Tom Deegan reports on a seminar that highlighted abductions and other human rights abuses in Pakistan’s Sindh province
Passionate calls for international condemnation of Pakistan were raised at the 30th Annual Conference on Sindh, held by the World Sindhi Congress at the University of Westminster’s Harrow campus on 27 October.
The debate focused on two main themes: the activity of state agents, the ISI and paramilitary forces, which enforce a tyranny against critics of the regime; and the unfettered construction of dams on the Indus River that threatens the economic life of millions of Sindhi people.
Speakers on three separate panels spoke of the abduction over the past decade of many thousands of Sindhi people, who were then tortured and unlawfully incarcerated or murdered, their bodies dumped on roadsides around Pakistan. One speaker described this horrifying practice, which begins with a ‘hit squad’ arriving in the dead of night in a police jeep without number plates, smashing down the door of the target home and bundling the ‘offender’ into the vehicle to be driven away. The pleas and screams of wives, mothers and siblings are brushed aside as fathers, sons and brothers disappear into the night, many never to be seen again. Sometimes a body is found later on a remote roadside, usually showing signs of grievous torture, but more often,those abducted simply vanish. Local police deny any knowledge of the matter, which may well be true, and refer the family to local politicians, who are equally unhelpful. Nobody in Pakistan can question ISI actions and the concept of habeas corpus is unknown in this tormented land. For many families of victims, this agonising uncertainty about the fate of their loved ones lasts indefinitely.
Lakhu Luhana, General Secretary of the World Sindhi Congress,said, ‘Sindh is facing unprecedented abuses of human rights that includes enforced disappearances, violence against religious minorities and the cavalier attitude of all the components of Pakistan’s state machinery to pursue the construction of mega dams which Sindhi people have always struggled against because they will suffocate the life of the Sindhi people.’
The increase in recent months of enforced disappearances in Sindh was also a matter of concern for Dr Hidayat Bhutto, a Sindhi political activist, who expressed ‘genuine concerns about our political workers, our human rights activists and our journalists as more than 1200 cases have been reported in recent years.We will highlight this issue to the international community and we will tell the international community to help us and press upon Pakistan to stop this practice of enforced disappearances.’
Youth activist Mujeeb Murtaza, grandson of Sindh nationalist Saeen G M Syed – Pakistan’s first political prisoner – related how he was obliged to pledge that he would desist from any sort of political activity when he was a student in Pakistan. Student unions are prohibited in Pakistan’s higher educational establishments, he explained, adding thathe had found it very difficult to refrain from heckling when former military dictator General Pervez Musharraf addressed students at his university in Pakistan.
Human rights campaigner Dr Sarwar Shah from Oxford NHS revealed, through the use of graphs and statistics, the many thousands of abductions that had taken place over the previous decade on a state-by-state basis. Sindh, Punjab and Baluchistan figured highly on the charts.
Britain is well aware of these terrible abuses going on in Pakistan but never raises the issues publicly and continues to provide aid to Islamabad. In fact, Pakistan is the single largest beneficiary of British foreign aid. Most other western countries are also aware of these extra judicial abductions and murders but geopolitical and trade considerations seem to outweigh any concerns about Pakistan’s medieval human rights violations. Therefore, it is more likely that calls by the Sindhi World Congress for international sanctions against Pakistan will fall on deaf ears.
The conference was attended bya mixed audience of more than 100 people, including Reham Khan, ex-wife of Pakistan’s cricketer-turned-prime minister Imran Khan, Shahriar Kabir, a political analyst from Bangladesh, and activists from Sindh who also highlighted the grim human rights situation in the province.