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AN OPEN LETTER REGARDING THE ZARINA MARRI CASE
Jan 18, 2009
(an exchange of emails follows)

After the horrifying story of the forced sex slavery of Zarina Marri, a young Baloch schoolteacher, at the hands of Pakistani military agencies was brought to light, many people including members of 'civil society' and otherwise vocal defenders of human rights have requested 'verification' of the story, which they assert needs to come from 'multiple sources' since it is a 'very serious charge' that is being leveled. (As a side, I wonder if they deem this charge 'very serious' because of the identity of the accused or because of the heinousness of the crime?) For anyone who does not know Zarina Marri's story, take a look at the documents attached to this message.

The charges being leveled in this case are indeed serious, as were the charges in the Naseerabad 'burying alive' incident, the Mukhataran Mai case, the Shazia Marri case, and scores of others. Like the other cases, in the Zarina Marri case too, the story has been broken by a witness (who is also a victim) of the crime (Mr. Munir Mengal) - which is usually the way such incidents come to light in the first place. In politically sensitive cases, especially those which involve state-perpetrated atrocities, verification is a particularly thorny matter and anyone with the slightest experience in trying to investigate such cases would know that access to information is enormously difficult. Thus, one can hardly expect the accused in this case to tolerate - let alone co-operate- with the investigations in this regard. Regarding the need for 'multiple sources' then, I certainly hope nobody is expecting the military to 'verify' this story, or expecting that the victim herself (whose whereabouts are unknown) will magically appear before them to 'verify' that she has indeed been abused. Zarina's family has apparently fled their hometown (understandably perhaps) so local human rights agencies have not been able to confirm details about the woman.

However, in this (not unusual) situation of scarce sources and incomplete information, it becomes significant that the Zarina Marri case is based not on informal 'rumour' , but rather on a report released by the AHRC (Asian Human Rights Commission) which is considered both nationally and internationally to be a credible organization. (Human Rights Commission of Pakistan is a member of AHRC as well.) Additionally, the story was reported by Reporters Sans Frontiers, and there is an ICRC (International Committee for the Red Cross) report verifying sections of Munir Mengal's testimony, which he has also given before a court in London. Anyone who wants further information about the source of these organizations' information, their verification mechanisms etc. may contact them directly. 

However, what struck me upon reading various people's messages regarding the issue was not any inherent 'unreasonable-ness' in their demand for further verification. Rather, what struck me was the realization that we are partial in our choice of questioning the authenticity of certain charges. Take the 'burying alive' case, for example. Was our first response to request 'further verification' of the incident? If the story was in fact 'verified', by whose seal was it deemed authentic/true, were those sources considered trustworthy, and if so on what basis did we trust them? (To prevent my words from being misconstrued, let me make it clear that by raising these questions I am not trying to justify the act of burying women alive). A question thus arises: are we questioning the authenticity of the Zarina story because we are not convinced of the witness's or RSF's/ICRC's/AHRC's intentions? Did we wait until charges against Afia Siddiqui were proven/disproven before protesting for her rights? Examples abound. The fact is, there is no such thing as 'perfect information'. It's just about what we choose to accept, and what we choose to question.

Furthermore, it appears that we accept those charges (without asking for 'further verification') which fit with our mental image of the supposed perpetrator; we accept that which appears 'believable', and suspect that which does not corroborate with our world-view. For example, (in accordance with a certain world-view) those who are 'backward' are likely to bury their women alive or abuse them, sell them, etc. America "hates Muslims" hence Afia Siddiqui must be an innocent woman whose release we must fight for. (I am quoting examples from common perception, i'm sure some of you must hold contrary views but it is a general Pakistani middle-class mind-set I am talking about). Thus, because certain charges appears 'probable' to us, we generally don't make the same request for 'verification' in those cases, and certainly 'verification' is not our first response upon hearing of such incidents. And that's okay I suppose. We all do it, we're human, we make assumptions, we believe what we want to believe, we see what we want to see...

As far as people's image of the Pakistan military goes, I'm not sure what you all have in mind, but I've witnessed this Army shooting a man on sight for putting up a flag they don't like, I've met scores of people have been picked up and tortured by them and their intelligence agencies for no fault of theirs... Just read for yourself about what they did in Bangladesh during the 1971 war, about the 1973-77 operation in Balochistan, about Zia-ul-Haq's era ... and then perhaps the fact that they have picked up a young baloch woman and are using her as a sex-slave wont appear to you as extraordinary and your first reaction upon hearing about this case wont be one of disbelief nor will your first demand be that of 'verification'.

I firmly believe that this case needs to be highlighted, not only because it is a humanitarian issue regarding the unspeakable abuse of an individual, but because it is a case of systematic state oppression. She is not the only woman whose whereabouts are unknown and is reportedly being abused by military agencies in Balochistan. Its not ten or twenty, or even fifty or hundred we're talking about, thousands are missing in Balochistan. Its not just me saying this. Read HRCP's, HRW's, ICG's, AHRC's reports, and you'll get a sense.

In conclusion, I'd like to assure you that I am strongly in favour of 'verification' of the facts in Zarina's case but not so that a rubber-stamp of 'authenticity' can be placed on it but so that the perpetrators of this savagery can be brought to justice. To refrain from protests on this issue- which is essentially a means of highlighting it- until 'further verification' amounts to invisibilizing it and appears to me to be an excuse for inaction. On the contrary, we should certainly organize protests on this issue and launch a sustained campaign to bring this matter into the public eye, pressure the government to take action, and demand justice for this young woman and the thousands like her. 

regards,

Alia Amirali.

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Dr. Alia,  Greetings,


Thank you very much for your kind mail. I deeply admire your courage to raise the voice of Zarina Marri in the federal capital. What has stunned me to the most is the double standards of the Pakistani media, civil society and the political parties demonstrated in the wake of startling disclosure by the the Asian Human Rights Commission about Ms. Zarina Marri being kept as a 'sex-slave' by the Pakistani army and subjected to rape repeatedly along with several other Baloch women in the torture cells administered by the Pakistan army. 


There is no gainsaying the fact that the president of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) is the brother of the official spokesman of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR). Therefore, one does not have to be a rocket scientist to understand the conspiracy being hatched by the big wigs of the Pakistani media and the army to give a cover-up to the whole matter. I tired my level best to speak to the DG ISPR and seek his version of the whole matter. He didn't pick up the phone. But I am sure he received my SMS that informed him what "allegations" had been leveled by the AHRC and Munir Mengal. Therefore, he should have confirmed or refuted the statements. The Army has not spoken up yet. The sheep inside Pakistani media are leaving no stone unturned to avoid causing embarrassment to the army by giving a cover-up to Zarina Marri story.  I am sure keeping women as sex-slaves at the military detention centers is not the sanctioned policy of the Pakistani army. This disgraceful chapter, however, needs to be exposed and the responsible military officers must be brought to justice. I recommend the impartial international human rights organizations, such as the Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Asian Human Rights Watch and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan should be mandated to independently investigate the state of affairs inside the Pakistani military torture cells. 


We the people of Balochistan feel extremely betrayed today. When a journalist living several hundred kilometers away from Balochistan 'broke' a story in the media that five women had been buried alive in Balohistan, an allegation which could never be proved due to the fact that the reporter had not spent a single day in Balochistan, the private news channels in Pakistan sent their DSNGs and media teams from Islamabad to Balochistan to cover the episode live. Why are we seeing a black-out of this disgraceful episode in the media today? Why is the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) no longer interested in constituting a fact-finding team in this regard. Why are the Bolatha Pakistans utterly muzzled today? Where are the editorial writers who keep claiming that they possess the ability to shake the foundations of Pakistani society with their thoughts? 


When Dr. Shazia Khalid was raped by a military officer, Captain Hamad, in Sui in December 2005, the then chief of the army and the illegal president General Pervez Musharraf publicly blocked the way of an investigation and defended the rapists by saying that the army officer was completely innocent. Does it not indicate that all the Pakistani soldiers have been recently encouraged to learn is to rape the Baloch women? 


I agree with you that the disclosures of Munir Mengal could not be immune to exaggerations or personal biases due to his painful experience of being tortured for more than one long year in the custody of the Pakistani intelligence agencies. Yet, all that needs to be done is to ensure an immediate inquiry into the matter. Why is the country not coming for the rescue of a Baloch school teacher with the same enthusiasm that was seen and widely reported in the media with regards to the gang rape of Mukhtarian Mai or the handover of Dr. Afia Siddiqui. Isn't the State discriminating the Baloch?


If the Baloch do not have ample representation in the national media, human rights organizations and the top official circles, it does not mean that the right-minded people of Pakistan should also keep quite. Friends like you working in Islamabad are our hope. We need your support at this critical juncture to raise this issue until truth comes forward. Balochistan has already experienced the worst and the most unimaginable violation of human rights in the past few years. An army whose personnel shamelessly rape Baloch women in their cells can surely not be the army that you or me could be proud of. 


Regards Malik Siraj Akbar

Quetta


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Dear Siraj Sahb and friends,

I agree with you entirely that this is an issue on which to stay silent is nothing less than criminal. Let us hope that our voices will be heard by the various human rights agencies whose very job is to investigate such cases. To expect the DG-ISPR to respond is a far cry. Where we should start is by bring this issue into public knowledge as much as possible and pressurize government and non-government agencies to take up this matter.


However, it should be noted that the protest that was held in Islamabad on Friday demanding an impartial investigation of the crimes committed against Zarina Marri was reported in many newspapers here, both Urdu and English. This is a good first step at least. But much more of course needs to be done.


A clarification: I did not say in my letter that I suspect Mr. Munir Mengal's testimony to be exaggerated. What I have said is in response to those people whose first demand is that the story be 'verified' and i believe that calls for verification (which of course everyone wants so that the culprits may be punished) should not become an excuse for staying silent. If there are any HRCP or other human/women's rights members on this mailing list, please respond to this series of emails and inform the rest of us about the position of your organization(s) on this matter.

Regards, Alia Amirali.