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Comment: Missing in Pakistan —Mehlaqa Samdani
Jan 8, 2009

The US and Pakistani governments should issue a joint public statement declaring that the future surrender of fugitives will be governed by the formal extradition process of Pakistan

The United States and Pakistan have to work together in various areas to improve their chances of success in the campaign against extremism. And yet, if there is one issue which, if addressed by the US, could positively impact all these areas, it is that of the missing persons of Pakistan — people picked up by Pakistan's intelligence agencies on suspicion of terrorist activity and detained without charge or trial.

Since Pakistan's involvement in the US-led ‘war on terror' seven years ago, more than five hundred Pakistanis have been abducted, detained and tortured. Some have been handed over to US intelligence officials and transferred to Guantanamo Bay.

The enforced disappearance of Pakistani citizens is not only a gross violation of Pakistan's constitution and extradition and criminal laws, but also stands in violation of international law.

Two years ago, Pakistan's Supreme Court took suo motu notice of the issue and threatened Pakistan's intelligence agencies with legal action if they failed to bring the detainees before the court of law. Challenged for the first time in their history, the agencies capitulated and people began to resurface. While many were afraid to speak, others gave harrowing accounts of their ordeal. The process, however, came to an abrupt halt when in November 2007, emergency rule was imposed in Pakistan and the Chief Justice of Pakistan and sixty other judges were unlawfully sacked.

No progress has since been made on the issue.

Pakistan's current civilian government, democratically elected in February 2008, remains weak and has largely been unable to hold its agencies accountable for their involvement in the enforced disappearances of Pakistani citizens. It has also, for its own political reasons, continued with the previous government's policy of keeping the judiciary under strict executive control.

Sadly, families of the missing have more confidence in the new US administration's ability to resolve this humanitarian issue than in their own government's will and capacity. This is an opening that if seized by the Obama administration could go a long way towards improving relations between the Pakistani public and the US government.

Pakistanis hope that under its new president, the US will pursue the campaign against terrorism in full compliance with its values and ideals rather than relying on the practice of illegal detentions, extraordinary renditions and black sites that characterised the Bush era.

The last seven years show that these practices have only increased anti-Americanism around the world and not made Americans safer. They have also reduced the support for the fight against extremism.

So what steps must the US government take to begin the recovery of Pakistan's missing persons and in the process advance its short- and long-term interests in the region?

First, it should reverse the Bush administration's policy of keeping people in legal black holes and encourage Pakistan to do the same. There should be a joint investigation of Pakistan's missing persons led by American and Pakistani legislators and mechanisms worked out to immediately release those in the US and Pakistani custody who have not been charged with a crime.

Second, US calls for reform of Pakistan's intelligence agencies should be made in the context of the missing persons' issue. This will have widespread support of the Pakistani population and could afford the civilian government a public-oriented excuse to rein in the agencies. Private and public support offered by the US could empower Pakistan's civilian government to confront its intelligence agencies and finally begin the reform process that would eventually bring them under civilian control.

The US and Pakistani governments should also issue a joint public statement declaring that the future surrender of fugitives will be governed by the formal extradition process of Pakistan. America exhibiting respect for Pakistan's laws will restore confidence in the rule of law and also demonstrate US commitment to strengthen Pakistan's institutions.

Finally, if the Biden-Lugar bill becomes law, a portion of the funding could be directed towards local organisations in Pakistan working on human rights issues, particularly those striving to recover Pakistan's missing persons. A fund could be set up to provide reparations to the families of those who were illegally detained.

This is a critical moment to advance the rule of law in Pakistan and redirect US relations with the Pakistani public. Resolving the missing persons issue will do just that as well as build Pakistan's capacity to combat extremism over the long term.

Mehlaqa Samdani is a consultant based in the US and works on US-Pakistan relations