Rocking the unpopular US-client government of President Asif Ali Zardari, the Supreme Court of Pakistan has reopened the cases of thousands of missing or disappeared persons during General Musharraf's regime. In a major setback to the government, Pakistan's Supreme Court last month declared the controversial National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) as unconstitutional and ordered the government to reopen money laundering case against him in Switzerland.
Perhaps the issue of missing persons and the NRO's legality were the main causes behind the US and President Zardari's reluctance to reinstate the Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftekhar Chaudhry. However, under intensive public pressure and massive pro-Chief Justice demonstrations, President Zardari and Washington agreed to his restoration in March last year.
Now the nightmare is coming true.
The Supreme Court decision against the NRO has already opened a Pandora's box. There are calls for the resignation of President Zardari and many of his ministers who were given amnesty under the NRO.
On January 7, 2010, the Supreme Court opened another front against the Zardari government with the resumption of hearings on the case of thousands of disappeared or missing persons apparently kidnapped by the intelligence agencies and many of whom have been handed over to the United States.
What is an enforced disappearance?
An enforced disappearanceoccurs when a person is arrested, detained or abducted by the state or agents acting for the state, who then deny that the person is being held or conceal their whereabouts, placing them outside the protection of the law. Very often, people who have disappeared are never released and their fate remains unknown.
Governments use enforced disappearance as a tool of repression to silence dissent and eliminate political opposition, as well as to persecute ethnic, religious and political groups. In recent years, in the course of the "war on terror", the U.S., sometimes with the complicity of other governments, has carried out enforced disappearances of terror suspects.
The term 'disappearance' was created during the 1960s at the School of Americas, an institute set up by the US military at Fort Guilick in Panama, which ran there till 1984. 45,000 Latin American officers were trained in counter insurgency there. Along with anti-guerrilla tactics, they were taught how to torture, and how to 'manage' prisoners. As soon as the officers left for their home countries, they applied what they had learned with 'disappearances' taking place in a large number of South American nations through the 1960s and 1970s. Four decades on, the families of the 'disappeared', in Argentina, in Chile, in Venezuela and in other countries are still pursuing the matter and are succeeding in gaining at least some justice.
A generation ago, officials from Argentina's Naval Mechanics School, known by its Spanish acronym, ESMA, secretly loaded drugged prisoners into aircraft and threw them out over the brown and frigid waters. As many as 5,000 people were "disappeared" at the hands of ESMA, perhaps the most horrifying symbol of South American repression in the 1970s.
In December 2009, almost 40 years after these crimes were committed, 19 officials from ESMA, who were previously given amnesty by the government, finally appeared in court.
Not surprisingly, similar methods are being adopted by the Pakistani intelligence agencies in their cooperation with Washington's "war on terror.' During the Musharraf era, people were picked up from their homes, work places, even from buses and till now the families of those disappeared don't know about their dear ones. There are calls that not only the disappeared people should be recovered but those responsible for their kidnapping should be punished just as is happening in Latin America after four decades.