HRW: 'Disappeared' still haunt Pakistani province

July 28, 2011 - 3:14 AM

ISLAMABAD (AP) — The abductors often show up in sleek pickup trucks, wearing civilian clothes but sometimes flanked by Pakistani troops. They often beat and blindfold their victims before spiriting them away. And while the prisoners may wind up dead, odds are the captors will never face justice.

Despite ousting a military ruler three years ago, Pakistan's civilian leaders have failed to stop security agencies from carrying out such "enforced disappearances" in Baluchistan province, where Baluch separatists have led a long-running insurgency, according to a Human Rights Watch report released Thursday.

The security practice of abducting people has grown rapidly since Pakistan officially sided with the U.S. after the Sept. 11 attacks and rounded up numerous al-Qaida and Taliban suspects to hand over to Washington without a trial. Islamabad soon began using the tactic against groups that it considered domestic threats, such as the Baluch nationalists, the report said.

The report documents cases of such abductions, most of them from 2009-2010, and relies on interviews with more than 100 people, including relatives of victims and people who were detained, then later released. Three cases involved disappeared children as young as 12.

Though not limited to Baluchistan, the report found that such disappearances are "a distinctive feature" of the conflict in the southwest region, where ethnic Baluch have many grievances, including a desire for a larger share of the revenue from the area's natural resources.

Bashir Azeem, an activist with the Baluch Republican Party, was seized at least three times, in 2005, 2006 and 2009. He told the New York-based rights group that he was subject to interrogations, threats and physical torture.

In the last episode, he said "they pushed pins under my nails, put a chair on my back and sat on top of it, and put me for 48 hours into a room where I could only stand but not move. When they took me out, my legs were so swollen that I collapsed on the floor and fainted."

Baluchistan is Pakistan's largest province, covering 44 percent of the country and bordering Afghanistan and Iran. It is also the most sparsely populated province, with around 8 million people out of the total population of 180 million.

The United States believes that the Afghan Taliban have their headquarters in the province, but the Pakistani military appears more concerned with the ethnic insurgency there.

It's unclear exactly how many people in Baluchistan have been detained in this manner or killed under such circumstances. Anti-government Baluch nationalists say thousands have vanished, while government officials have given numbers ranging from 1,100 to a few dozen. Some activists have been seized multiple times, the report found.

Those in custody are typically tortured, through beatings, sleep deprivation and other methods, the report said. It noted that media organizations have reported more than 70 bodies of missing people were found between July 2010 and February 2011 in Baluchistan.

The circumstances surrounding the abductions are often similar. Many are carried out during the day in busy areas, with witnesses around. Although the perpetrators usually wear civilian clothes, 16 cases documented by Human Rights Watch involved men in paramilitary uniforms.

In March 2010, uniformed troops of the paramilitary Frontier Corps snatched 14-year-old Nasibullah Langao and 12-year-old Abdul Waheed in the Hudda area, the report said. The boys had been seeking information about the killing of Langao's uncle a few days earlier by the Frontier Corps, according to a family friend. As of Thursday, the boys were still missing.

Human Rights Watch found that most victims are apparently targeted for alleged involvement in Baluch nationalist movements or for certain tribal affiliations. The abductors — even those in uniform — never identify themselves or say why they are hauling someone away.

The report alleged some of those abducted are held in unacknowledged detention facilities run by the Frontier Corps and intelligence agencies. One such facility is at the Kuli army cantonment, a military base in Quetta, the capital of the province, the report said.

Families of victims often find that police won't register the abduction nor bother to investigate it, saying they lack the jurisdiction to pursue the cases.

When Noor Khan, 28, was taken by armed men in plainclothes while at a gas station in Turbat city, his relatives turned to local police for help. The report said that an officer told them, "We don't have authority over this, nor can we do anything about it. You know what happens here in Baluchistan."

Human Rights Watch acknowledged that the civilian government of President Asif Ali Zadari, which took power in 2008, has taken steps to address the grievances in Baluchistan, including political and economic reforms, but said it appears powerless to rein in the still-influential security establishment.

The report also noted that the country's Supreme Court has been instrumental in forcing police and lower courts to pursue some of the cases, but said that the bench's primary motive appears to be tracing the missing instead of punishing the people behind the disappearances.

"This approach suggests that the court does not treat these cases as crimes, undercutting the deterrent effect of the law," the report said. "By doing so it has contributed to the impunity enjoyed by security agencies, who for good reason believe and act as if they are above the law."

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