Enforced disappearances: As Raza Khan remains 'missing', Pakistani activists' lives continue to be in danger

A day before he went “missing”, Raza Mehmood Khan, a peace activist and the convener of Aaghaz-e-Dosti, shared a story on his Facebook timeline. It was about young Imaan Mazari, the daughter of politician Shireen Mazari, who had gone “missing” but only from Twitter after her viral anti-Pakistan army video, in the aftermath of the Faizabad sit-in by religious groups in November 2017.

Other posts on Raza’s timeline included cartoons on Imran Khan and a comment on the army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, among other shared posts on the sit-in which disrupted life in Islamabad. On 2 December 2017, Khan was picked up from his home in Lahore and has not yet been seen ever since. His phone has been switched off and efforts to get him back by filing a case have made little headway. Unlike Mazari, he is missing in real life, not cyber space.

On 2 June, six months to the day since he was picked up, Indians and Pakistanis committed to peace launched a Twitter campaign for his recovery. Classical dancer and social activist Sheema Kermani tweeted, “In a civilised society no one should disappear." Except that they do, and with unfailing regularity. The State of Human Rights in 2017 report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) said that in January that four social media rights activists and bloggers had disappeared from Lahore and Islamabad. “Ahmed Waqas Goraya, Asim Saeed, Salman Haider and Ahmed Raza Naseer were later released. The bloggers' disappearance and harassment created a climate of fear for the human rights and social media activists in the country. On 7 January, Qamar Abbas, a human rights defender, disappeared in Islamabad when he was travelling from Karachi to Islamabad for work,” reads the report.

Raza Khan. Facebook/aaghazedosti

Raza Khan. Facebook/aaghazedosti

Again in May the report said that four political activists — Raza Jarwar, Ali Ahmed Bughio, Shadi Khan Soomro and Abdul Aziz Gurghaiz from villages in the Badin district of Sindh — were abducted by policemen and personnel in black or dark blue uniforms and civilian clothes. There was no information regarding their whereabouts. Zeenat Shahzadi, who raised her voice for victims of enforced disappearances, was picked up near her house in Lahore in July 2015. She remained missing for more than two years until she was released in October 2017. No information was made public about the condition of her health, nor were her perpetrators brought to justice, the report added.

A press statement issued by concerned citizens said that the Lahore High Court disposed of Raza’s case after having confirmed that alternative investigation agencies, such as the Commission of Enforced Disappearances, are conducting further investigations to recover Raza Khan. The Military Intelligence (MI) and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have denied any role in his abduction.

Raza’s brother Hamid Nasir Mahmood filed a petition which was initially argued by the late human rights activist Asma Jahangir. The petition said, among other things, that someone had called the police helpline on 2 June to report that a person matching Raza’s description was seen being forcefully dragged into a vehicle at 8 pm by some unidentified persons near Cavalry Bridge in Lahore. However, the police were not helpful in securing the CCTV footage of the area, and while Raza’s brother and relatives met the eye-witnesses, they were reluctant to testify.

There have been several protests against enforced disappearances, and many perceived to be anti-establishment have been at the receiving end. The State of Human Rights in 2017 report, which mentioned Raza’s case, said that since its inception in 1986, it had received 4,608 cases of disappeared people, of which 3,076 cases had been disposed of, and 1,532 cases were still pending, with 867 from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province alone.

Importantly, the report said during 2017, Pakistan failed to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance, and specifically criminalise enforced disappearances. In September 2017, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (UNWGEID) presented its report to the 36th session of the United Nations Human Rights Commission. According to that report, the working group transmitted 119 cases of enforced disappearances to the government of Pakistan under urgent action. There were 723 cases of Pakistani citizens who had disappeared pending with the UNWGEID. Besides the UNWGEID data, the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances received 868 fresh cases during 2017, higher than the previous two years – 649 in 2015, and 728 in 2016.

Efforts to work for peace have been frowned upon and often maligned by the establishments of both India and Pakistan. Aaghaz-e-Dosti is an organisation that works with children and youth in both countries, and Raza’s disappearance has left a disturbing impact on his colleagues. Devika Mittal, the Indian convener of Aaghaz-e-Dosti and friend of Raza Khan said, “It has been six months and yet for each of us who knew him and worked with him, it is still unbelievable that he was picked up and hasn't returned yet. He is a simple, soft-spoken and gentle person who worked actively for peace-building between India and Pakistan and for inter-cultural harmony. His work was primarily with the youth. He would co-ordinate interactive sessions where school students of India and Pakistan would talk to each other through video conferencing, he would facilitate exchanges of greeting cards and letters between them, organised inter-faith Diwali, Eid and Holi celebrations.”

Raza had stuck his neck out and organised a peace demonstration in Lahore following the Uri attack. Mittal said what motivated Raza was his unflinching belief that what he is doing is beneficial for the people of his country. Hoping that he would return soon, she said, “It will be an act of justice not just for him, but it will also remove the growing fear and insecurity among those who work or want to work for peace.”

Others who knew him, like Tulika Bathija, an English teacher at an international school in Nagoya, Japan, valued his friendship because it was far stronger than militarised borders. Bathija, who works on peace building and human rights through school-based initiatives, said, “Raza is special. I have never met a man who is so humble, caring, hardworking and compassionate. A student of gender studies, he questioned patriarchal values and listened attentively to all my woes and worries. He would celebrate my accomplishments, wish me on Teacher's Day and other religious festivals. While wishing me on Teacher's Day, he often used to say, 'Maine bhi toh apse itna kuch seekha hai (I have learnt a lot from you).'”

By all accounts, Raza Khan’s work was aimed at peace and building trust between our countries, and he saw no reason not to do so. He epitomised what ordinary people feel about the need for harmonious relations between India and Pakistan, contrary to the inimical “establishment-speak”. He spoke up against what he perceived was wrong. That this should have put his life in danger or be the reason for his “disappearance” is utterly condemnable and contrary to every right safeguarded to us as human beings. It shows a continuing lack of accountability of the State, which seems to have institutionalised such heinous practices.

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Updated Date: Jun 11, 2018 20:50:34 IST

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