ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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War on Terror to War on Dissent

Enforced Disappearances in Pakistan

The disappearances of human rights and political activists are indicative of the regime of surveillance and punishment operative in Pakistan today. Past military regimes were infamous for being intolerant of dissent, but it is under democratic rule that enforced disappearance seems to have taken an organised form. What began as a military tactic to counter militant groups in the north-west of Pakistan has gradually become an instrument to curb political dissent and public speech.

Enforced disappearances remain one of the least discussed gambits of the United States (US)-led “War on Terror” and the counter-insurgency tactics of the Pakistani military and intelligence services. Over 4,000 Pakistanis have been reported to the Defense of Human Rights Pakistan (DHRP) and Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) as currently “missing” (HRCP 2017). Journalists and activists who have dared to report and/or speak publicly about these disappearances are often threatened and intimidated, some even beaten and/or disappeared themselves. One of the latest victims is Raza Khan—“missing” since 2 December 2017, and last seen at a public discussion on blasphemy and a recent sit-in protest organised by a religious party on the same issue (Eleazar 2017; Sarwar 2017). The sit-in ended after the Pakistani Army mediated between the civilian government and protestors. The army’s role in placating the Islamic groups was openly criticised by human rights and social media activists (Gul 2017).

It was in late 2016 that Pakistan’s human rights activists themselves started becoming the target of enforced disappearances. Some of these activists had already witnessed the Pakistani military and intelligence services’ violent recoil towards their criticism of the ongoing operations against separatist and nationalist movements in the provinces of Sindh and Balochistan (Hashim 2017). Many of these activists linked Sabeen Mahmud’s assassination in Karachi in April 2015 to her critical stand on the issues of national security and in particular, the separatist movement in Balochistan and corresponding human rights abuse by security forces in the region (Dawn 2015). However, the successive abductions of progressive, “secular and liberal” activists—most of whom were critical of the Pakistani military and the religious ideologues dominating the public sphere—coupled with the simultaneous and subsequent allegations of blasphemy raised against them made many activists and critics nervous: until then, it had mostly been suspected “Islamic militants” and their sympathisers who had experienced this form of state violence in the so-called “War on Terror” (Sayeed 2017).

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