Families of those missing in Pakistan seek answers

February 24, 2012 - 3:25 AM
Pakistan The Missing

In this Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012 photo, Pakistani Zuhra Pirzada, 52, holds a picture of her husband Fadel, who went missing in 2004, while she and others camp near the parliament in Islamabad, Pakistan. The Supreme Court has now given the families a measure of hope by bringing a landmark case against the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, the country's most feared spy network and suspected to be behind most of the abductions. The agency, which works closely with the CIA, operates largely outside of the law. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Abdul Hameed last saw his son a year ago, being dragged away from their home by Pakistani intelligence operatives along with an Indonesian al-Qaida suspect who had been staying there. The ailing 59-year-old father now has a simple wish.

"I just want to see the face of my son before I die," said Hameed, who has been bedridden for much of the last year with multiple illnesses. "Just that. I have no enmity with anybody, any agency or any government. If you were in my position, what would you do?"

Kashif, who is a student, is among the ranks of Pakistan's "missing" — people seized by security forces for months or years, never to be brought to trial, their families never informed of their fate. Many of the men are presumed to be suspected Islamist militants, swept up in a post-Sept. 11, 2001, crackdown supported by the United States. Some are alleged to have been killed or tortured in custody.

Pakistan's Supreme Court has now given the families a measure of hope by bringing a landmark case against the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, the country's most feared spy network, which is suspected to be behind most of the seizures. The agency, which works closely with the CIA, operates largely outside of the law.

The ISI either refuses to discuss the missing, denies capturing them, or insists they were involved in militancy.

In an unprecedented hearing this month, judges forced the ISI to bring seven ailing suspected militants to the court in Islamabad, where they were reunited with their families. It has ordered the ISI to explain on March 1 what law they were detaining the seven under.

The media, which has largely shied away from reporting about the ISI because of the power it still yields, has taken up the issue with vigor. The military and ISI have suffered a series of humiliations in the past year, including the U.S. raid in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden. The civilian government has also demonstrated a measure of defiance that seems to have put the generals on the defensive.

"The country and the media are saying enough is enough," said Amna Masood Janjua, who heads a human rights group campaigning on behalf of the families. "We need intelligence agencies, but they can't operate above the law." Her husband was seized in 2005, and she believes him to be held by the intelligence agencies.

Sensing a change in momentum, the relatives of about 100 of the missing have set up a camp on a road leading to the parliament, vowing to stay there until the court orders the ISI to produce them all or they are put on trial. They say the intelligence agencies already have released six people because of the pressure.

Handwritten signs around the camp make it clear that much of the anger is directed at the United States because of its close collaboration with the ISI in tracking and capturing al-Qaida suspects in the last 10 years in Pakistan, one of the terrorist group's global hubs.

Former President Pervez Musharraf, who allied Pakistan with Washington after 2001, wrote in his memoir in 2006 that Pakistani security forces had captured 689 terrorists and handed over 369 to the United States, earning the country millions of dollars in bounties.

Many of those ended up at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, and the Red Cross has contacted the relatives of Pakistanis held at the camp.

Some of the activists believe the U.S. could be holding the suspects elsewhere around the world. The CIA, which ran a network of overseas prisons — so-called "black sites" — says it no longer does so. But suspicions persist that the U.S. is holding detainees at Bagram Air Field, a base it runs in neighboring Afghanistan.

Relations between the ISI and CIA has remained in place even as ties between the two countries have plummeted in the last year because of tensions over the war in Afghanistan and the bin Laden raid, officials from both countries say.

Pakistani security officials have refused to comment on the whereabouts of Kashif or what crime he is suspected of.

But they did acknowledge the arrest of the Indonesian, Umar Patek, an al-Qaida-linked militant currently on trial in Jakarta for the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings.

Hameed says that Kashif found Patek, who was traveling with his wife, on the street and gave them shelter in a spare room in his large house in Abbottabad, an army town in northern Pakistan that gained notoriety because it was the site where bin Laden was killed.

Patek says he was traveling to Afghanistan to live and fight there. The ISI presumably suspected Kashif, a 21-year-old telecommunications student, was a member of a militant network because he gave shelter to Patek.

In a telephone interview, Hameed maintained his son's innocence and appealed for help in securing his release.

"On humanitarian grounds, please find him," Hameed said. "I have heard or seen nothing since the day he was taken."

Speaking privately, military and intelligence officials say they can't release many of the men because Pakistan's court system barely functions, meaning they will be released. They also maintain that some of the missing have joined militants fighting along the border region or in Afghanistan, and have not told their families or have been killed there.

Janjua said 1,080 people had been registered as missing with her organization, but she believed the number could be much higher. In the past week alone, 50 families had registered missing men with the organization amid the publicity generated by the Supreme Court case, she said.

As well as presumed militant suspects, human rights groups also allege security agencies have detained hundreds of separatist sympathizers from Baluchistan province, and that many have been killed. In 2010, video emerged of men in military uniforms killing a group men in the northwest Swat Valley, where the army put down an Islamist insurgency that year.

The Supreme Court ruling concerns 11 suspected militants who were captured in connection with a 2007 suicide bombing against ISI personnel and a rocket attack a year later against an air force base. An anti-terrorism court ordered them to be freed in 2010, but they were picked up again from a jail near the capital of Islamabad. Four are alleged to have died in custody from ill treatment or neglect.

On the court's orders, the ISI produced seven of the suspects on Feb. 13. Two of them were too weak to walk. Another wore a urine bag, suggesting a kidney ailment. In a meeting with their families on the court premises, they complained of harsh treatment during their detention.

In a rare move, an unnamed "security official" issued a four-page statement through the state-run news agency listing the accusations against the men. The statement — presumably released by the ISI — alleged the 11 were "hard-core terrorists" and that "the sympathizers of terrorists have forgotten the miseries" of the families of those killed in the 2007 and 2008 attacks.

At the camp, families of the missing keep turning up, desperate for information about husbands, fathers, brothers and sons.

Fehmida Begum, a 55-year-old widow, said plainclothes security officers, one of them armed, came to her house in September 2011 and took two of her sons, one of whom was a police commando. She said she had not heard of them since.

She denied her sons were associated with militants, but all were members of Tableeghi Jamaat, a conservative Islamic missionary organization, some of whose members have gone on to violence. "Their sin is that they are religious," she said. "They have beards. They say their prayers."

Like other relatives, she said all she wanted was for her sons to face trial.

"If my sons have committed a crime, hang them," she said.