Omran Belhadi

On 23rd October 2013, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met with President Barack Obama to discuss, among other topics, illegal and lethal drone strikes on Pakistani territory. While commendable, Prime Minister Sharif must remember that drone strikes are not the only aspect of the United States’ misguided counter-terrorism policy to affect Pakistani citizens. The United States is currently holding over 40 Pakistani citizens in Bagram Prison in Afghanistan, without charge, trial or access to a lawyer.

Hamidullah Khan is one of them. He is a 19 year old boy hailing from Wazirisitan. When he was still a young boy his family moved to Karachi for greater economic opportunities. Hamidullah has always been an excellent student and dreamt of becoming a doctor. In July 2008, during the summer holidays, his father sent him to his family home in Wazirisitan to collect their belongings. The family had learned of an impending military operation in the area and wanted to salvage their belongings. After a few weeks of traveling and having collected the family belongings, Hamidullah called his parents to say he was coming home. That is the last they heard of him. He was 14 when he disappeared.

A year later, his family discovered the US government was detaining him in Bagram, Afghanistan. His family believes that he was sold to US soldiers across the border in return for a hefty bounty.  How else could one explain that a child of fourteen, an excellent student, whose dream was to be a doctor ended up in the black hole that is Bagram Prison?

Though the Pakistani government has been aware of his plight—and that of the 39 other detainees—it has failed to take genuine steps to repatriate its citizens. It was only in response to litigation initiated by Justice Project Pakistan and the bold efforts of Justice Khjalid Mehmood Khan of the Lahore High Court that these detainees begin to see a glimmer of hope. In January 2012, Justice Khan rightly held that Hamidullah and six other detainees were innocent of any wrongdoing. He also said that even if they were guilty, it is the responsibility of the Pakistani government to ensure they are provided with legal representation and that they have their day in court. Only when ordered by Justice Khan did the Pakistani government initiate negotiations with the US government to seek the return of its citizens.

On 16th October, 2012 the Pakistani government claimed in court that Hamidullah and five other detainees would be returning home. These steps forward are attributable only to Justice Khan. His determination and unwillingness to bow down to US power is the sole driving factor behind Hamidullah’s return.

Yet, over a year later, Hamidullah still languishes in Bagram Prison. Worse still, the Pakistani and US governments have colluded to deny Hamidullah and his five co-detainees their fundamental rights even when in Pakistan. They will be detained at an unspecified location for an unspecified amount of time, without any legal justification whatsoever. As Justice Khan correctly held, these men are innocent until proven guilty. There can be no grounds to detain them upon their return to Pakistan.

The Pakistani government has failed its citizens held at Bagram for the past 11 years. By not pressing the US government to repatriate those at Bagram Prison, it has destroyed their lives as well as those of their families in Pakistan. Time is running short for the Pakistani government to redeem itself. It seems increasingly likely that the United States will leave only a small amount of troops in Afghanistan after 2014, certainly not enough to man Bagram Prison. If so, Hamidullah the 19 year-old and his fellow citizens at Bagram Prison will be handed over to Afghan authorities notorious for the horrific torture they inflict on detainees.

In 12 years of lopsided bi-lateral relations between Pakistan and the United States, rarely has the Pakistani government had the upper hand over its US counterparts. In the black-hole that is Bagram Prison, the Pakistani government has the legal and moral high-ground to demand the unconditional return of all its citizens. It must conduct negotiations with US authorities at the highest level. It must sign a repatriation agreement applicable to present and future detainees. The agreement must guarantee Pakistani citizens will be repatriated in full respect of their internationally and domestically protected human rights. Only then will the balance of power be corrected in Pakistan’s favour.