Raising a voice for the lost

The shocking discovery of a mass grave with anything up to 169 bodies in the Khuzdar district of Balochistan has galvanized a region already in head-long confrontation with the Pakistani government over the long march organised by the Voice of Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP) organisation.

The march has met continuous obstruction by the authorities as it wends its way the 2,700 kilometres from Quetta, the provincial capital, to Islamabad.

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) claims the 169 figure and even the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan disputes the government’s figure of some 15 cadavers.

The government’s critics are linking the bodies with the struggle for Baloch independence, a long-standing fight for the province’s rights which has intensified since the killing of the influential Baloch leader Akbar Bugti during a 2006 military operation.

The latest mass graves were found very close to the residence of Shafique Mengal, who is a well known security agencies figure and who heads a militant organisation called Nifaz-e-Amn. The organisation claims to be affiliated to the Pakistan security forces, working for the implementation of Islam and against anti-state elements. Mengal has been provided with 30 armoured vehicles. Whenever the security forces fail to conduct successful actions in tribal and mountainous areas they ask for his help. The Frontier Corp (FC) claims this organisation as the one truly working for the protection of Balochistan. The FC and other forces, as claimed by Baloch nationalist groups, have helped Mengal to make private jails and torture centres in Tootak, where the missing persons are brought and tortured before being extrajudicially killed. There is no power supply in the area but, interestingly, electricity lines were provided to his private jails and his ‘fort’, which is guarded by the law enforcement agencies.

Nasrullah Baloch, the vice chairman of the VBMP, fears that his relatives who disappeared following arrest by the security services in the restive province might be buried in these graves. Baloch says that his cousin and the son of Mama Qadeer, who is leading the historical long march for the recovery of missing persons, Jalil Reki and another, Sana Sangat, were brought to Khuzdar after arrest and killed some days later. He believes that their bodies must be in the mass graves with others.

Human rights violations could soon escalate as the Pakistani government recently passed a controversial new law, the ‘Pakistani Protection Ordinance’ (PPO), which has legalised enforced disappearances. The government has made an amendment to the PPO, though it has yet to be approved by parliament. In an effort to provide protection for the crimes of the security forces the government has given legal cover for enforced disappearances and allows the security agencies to keep any suspect for up to three months without presenting them before a court and in cases of suspected terrorism the person can be kept for six months in their custody.

The crimes of the security agencies in Balochistan and the mass-scale disappearances and extrajudicial killings have now been exposed by the discoveries of these mass graves.

The non-investigation of the enforced disappearance of thousands of persons shows that the Pakistani security agencies operate without any control or oversight; they answer to no one.

The VBMP march passed without any disturbance through Sindh province. But as they were about to enter Punjab they were under continuous threats from spy agencies.

First, they were not allowed to enter Rahimyar Khan City and had to divert to enter it by the long route. In the city of Multan they were stopped again in the containment area and after some hours were allowed to pass but without putting up their posters. Here, they were threatened not to enter Lahore, the capital of Punjab province. However, organisations from civil society resisted these threats and guided the marchers to Lahore, where they received a rousing reception.

As they proceeded towards Islamabad from central Punjab, the authorities started threatening them once more. Plainclothes officers forced the activists, who were marching in solidarity, to identify themselves and supply their home addresses. Mama Qadeer, leading the march, was threatened with physical harm if he did not stop the procession from entering Rawalpindi, the garrison city, in particular. Mama Qadeer said he had received threatening phone calls from an unknown number. The caller stated categorically that the decision had been taken that the march would not be allowed into Rawalpindi. The person stated that all preparations had already been made to ensure that the march would be stopped beforehand. The caller told Mama that the march should turn back and not continue on. Mama Qadeer would not be allowed to present his demands before the UN ‘in any way, shape, or form’.

The long marchers are under serious threat. It is anticipated that they and other activists who are joining them will be harmed in some way. This is to stop them from presenting their demands for the recovery of disappeared persons before the UN mission in Islamabad. The attitude of the government and the military towards the families of disappeared persons is very harsh and indifferent.

Disappearances and extrajudicial killings in the province of Balochistan continued unabated during 2013. The VBMP has compiled a list of disappearances and extra judicial killings despite threats and intimidation from the state security agencies. The list reveals that during 2013, 160 people were extrajudicially killed, 510 remain missing after arrest by the security agencies and 50 decomposed bodies of persons unknown were recovered from different cities of the province.
Andrew Small