In Pakistan, Detainees Are Vanishing in Covert Jails












Pakistani police officers escorting the wife of a missing person at a demonstratio protesting secret detentions in Islamabad, Pakistan, last year. Credit B.K. Bangash/Associated Press


KOHAT, Pakistan — Niaz Bibi’s son disappeared into the night, whisked away by Pakistani soldiers who accused him of being a Taliban fighter. For 18 anguishing months, she could find no word of his fate. Then she got a phone call.

“Come to Kohat prison,” said the man on the other end. “Tell nobody.”

At the prison, in northwestern Pakistan, she was directed to a separate, military-run internment center where her son, Asghar Muhammad, was brought to her. They touched hands through a metal grill, and she wept as he reassured her that he would be home soon.

But when the phone rang again, one month later, an official delivered crushing news. “Your son is dead,” he said. “Come collect his body.”

Mr. Muhammad was one of dozens of detainees who have died in military detention in Pakistan in the past year and a half, amid accounts of torture, starvation and extrajudicial execution from former detainees, relatives and human rights monitors. The accusations come at a time when the country’s generals, armed with extensive new legal and judicial powers, have escalated their war against the Pakistani Taliban by sweeping into their strongholds and detaining hundreds of people.

Critics warn that those gains may be coming at the cost of human rights, potentially weakening Pakistan’s fragile democracy and, ultimately, undermining its counterterrorism effort.

“People live in abject fear of speaking out about what the military is doing,” said Mustafa Qadri of Amnesty International, which received reports of more than 100 deaths in military custody in 2014.

At issue is a network of 43 secretive internment centers dotting Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province and the tribal belt. Little is known about the centers, formally established in 2011 and given greater powers by a tough antiterrorism law passed last year. Most are based in existing jails and military bases and operate far from public view. The total number of detainees has not been made public.

Relatives of missing people have filed 2,100 cases with the Peshawar High Court, seeking news of their fates.

In many instances, the first news comes when a body is sent home.

Last year, for instance, a man from the Kurram tribal district told the court that three of his six sons who were detained in Kohat had died in custody. The man’s lawyer said he had not brought a criminal complaint against the military out of fear that his remaining sons would meet a similar fate.

The chief military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Asim Bajwa, did not respond to a detailed list of questions about conditions at the internment centers.  Read more



Categories: Asia, Pakistan