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Pakistan Court Holds State Responsible for Enforced Disappearances

Political Will Needed to Protect People from Abuse in Detention

Relatives hold placards and photos of missing family members during a protest in Islamabad, Pakistan, February 20, 2021.  © 2021 AP Photo/Anjum Naveed

The Islamabad High Court has provided a glimmer of hope for hundreds of victims of enforced disappearances in Pakistan.

In a landmark decision last Thursday, Chief Justice Athar Minallah issued an order saying that “When there is sufficient evidence to conclude that it is, prima facie, a case of ‘enforced disappearance’ then it becomes an obligation of the State and all its organs to trace the disappeared citizen.”

However, this is the latest in a series of court directives over the years that have so far failed to stop security agencies from carrying out secret detentions and enforced disappearances. Since March 2011, 8,463 complaints of enforced disappearances have been received by Pakistan’s Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances. Activists estimate the real number to be higher.

International law defines an enforced disappearance as the detention of anyone by state forces or their agents who refuse to acknowledge the detention or whereabouts of the person, placing them outside the protection of the law. In Pakistan the victims are most often from the marginalized sections of society, and once forcibly disappeared they are often at risk of torture and extrajudicial execution.

Chief Justice Minallah also observed that the commission, established by the government in March 2011, had failed to provide justice to victims. Despite a mandate to investigate alleged disappearances and hold government officials accountable, the commission traced only one-third of the cases registered with it and made no attempt to hold officials accountable for failing to comply with “orders to produce people unlawfully detained.”

Pakistani authorities, including law enforcement agencies and the criminal justice system, have long failed to demonstrate the political will to end enforced disappearances.

In January 2021, the Islamabad High Court ruled in a 2015 disappearance case that the prime minister and his cabinet bore ultimate responsibility for the state’s failure to protect its citizens. The court called enforced disappearances “the most heinous crime.” In October 2017, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ordered the interior ministry to provide a detailed account of everyone being held. But the disappearances continued.

Chief Justice Minallah’s ruling is an opportunity for Pakistan’s new government to show that it is serious about ending this abuse and protecting people by rigorously enforcing the law.

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