South Asia

Pakistan: 200 Days On, Abducted Rights Activist Idrees Khattak Still Missing

Human rights activists like Idrees Khattak will continue to disappear if the silence around Pakistan’s thousands of missing persons, and a pattern of forced disappearances, is not broken.

Well-known human rights activist Idrees Khattak, who has for long been a voice for the voiceless in Pakistan, has been missing for nearly 200 days. On the evening of November 13, 2019, Idrees was abducted from his car at the toll plaza on the Swabi Motorway near Anbar, in north Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

Idrees’s driver and family lodged a complaint of abduction and a First Information Report was filed against four unknown persons. Later, a habeas corpus petition was also filed in the Peshawar high court. However, till date – 195 days since his abduction – police have yet to make an arrest in the case. Idrees’s whereabouts remain unknown.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and international human rights organisations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have demanded that Idrees be released by his abductors, or located by the authorities. Both Amnesty and HRCP have expressed fears that Idrees has been subjected to ‘enforced disappearance’.

Pakistan continues to be accused of pursuing a policy of abduction of dissident voices including political and human rights activists, ever since the then-serving army chief General Pervez Musharraf seized power in a military coup on October 12, 1999. Having ousted the elected government of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Musharraf took over as chief executive of Pakistan, and then ruled as president from 2001 to 2008.

Ever since, thousands of people have been abducted or kidnapped in Pakistan. Among these are activists like Idrees, who himself has raised the issue of rising cases of missing persons in Pakistan.

Supporters have linked Idrees’s disappearance with his research on cases of victims of enforced disappearance, which was part of his work with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Afrasiab Khattak, a well-known writer and former senator, alleged that the way some unknown persons went to Idrees’s house two days after he was abducted and collected his laptop, clearly shows that the security agencies are involved in his abduction.

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When Mohsin Dawar, member of the Pakistan National Assembly for North Waziristan and Pashtun-Tahafuz Movement (PTM) leader, tried to raise the issue of Idrees Khattak’s disappearance in the assembly, his mic was muted. “They can mute my mic, but they cannot mute my voice for voiceless across Pakistan and the world,” says Dawar. He and other PTM members are often arrested because of raising dissident voices; some have even been murdered. The PTM had approached parliament’s human rights committee to get the interior ministry to provide details on the whereabouts of Idrees Khattak, to no avail.

With the government refusing to provide any information on Idrees’s whereabouts, his family has been struggling to keep the issue of his disappearance alive. Idrees’s daughter Talia Khattak recently managed to bring some attention to the case by penning a column in an international paper.

“We are waiting for his return and worried about his safety but are struggling to be heard,” Talia told The Wire. “Days have turned into weeks and weeks into months, but we still don’t know his whereabouts. I am concerned about his health. They can do anything if they are able to kidnap anyone,” she added.

Talia recalled that the last time she met ‘Papa’ was when he dropped her at the railway station when she was travelling to Karachi. En route to the station, she found him unusually worried. He told her he sensed something bad would happen, and exhorted his daughter to keep informing him about her safety. She would thus telephone him every few hours. Suddenly, she found his phone was switched off.

“I called my relatives to inquire about him and they told me he was fine. So I relaxed, somewhat.” Talia then got a shock when she received a message from a friend, consoling her about her father being abducted. “First, I thought it was a joke; later, the joke turned out to be a fact.”

“It makes me wonder if Papa, who is a well-known known activist, can be abducted and his whereabouts remain unknown after months, what happens to common citizens,” she said. Talia says she feels the sorrows of all families whose relatives have been kidnapped for years. “You feel their pain when you go through it yourself. I understand their anguish, the inability to sleep at night because we want to know how our loved ones are.”

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When asked if either the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party or the  parliamentary human rights committee approached her and family about Idrees’s abduction, she said none had approached the family. Her hopes now lie only in voices from civil society being raised for her father.

Dawar said that people were reluctant to speak about Idrees’s abduction, but “democratic forces should know if they do not speak for people, they too could disappear.”

Talia is left wondering what happened to the police investigation. Those who abducted people are walking away with their crimes, she said.

“I want my Papa to be with us. I believe in the voices of civil society and continue to hope for his return,” says Talia.

Veengas is a Karachi-based journalist.