Without a trace
Saud Bugti’s father was picked up by secret police on a street corner in Karachi last November. No one
has heard from him since. He has joined the ranks of Pakistan’s
‘disappeared’ – victims of the country’s brutal attempts to wage war on both
al-Qaida and those who fail to support the government. But how many innocent
people are being caught up in this? And what is America‘s connection to the
barbaric torture of suspects? Declan Walsh reports
Friday March 16,
vanish quietly and quickly. Some are dragged from their beds in front of
their terrified families. Others are hustled off the streets into a waiting
van, or yanked from a bus at a lonely desert junction. A windowless world of sweat and fear awaits.
In dark cells, nameless men bark questions. The men brandish
rubber whips, clenched fists, whirring electric drills, pictures of Osama bin
Laden. The ordeal can last weeks, months or years.
Pakistan‘s disappeared – men
and women who have been abducted, imprisoned and in some cases tortured by the
country’s all-powerful intelligence agencies. The Human Rights
Commission of Pakistan has counted 400 cases since 2002; it estimates hundreds
more people may have been snatched. The phenomenon started with the great
sweeps for al-Qaida suspects after September 11, but has dramatically increased
in recent years, and now those who disappear include homegrown "enemies of
the state" – poets, doctors, housewives and nuclear scientists, accused of
terrorism, treason and murder. Guilty or innocent, it’s hard to know, because
not one has appeared before a court.
Pakistani public wants to know why. The disappearances are
increasingly perceived as Pakistan’s
– a malignant outgrowth of the "war on terror". This week, the issue
moved centre stage with the showdown between President Pervez Musharraf and Pakistan’s
chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. Many believe the judge is being
victimised for championing the cases of the disappeared. "These are
Gestapo tactics," says Iqbal Haider, a former minister. "The more we
protest, the more innocent people are being hurt. And what frightening stories
For Abid Zaidi it started with a phone call one afternoon
last April. The softly spoken 26-year-old was at work at Karachi
University’s department of zoology
in a cavernous room of stuffed animals, sagging skeletons and yellowing name
tags. The voice
on the phone instructed him to report to Sadder police station in the city
centre. There, a handful of men were waiting for him: he
believes they belonged to Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the army’s
powerful spy agency. They clapped cuffs on his wrists, wrapped a band around
his eyes and drove him to a cell. Then, he says, the torture started.
The men beat him, he says, with a chain, until he collapsed.
He was brought to a military hospital; there doctors brushed off his pleas for
help. Then he was
flown to another detention centre, where he was shown graphic images of
torture. "People’s skin was being removed with knives and blades and they
were being drilled," he says. "It was really
terrible." Then they hung him upside down from a butcher’s hook, his face
dipping into a pool of sewage water.
interrogators wanted Zaidi to admit his supposed part in the Nishtar Park bombings. In early
April, a suicide bomber had killed 50 people at a Sunni religious gathering in
central Karachi. The officials accused
Zaidi, a prominent young Shia, of orchestrating the massacre. Zaidi tried to
explain he was more interested in zoology than zealotry. They did not believe
an official told him he had been sentenced to hang. Zaidi wrote a will. "I
felt at peace because I knew God was with me," he says. But
it was a ruse. At 4am on the morning
of the "execution", having refused to admit his guilt, a dramatic
reprieve was announced. Shortly afterwards, he underwent a lie detector test
and on August 18 he was flown to Karachi.
The blindfold was lifted. Zaidi was driven through the city. The car stopped, a
man handed him 200 rupees (£1.80) and pushed the car door open. "He said,
‘Don’t open your eyes,’" says Zaidi. When the engine noise had receded, he
found himself standing at a bus stop near Karachi
University. He got down on his knees and prayed. Then
he phoned his brother to take him home.
account cannot be verified because, officially speaking, he was never in
government custody. However a senior police officer familiar
with the case describes it as a major embarrassment. "That boy was picked
up by a young officer," says the official, who asks not to be named. "[The police] knew
it was the wrong guy. But they refused to listen."
is the most powerful arm of Pakistan‘s intelligence
establishment, commonly referred to as "the agencies".
Founded by a British army officer in 1948 and headquartered at an anonymous
concrete block in Islamabad, the
ISI is famed and feared in equal part. Its influence soared during the 1980s,
when it smuggled vast amounts of American-funded weapons to mujahideen
guerrillas fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan.
More recently, it has organised guerrilla groups fighting Indian troops in
Indian-controlled Kashmir. The other major agencies in Pakistan are Military
Intelligence and the civilian Intelligence Bureau, and all three of these major
agencies have variously been accused of rigging elections, extra-judicial
assassinations and other dirty tricks.
9/11, disappearances were rare. Then, in late 2001, as al-Qaida fugitives fled
from Afghanistan into Pakistan, Musharraf ordered
that the agencies show full cooperation to the FBI, CIA and other US security agencies. In
return, the Americans would give them equipment, expertise and money.
Pakistan‘s agencies had
sophisticated devices to trace mobile phones, bug houses and telephone calls,
and monitor large volumes of email traffic. "Whatever it took to improve
the Pakistanis’ technical ability to find al-Qaida fighters, we were there to
help them," says Michael Scheuer, a former head of the CIA’s Osama bin
Laden unit. An official with an American organisation says he once received a
startling demonstration of the ISI’s new capabilities. Driving down a street
inside a van with ISI operatives, he could monitor phone conversations taking
place in every house they passed. "It was very impressive, and really
quite spooky," he says.
The al-Qaida hunt became a matter of considerable pride for
President Bush’s close friend, the president of Pakistan.
"We have captured 672 and handed over 369 to the United
States. We have earned bounties totalling
millions of dollars," wrote Musharraf in his autobiography last year. (The
boast sparked outrage at home in Pakistan
and was scrubbed from later Urdu-language versions of his book.) Prize captures included
the alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, who has apparently
confessed to a string of terror plots after four years as a captive, and Abu
Faraj al Libbi, another alleged bin Laden lieutenant. But certain innocents
were also swept up in the dragnet.
Brothers Zain and Kashan Afzal, for example, were detained
and beaten many times over eight months by Pakistani agents convinced they
belonged to al-Qaida. Zain, now 25, remembers that, in between the thrashings,
the "FBI wallahs" – a woman and two men – would come to visit.
"They showed me a picture of Osama and asked if I knew him," he says
at his home in Karachi. "I
told them I had only seen him on television." As American citizens – the
brothers were born in the US,
where their father lives – they might have expected better treatment. Instead,
they got threats. "The
Americans said if we did not tell them everything, they would send us to Guantánamo Bay," says Zain.
Like many of the disappeared, the Afzals had a colourful
past that drew the attention of the agencies. According to a well-informed source, their
names appeared on a list of potential recruits found on a laptop belonging to
Naeem Noor Khan, an al-Qaida computer expert arrested weeks earlier, in July
2004. They were also questioned about a visit they had made to
the lawless tribal belt of Waziristan. But whatever they
had done, it was clearly not enough to warrant prosecution by either Pakistan
or the US. In
April 2005, they were brought to Lahore
airport, handed a pair of airplane tickets in other people’s names, and set
The physical damage has healed – Zain suffered a burst
eardrum – but the mental scars remain. "He hears voices in the night
coming to take him away again," says his wife Sara. The couple agreed to
meet the Guardian and give their first newspaper interview in an attempt to
press their case for a new American passport. Despite numerous entreaties, the US consulate in Karachi has stonewalled
requests to re-issue their passports, which were confiscated during their
arrest. "I am scared because of what has happened,"
says Sara. "Pakistan
is not a reliable country, you know." A US
embassy spokeswoman in Islamabad
declines to comment on their case.
is that the American government still quietly supports the disappearances of
al-Qaida suspects, says Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch, which has
documented many cases. "The abuse has become even more brazen because of US complicity," he
says. He claims that American officials are regular visitors to ISI safehouses
in Islamabad, Lahore and Rawalpindi where torture has
occurred. They have supervised interrogations from behind one-way mirrors, he
says. In FBI internal documents, he says, torture is referred to as
"locally acceptable forms of interrogation".
detainees the safehouses are the back door to the mysterious world of CIA
"black sites" – secret prisons in Afghanistan, eastern Europe and
across the Arab world where torture is allegedly rife. Marwan
Jabour, a Palestinian who was picked up in 2004, recently gave an
extraordinarily detailed account of life in this system. After being tortured
by ISI agents in Lahore – they
strapped a rubber band around his penis – he said he was moved to a
"villa" in Islamabad
where he was questioned by US officials. "It seemed to me that this place
was controlled by Americans. They were in charge," he told Human Rights
Watch. "They would say: ‘If you cooperate, we’ll let you sleep.’" A
female official told him in Arabic, "Fuck Allah in the ass." One of
four fellow Pakistani detainees bore the marks of severe torture. "You
can’t imagine how much they were hurting him," said Jabour, who was
released last summer.
In its annual human rights report published last Tuesday,
the US State Department acknowledged the disappearances but skated around the US’s
own role. "The country experienced an increase in disappearances of
provincial activists and political opponents," it noted.
most recent disappearances have nothing to do with al-Qaida. To quell an
insurgency in Baluchistan – a vast western
province with massive oil and gas reserves – the agencies, in particular
Military Intelligence, have rounded up hundreds of suspected rebels in the past
two years. Of the 99 abductions registered by the Human Rights
Commission of Pakistan last year, 73 were from Baluchistan.
Officials believe many more have gone unreported. Shamsa Toon, a 70-year-old
woman, crouches on the pavement outside Karachi’s
Press Club clutching a giant photograph of her son, Gohram Saleh. He has been
missing since August 8 2004,
she says; this was the 166th day of her vigil. Her 13-year-old granddaughter is threatening
to commit suicide if there was no news. "He’s just a cab driver, not any
rebel," she says, tears streaming down her face. "His only crime is
that he is a Baluch."
officials swat the issue away with blunt denials. "I can say with
authority that these people are not with any agency or government
department," says Brigadier Iqbal Cheema, head of the
"crisis management cell", which spearheads anti-terror operations, at
the Interior Ministry. "Most of these people creating a hue and cry belong
to the militant organisations and have jihadi backgrounds. They are involved in
these activities themselves." But the current confrontation
with the chief justice has brought a renewed focus. Western diplomats are
queasy about such obvious abuses from an ally they claim is "moving towards
democracy". And the
death of Hayatullah Khan, a tribal journalist who was found dead last June
after seven months apparently in the custody of the agencies, has further
fuelled the outrage.
Last November, Chaudhry, the chief justice, ordered the agencies
to "find" 41 people who had gone missing. Subsequently, half were
quietly released. But the court actions have mostly just underlined the
impotence of the civilian institutions in the face of a powerful military
machine. When ISI
lawyers plead that they "cannot locate" certain detainees, the judges
can only fume and bang their benches.
tearful relatives are left grasping for even a shred of news. Qazim Bugti, the
mayor of Dera Bugti, a small town in Baluchistan, was picked up last November.
His wife Asmat, left behind to look after their five children, weeps when she
talks of her husband’s disappearance. "Does President Musharraf not have
children of his own? Would he like to see them treated like this?" she
says in the family’s Karachi apartment. She agrees
to speak despite whispered phone warnings to keep quiet: the agencies do not
Several relatives say they have been instructed not to
contact the media or human rights groups. Khalid Khawaja, who led a pressure
group on behalf of some detainees, himself went missing last month. He was
reportedly taken to Attock Fort, a notorious military prison. But the most audacious
disappearance, perhaps, is that of Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost.
his three years of captivity in Guantánamo Bay, Dost, 37, became
known as the "poet of Guantánamo" for his sharp verse. After his
release, he wrote The Broken Shackles of Guantánamo, and it was published in
the Pashto language last September; it became an instant hit in Peshawar‘s bookstalls, selling
more than 10,000 copies. It also contained stinging criticism of the ISI. Weeks
later, policemen in a van abducted Dost as he walked from his local mosque
after Friday prayers. His brother, Badruzzaman Badr – also a former Guantánamo
detainee – says, "The book is the reason behind this. They are angry about
what we have written. They claim to have democracy and freedom of expression in
this country, but it is not real."
When Dost’s case came before a local court for the third
time in January, the judges again asked the ISI to produce the missing man.
Again there was no answer. Now Badruzzaman, who has abandoned his gemstone
business and no longer sleeps at home, fears he will be next. "I do not
feel safe, they could arrest me any time. But where can I go?" he says.
Abid Zaidi, the zoology student from Karachi,
has also learned the price of going public. In late October, he travelled to Islamabad to describe his ordeal before a press conference organised
by Amnesty International. Shortly afterwards he was picked up again, this time
by men in uniform. Zaidi says they were flushed with anger. "They told me:
‘Next time, we will not pick you up. We will kill you’".
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
– – – – – –
Andrés Larrainzar, Ocosingo, Las Margaritas, La Garrucha, Marcelo, Judith, José
Luis, una bolsa de dulces, una arquitecta, un módulo dental, un baño en la
selva, una casa de campaña, un fut rebelde, Juan Pérez Jolote, el FZLN, Los
Caracoles, Muertos incomodos, Elías, 9/02/95, un pasamontañas prestado, la
coloreteada, la geometría imposible, el guerrillero inexistente, indígena,
mujer, anciana, Violeta Parra, de la cintura pa’ abajo, la sexta declaración,
San Cristobal, la pensión Chamula, un zapatour, un escudo humano, una masacre
inmisericorde, una canana al pecho, dos horarios distintos, un Aguascalientes selvático,
el brazo armado del perredismo, un zapatismo insulso, una retórica envolvente,
un pasamontañas agujerado, el hermetismo indígena, un templario Lacandón, … continuará.
there is nothing PURE in this WORLD,
Hidalgo, Juárez, Madero, Zapata,
Villa, Obregón, Carranza, Cárdenas, Heberto Castillo, … AMLO.
No va por
ahí. No están hechos de oropel los movimientos libertarios, quisieramos, pero
no es verdad. Sin embargo, de acuerdo a mi teoría de la balanza y a Almeyra,
por ahí debe estar el post, hay coyunturas en las que vamos con una causa sea
esta o no impoluta.Cuando perdemos esto de vista, perdemos tiempo precioso de
lograr avances. No tengo tiempo de
extenderme, tengo que corregir 100 páginas de mi tesis. Espero poder postear
por lo menos un par que tengo en “cola” de espera.
Norwich, U(na) (A)K(laración)
… it’s almost James Bondish.