Human rights activists chant slogans during a protest to condemn the disappearances of social activists in Karachi, Pakistan January 19, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

It’s been a month since unidentified armed men abducted political activist and human rights defender Idris Khattak, intercepting his car near Swabi, in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Pakistan’s nongovernmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan believes that Khattak was forcibly disappeared, where the state is unwilling to acknowledge detaining someone or provide their location.

Khattak, who just turned 56, has been involved with progressive politics since his student days, and has long been a member of the National Party. He is also a freelance researcher focusing on human rights issues in his home province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

Pakistan’s security forces have long carried out enforced disappearances with impunity. Enforced disappearances increase the risk of torture and extrajudicial execution and are psychologically traumatizing for victims’ families. Hundreds remain forcibly disappeared in Pakistan, their families unable to get answers.

On November 23, Khattak’s brother filed a habeas corpus petition in the Peshawar High Court, which ordered the government to report on Khattak’s whereabouts – but not until January 13, 2020, a long time for his anxious family to wait. Even with this directive, police often refuse to provide information on a detainee’s whereabouts and reasons for detention. Pakistan’s law enforcement agencies and criminal justice system cannot end the abuse of enforced disappearances when senior officials lack the political will to do so.

Pakistan’s Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances reported in September that 2,228 individual cases remain unresolved. Prime Minister Imran Khan had been a vocal critic of enforced disappearances, and approved a draft law criminalizing the practice. In November 2018, the federal minister for human rights, Dr. Shireen Mazari, who had condemned the practice as violating Pakistan’s constitution, advised the prime minister to sign the International Convention against Enforced Disappearance.

Enforced disappearances violate many rights – to be free from arbitrary arrest and detention; to be protected from threats to life, torture and ill-treatment; and to be given a fair trial. Their prevalence in Pakistan is a fundamental assault on the rule of law. The Pakistani government’s immediate and full response to Khattak’s disappearance would be a step towards recognizing that this terrible problem needs to be addressed.