The missing persons’ issue is a blot on Pakistan and reflects that it has failed to protect its citizens. Several national and international organisations focusing on human rights comment quite unkindly with regard to the state’s effort for recovering these persons. Unlawfully restricting the liberty of any citizen is a very sensitive matter and it is the responsibility of the state under Article 9 of the constitution to protect his/her life and property.

The superior judiciary is hearing numerous petitions filed by the relatives of these hapless people. The Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances (CIED), mandated to trace the missing persons, has also completed its report and is likely to submit it to Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif in a couple of days. Hopefully, this would result in more transparency on the issue that should, in turn, jump-start the government’s efforts to recover the missing persons.

During a recent hearing, the Supreme Court, while rejecting the state’s policy on the missing persons, ordered the government to devise a comprehensive policy for their recovery within 10 days. The court said that it should clarify what steps the government was taking for the recovery of the missing persons, while also focusing on how it plans to deal with the miseries of the victims’ families.

More so, the policy should outline the measures, which would ensure that no person is subjected to enforced disappearances. The court further ordered the government to recover the missing persons immediately. It is, indeed, a comprehensive directive, which would certainly trigger speedier actions by the relevant government departments.

The CIED, headed by Justice (retd) Javed Iqbal, has done a commendable job by demolishing the politically motivated mythical narratives about the missing persons, especially in Balochistan. It is encouraging that out of 1,172 cases, around 415 have been disposed off, while 757 cases are still pending with it. There is a need to continue work until all pending cases are finalised.

The commission has recommended the filing of criminal cases against around 117 serving officials of various law enforcement agencies allegedly involved in the matter. To boost the confidence of all segments of the population, who currently feel insecure, prompt action must be taken against all those whom the commission has held responsible for the disappearances. Earlier, the court had urged the police to register cases against the persons, who were being named by relatives of the victims.

After waiting for years for their loved ones to return, the families of the missing persons from Swat protested outside the Peshawar Press Club on July 23; they demanded an early recovery of their relatives. On the same day, the Peshawar High Court (PHC), while hearing 248 habeas corpus petitions filed by relatives of missing persons, ordered the law enforcement agencies to submit an affidavit if they claim a ‘missing’ person is not in their custody. The bench expressed concern over the recovery of the bodies, apparently of those earlier declared missing: “When the court presses hard for the recovery of missing persons, they (missing persons) are recovered in gunny sacks.”

Earlier addressing a press conference in Quetta on June 9, Justice Iqbal had said that there was concrete evidence to show that foreign intelligence agencies were responsible for the deteriorating law and order situation in Balochistan as well as the disappearance of individuals. He said that foreign intelligence agencies wanted to destabilise Balochistan and Pakistan. He further asserted that no state institution had confirmed reports about the number of missing persons and added that baseless propaganda was being created to confuse the issue. He said the number of missing persons in the country currently stood at 440, while 44 people had been recovered during the last three months owing to the efforts made by the commission. “For the past decade, the authorities have been unable to compile the complete details of those on the list of missing persons,” Justice Iqbal maintained.

According to the commission, the missing persons’ breakdown is: 18 from Islamabad, 117 from Punjab, 174 from Sindh, 170 from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 57 from Balochistan and 24 from Azad Kashmir and Fata.

Justice Iqbal had claimed that foreign intelligence agencies were involved in the issue of missing persons, and further said that the list also contained the names of those living abroad and those who had been involved in terrorism-related cases. He had stated that the then Balochistan Chief Minister had sent an incomplete list of 945 “missing” persons to the commission and requisite details of even 45 persons on the list had not been made available: “We sent the list back to the Ministry for correction, but it never came back.” He claimed that some of the missing persons were in Afghanistan, but could not be recovered because they were in US-controlled territory: “We have credible reports about the 11 to 15 missing persons of Balochistan, who are in the Paktia and Pul-e-Charkhi prisons under the control of the US army in Afghanistan.”

He acknowledged that the federal government had taken the missing persons’ issue seriously. Expressing his dismay over the attitude of those who were released by their captives, he said that no missing person following release was ever willing to talk about the forces that had abducted him: “Lack of evidence is a major reason for the low number of convictions on the missing persons’ issue.”

This also needs to be seen in the context of our dysfunctional tier of the judiciary comprising anti-terrorist courts. These courts have not been able to dish out any meaningful punishment to those brought before them on the charges of heinous offences of terrorism. Associated issues about the security of judges, prosecution witnesses and faltering forensics also need corrective measures. The culture of forced disappearances would melt away once there is a reasonable degree of assurance that an indicted person would be tried by a court of law in a professional manner.

The new government has an obligation towards its electorate to make a concerted effort to recover the missing persons and afford them a fair trial. Moreover, necessary legal measures should be taken to prevent forced disappearances, proxy arrests and renditions. There is a need to launch a coordinated national campaign to resolve this issue as soon as possible. Efforts should go on till the recovery of the last missing person; in addition, necessary steps should be taken to prevent such recurrences through credible accountability.

The writer is a freelance columnist.