Pakistan’s state of emergency declared on 3 November has aggravated the situation for some 100 or so people deemed “missing” in the country, according to rights groups.
In the days that led up to the emergency, a full bench of Pakistan's Supreme Court, headed by the former chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, while hearing a petition on the behalf of 198 people filed early in 2007 by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and 41 other petitions, ordered the government to find and release all the missing people.
In hearings over many months, the court concluded that the “disappeared” people were in the custody of intelligence agencies and 99 were ordered to be released.
However, after the announcement of emergency rule by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, many Supreme Court judges have been replaced and there are fears that controversial cases, such as the victims of enforced disappearances, will be buried.
"New, post-emergency laws permit the government to give a cover of legitimacy to disappearances," said Asma Jahangir, the HRCP chairwoman, in a statement issued from her Lahore home, where she is now under detention.
For the families of missing persons, the emergency comes as a devastating setback, snuffing out the flicker of hope that had been lit with the tough stance taken by the court.
"We had been optimistic, but now all we can do is wait," Amina Masood, 35, told IRIN. Since 2005, she has led a brave struggle on behalf of Pakistan's “disappeared” people; forming a group linking over 150 victims’ families.
Amina's own husband, Masood Janjua, who ran a computer college in Rawalpindi, “disappeared” in July 2005 while on his way to catch a bus to Peshawar. His family has heard nothing of him since.
"This waiting is terrible. I have attempted throughout to keep hope alive for my three children," said Amina.
Until 2002, the issue of “enforced disappearances” was unknown in Pakistan; a problem that initially surfaced as part of the country’s “war on terror”, during which dozens of people were picked up by intelligence agencies and taken to secret detention centres.
In direct violation of the law, no records were kept of their arrest, the charges against them, or their whereabouts.
But as the years went by, it was soon revealed that the same tactics were now being employed against many others, most of whom had no connections to militancy at all, say activists.
"Most of those held are from Balochistan Province and are secular-minded young persons, rather than zealots," Jahangir said.
Photo: Kamila Hyat/IRIN
|Dr Safdar Sarki, pictured here with his children, has been missing since February 2006|
The “disappeared” from Balochistan, and Sindh which borders it, were in a number of cases leading writers, intellectuals or poets. They include Dr Safdar Sarki, a well-known Sindhi writer and a US national, who was taken from his flat in the southern port city of Karachi in February 2006. Nothing is known of his whereabouts today.
Another victim, Munir Mengal, managing director of a Baloch TV channel, was picked up in April 2006.
Following the case in the Supreme Court, he was “found” a few months ago, but has since again been detained.
Human rights groups point out that men like the middle-aged Sarki had spoken out for the rights of the people of Sindh, but had never been involved in any unlawful activity.
The issue of “disappeared” people was taken up internationally only after 2006, as it became clear hundreds were missing.
"It was only as data was collected that the extent of the problem became apparent,” said I.A.Rehman, HRCP’s director.
Amnesty International, which has been campaigning to draw attention to Pakistan's “disappeared” people, said that a hearing of the cases of 485 victims scheduled for 13 November had not taken place as a consequence of the emergency rule.
Meanwhile, the knowledge that at least some of the “disappeared” people may have been severely tortured only adds to the families’ suffering.
Adeela Munir, whose 27-year-old brother, Imran Munir, went missing from Islamabad in July 2006, described the terrible state she found him in when she was recently allowed to see him.
"He was hallucinating, disoriented and weak," she said, and the court, which had been told that Imran had been convicted on a spying charge, ordered he be moved to hospital.
His lawyers, including Asma Jahangir, believe he was victimised as he had been involved in a love affair with a female relative of an intelligence agency official.
But now, with the court bench disbanded, it remains unclear what the fate of those still missing will be, or how long families will need to wait for their fathers, husbands, brothers or sons - or indeed, if they will ever come back at all.