish was picked up [by their agency from some place] near Punjab University in Lahore and that he was in custody,” says his elder brother Munir Aqeel Ansari, who works as a journalist in Karachi. “They did not tell us why they had picked him up but advised us not to make any efforts for his recovery as he would be freed in a couple of months,” he says. “We remained tight-lipped, hoping he would be released.”

Six months went by and Danish did not come back. “It was then that we approached the Sindh High Court and different human rights organsiations for his recovery,” says Munir.

During his student years, Danish was a member of the Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba, a student association affiliated with the Jamaat-e-Islami.

Another former Jamiat activist, 26-year-old Saad Siddiqui, was taken away from his home on June 11, 2015. “A month later, four officials of the Sindh Rangers brought him back to his house,” says Usman Moazzam, general secretary of Pasban, the Jamaat’s estranged youth wing. “He was badly injured and wasn’t able to even walk. They searched the house and then also took me and my younger son Muhammad Siddiqui with them.” He continues: “They blindfolded both Muhammad and I and kept us together in a cell. Saad was being kept somewhere else. They did not beat me up but would torture Muhammad.”

After about a month, Moazzam’s detention was made public, but he was kept in custody for another 90 days and was later sent to jail. He was released in early 2016 after he was implicated in what he calls false cases, including one over helping criminals receive treatment from a hospital owned by former federal minister Dr Asim Hussain, who himself is facing multiple cases of terrorism and corruption. “I had never met Dr Asim Husain till then.”

Law enforcement agencies showed his son Muhammad to still be in their custody in December 2015. He is still in jail, facing charges of terrorism. “My sons are innocent,” says Moazzam. “As far as I am concerned, it is true that I went to Afghanistan in the early 1980s under the patronage and protocol of the state when jihad in Afghanistan was a noble cause for our state. Now perhaps they are punishing me and my sons for that.”

Muhammad Aamir Khan, a lawyer in Karachi, has dealt with the cases of around 20 former Jamiat associates who went missing between 2013 and 2017 — all but three of them have come back home. Two who did not return, Aliur Rehman and Abdus Salam, are facing death sentences after their conviction in military courts for the 2015 assassination of social activist Sabeen Mahmud, as well as a deadly attack on a bus carrying members of the Ismaili community in Karachi’s Safoora Goth area the same year. A third suspect was killed in a police encounter.

During their detention, Khan’s clients were interrogated about their links to people whose photos they were shown. They were also made to call some of their friends who were perhaps wanted by the agencies, he says, but adds that none of them were tortured. “They were kept in temperature-controlled rooms, given proper meals and were also allowed once a week to walk in the premises of the detention centres. They were even provided books that they had asked for.”

When they were released, says Khan, they “were provided a phone number to make complaints if they were ever harassed by anyone claiming to be from the intelligence agencies”. When one of them received threatening calls, he called the number. “The calls stopped after that,” he says.

All of Khan’s clients are highly educated. Many of them are said to have visited Afghanistan in 2012 to fight against American forces there. Most of them were impressed by the teachings of the late Dr Israr Ahmed, a Lahore-based preacher who broke away from the Jamaat when it decided to take part in electoral politics. He set up his own organisation, Tanzeem-e-Islami, and advocated for a global Muslim caliphate.

The Jamaat generally remains silent over such disappearances. Zahid Askari, its information secretary in Karachi, says the party does not want to associate itself with anyone involved in militant activity that is no longer endorsed by the Pakistani state.

But the party made an exception for Musab Abdullah, a former Jamiat activist and information technology expert, who went missing in Karachi last month. The Jamaat demanded his release, particularly through social media statements. This is because Abdullah was not involved in any unlawful activity, says Najeeb Ayubi, a Jamaat leader in Karachi. “He was earlier taken into custody one-and-a-half years ago but was released,” Ayubi adds.

Missing person Zahid Haider Kashmiri’s family holds up pictures from happier times | Fawad Hasan
Missing person Zahid Haider Kashmiri’s family holds up pictures from happier times | Fawad Hasan

In any case, he says, his party does not endorse the forced disappearance of members of any party or group. Law enforcement agencies should present any suspects before the courts of law, instead of turning them into missing persons, he believes.

The cases of 30-year-old Hamza Shahid*, who was pursuing his family business before being taken away by unidentified men on August 3, 2017 at 2:15 am, and 24-year-old Nabeel Akhter – a chartered accountancy student who went missing on September 15 this year – look different in many ways. Shahid, a married man with two children, was taken into custody during a night raid on his house by a score of masked men in civilian clothing in Karachi’s Defence area; while Akhter, a bachelor, went missing from Gulshan Chowrangi in the same city a little after 8:00 pm. Nobody knows who took him away or how.

The efforts their families have launched for their recovery, however, have taken a similar trajectory.

In the first instance, the Gizri police station registered a first information report (FIR) on August 29 on the orders of the Sindh High Court. The police then wrote letters to different law enforcement and intelligence agencies as well as the chiefs of all prisons in the country for help obtaining “information [about] and search[ing]” for Shahid. The police also sought the record of his cell phone and published adverts in newspapers, asking people to share any information they may have about him. The Sindh Home Department has set up a joint investigation team (JIT) to investigate the case. Its first meeting took place on October 18 though it did not make much headway.

In the second case, Akhter’s employers, a Karachi-based chartered accountancy firm, S M Suhail & Co, confirmed in a letter that he had been at work till late in the afternoon on the day he went missing. His father, Mohammad Jameel Akhter, wrote a letter to the Sindh High Court’s chief justice, requesting him to direct the relevant civil, paramilitary and military agencies “to locate [his] son and to produce him from the illegal detention of the abductors”. It was on the court’s orders that an FIR about Akhter’s abduction was registered at the Gulistan-e-Jauhar police station on September 17.

His family, too, sought access to his phone record, enlisting help from the Citizens-Police Liaison Committee and the Sindh Rangers. The only thing they could find was that Akhter had made his last call at around 8:00 pm near Disco Bakery in Gulshan-e-Iqbal. His mother says the call was made to a friend who he was scheduled to meet and who has also gone missing since that evening.

His family later received another, though equally unhelpful, piece of information. On October 11, the Gulistan-e-Jauhar police station and the Counter Terrorism Department Karachi told the Sindh High Court that they do not have Akhter in their custody.

There is another similarity between the two men: they were both quite religious — like any other Muslim, the latter’s mother puts it. But their parents and relatives deny that they had any association with militant ideologies or extremist organisations.

In the early hours of December 16 of last year, unidentified men got down from several vehicles inside the Kashmiri mohalla of the Gulbahar locality in Karachi’s Rizvia Society. While local residents were asleep, the men bolted all except one house in the neighbourhood. The lone house they spared belongs to Zahid Haider Kashmiri, a peon at a local community school. He was also an organiser of Shia mourning processions, says his wife Andaleeb Zehra. “We did not hear any noise before the men broke into our house,” she recalls.

Zehra woke up to the sound of her bedroom door being kicked open at around 3:00 am. “I panicked and found many men standing inside the room.” They took Kashmiri outside the house, along with his cell phone and identity card. His face was covered with a cloth and he was made to sit in a car. “Some of the men blocked my way until the car sped away,” she says.

Immediately afterwards, her three children, all aged under 10, sprang into action and unbolted the gates, waking up local residents. By that time, Zehra says, “it was too late”.

Since that night, the family has known nothing but fright while going to bed. “My children sleep holding onto me. They are still so shaken that I have to console them every single night,” she says.

Missing person  Aquib Khan Sawati | Photo courtesy: Family
Missing person Aquib Khan Sawati | Photo courtesy: Family

Zehra has contacted as many as 15 different law enforcement agencies and human rights organisations to no avail. The Sindh High Court could help her to the extent that Rizvia Society police station, on the court’s orders, registered an FIR about Kashmiri’s disappearance on August 28, 2017 — nine months after he went missing.

Ghazala Jafri and her family experienced something similar. At 3:00 am on the night of November 15, 2016, several masked men dressed in civilian clothing broke into their house, located near the Jafria Imambargah in Gulshan-e-Iqbal’s Hussainabad area.

“When I rushed out to see what was going on, I saw somebody jump into the house,” Jafri says. The man asked her for the key to the main gate. Frightened, she handed it over. He opened the gate, locked from inside, and let the rest of his companions in. After checking the identity documents of the men living on the ground and first floors, they proceeded to the second floor where Jafri’s brother, 40-year-old Sheeraz Haider, lived along with his wife and three-year-old son. They checked his identity card and took him out of the house. They said they would set him free after some questioning. He did not come back. His family does not know where he was taken or if he is still alive.

“He was one of the five people to have gone missing from our neighbourhood, all in the same way,” Jafri says. Another of the missing, Hussain Ahmed, is her nephew. He was taken away the same day his uncle, Jafri’s brother, went missing.

Razia Perveen, Haider’s wife, sent a handwritten letter to the chief justice of Pakistan the next day, requesting him to take note of her husband’s disappearance. “We still don’t know … which agency [has] arrested him,” she wrote, and sent copies of the letter to the director general of the Sindh Rangers, the chief justice of the Sindh High Court and the inspector general of Sindh Police, among others. Except for a Sindh High Court order for the registration of an FIR, which police complied to on October 11, 2017 (11 months after Haider was taken away), nothing has worked.

Haider had been working with the Sui Southern Gas Company Limited for about 17 years on contract, and was also enrolled in an MBA programme at the Federal Urdu University of Arts, Science and Techonology. He would leave work by 6:00 pm and go directly to university for his classes, his sister says. Since he was free from work on Saturday and Sunday, he would go to university at 9:00 am on weekends and stay there till 6:00 pm, she adds.

Haider could have been detained for travelling to Iraq or Syria to fight against the forces of the Islamic State (IS). His sister denies this. He never went abroad, she claims, not even for a pilgrimage.

From political activists to the associates of religious and sectarian organisations, missing persons in Karachi come in all ideological hues and stripes. Umar Mavia, a spokesperson of the ASWJ in the city, says 24 local members of his organisation have disappeared since 2013. Ten of them went missing in 2017 alone. All remain untraced, he says. Majlis Wahdat Muslimeen, a Shia political party, claims 19 Shias belonging to Karachi have gone missing since 2015. Two others who were detained from the city belong to Parachinar.

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQMP) also claims that 127 of its members have been picked up in Karachi by law enforcement agencies as well as unknown assailaints since 2013. “During the last 10 months, 45 MQMP activists went missing,” says Gul Faraz Khattak, a leader of the party.

The Defence of Human Rights Pakistan, an organisation headed by Amina Masood Janjua whose own husband has been missing since the early 2000s, has recorded the cases of 119 people who went missing from Karachi in the last 12 years. These cases mostly concern those who have been taken away due to their alleged association with religious militancy. Only 30 of them were released, four were found to be in the custody of law enforcement agencies while four others were found dead. The whereabouts of another 81 remain unknown.

Asad Butt, chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), says all the different numbers given by different organisations do not portray the whole reality. No organisation maintains comprehensive data, he says. Each one mostly records cases of people who are ideologically close to it, he adds.

In many cases, the families of missing people do not come out to have their complaints registered, but work silently for their recovery. In the ongoing year, says Butt, about 20 Shias have gone missing in Karachi but the cases of only six of them have been reported to HRCP. “Overall, more than 100 people have disappeared from the city this year but HRCP has received only 43 complaints.”

Justice (retd) Dr Ghous Muhammad – a member of the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances, which was set up in 2010 under orders from the Supreme Court – also mentions problems in ascertaining the exact number of missing persons. The commission, he says, received 1,141 complaints in total from Sindh, but 245 out of them were deleted because they either did not have complete addresses of the missing persons or they pertained to people who had deliberately disappeared to avoid the law or due to personal reasons. However, he says, the commission has successfully traced 781 of the people reported to it as missing from the province. “One hundred and fifteen cases remain to be traced.”

The number seems to be too small to capture the growing problem of missing persons in Sindh in general and Karachi in particular.

Names have been changed to protect identities

This article was published in the Herald's November 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writers are staffers at the Herald.