When Amina Janjua, a middle-aged mom in a head-scarf, began holding vigils outside Pakistan’s parliament, demanding that the army hand back their relatives whom it had secretly arrested, I wanted to tell her story.
I never dreamed that Amina’s cause might, say, threaten the army-powered rule of Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Wrong. Her group’s campaign, along with an independent-minded chief justice and others, so weakened Musharraf that he lost most of his ability to govern within a year of this article’s publication in 2006. Pakistan has real potential to become the failed state some say it is. But Amina Janjua reminds us that it also has strong building blocks of democracy. . .
From Newsday, 27 December 2006
BY JAMES RUPERT, Staff Correspondent
RAWALPINDI, Pakistan – In the 17 months since Ahmed Masood Janjua disappeared, his wife, Amina, has been running his business, raising their three children and suing the Pakistani government over its secret imprisonment of hundreds of men. Including, she says, her husband.
Since September, Amina Masood and scores of wives, mothers and children of secretly arrested men have rallied outside offices of the army-led government, waving portraits of their loved ones and demanding President Pervez Musharraf have them freed. They’ve brought unusual pressure to bear on an army used to managing its activities and finances without the annoyance of public oversight. And with strong support from a usually weak supreme court, they have forced the military to free as many as 13 men from a list of 41 “disappeared. ”
Musharraf’s government is secretly holding hundreds of men in prisons run by its intelligence services or at military bases, say Pakistani human rights groups. While many disappearances appear linked to the government’s fight against some violent Islamist groups, others are tied to ethnic conflicts or, apparently, criticism of the army.
While the United States’ declared policy is to push for democracy in Pakistan, Amnesty International and other human rights advocates say the Bush administration ignores secret arrests of men who may be suspects in its “global war on terror. ” Washington’s silence is strengthening a culture of impunity under Pakistan’s military rule, human rights groups say.
The U.S. Embassy declined to comment. The current State Department human rights report on Pakistan says “there were no politically motivated disappearances” in 2005 but adds: “security forces held prisoners incommunicado and refused to provide information on their whereabouts, particularly in terrorism and national security cases. ” It does not discuss the scale of that problem.
Masood, 40, works in a modest office at the College of Information Technology. Signing paperwork and answering a chirping cell phone one recent morning, her face alternately beamed and fretted, framed by a tightly pinned head scarf. “My children have not seen their father and we have not had his love or guidance for all this time,” she said. Janjua vanished with a companion as they left for tabligh – a periodic trip many Muslims make to visit mosques and preach the virtues of religious observance.
The family learned that someone powerful was behind his disappearance the way many families do: When “we reported it to the police and they refused to register the case, we understood that it must involve the agencies,” his wife said. For Pakistanis, “the agencies” means a clutch of secret intelligence departments, the largest of which is the military’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate.
Janjua’s father, Raja Ali Muhammad, 83, is a retired lieutenant colonel who led the young Pervez Musharraf in the army’s elite commando unit, the Special Services Group. He “told us not to worry, [that] he would use his contacts” among top officers to find out what had happened to his son, Amina Masood said.
Unable to get answers, Muhammad attended an army holiday dinner in January knowing Musharraf would be present. “He met the president and explained the situation and gave him a letter” with the details, Masood said. Eventually, the Interior Ministry sent a police investigator to interview the family. “We never heard from him again,” she said.
In May, Musharraf’s military secretary, Maj. Gen. Shafqaat Ahmed, called, she said. “He told me not to worry; he said ‘Your husband is OK. ‘” She demanded, “If they can tell me his condition is good, why can they not tell me who is holding him and why? ”
Musharraf’s spokesman, Lt. Gen. Shaukat Sultan, denied Ahmed discussed Masood Janjua’s condition in the phone call. “The president instructed his staff to check with all agencies to find out” about the missing man, he said. “But we haven’t a clue. ”
Amina Masood said an intelligence official, another investigator and a recently released prisoner have all told her separately her husband is being held by a military intelligence agency. Many of those released refuse to talk with journalists because officials have warned they will be re-arrested.
Masood Janjua is a devout man whose full beard and social work – as director of a free health clinic for the poor – resemble those of men in Islamic militant groups. “You see most of them are bearded,” his wife said at a rally, pointing to portraits of a half-dozen missing men. “That doesn’t mean they were involved with any violent organization. Masood was not. ”
Rally for loved ones
Since she began her street protests in August, distraught families have sought her out to add the names of missing loved ones to her list. While her supreme court case concerns 41 men, Amina Masood says her list is closer to 100.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent monitoring body, says it has reports of at least 400 people secretly arrested since 2002 – 150 still missing. Many of those reported secretly arrested are members of the Baluch and Sindhi ethnic minorities, which demand more rights for their provinces.
“There used to be some cases before” the U.S.-led “global war on terror” was launched in response to the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, said Khalid Khwaja, an Islamist ex-ISI officer, who with Amina Masood recently formed a religious-oriented monitoring group called Defense of Human Rights. “But since then, it has become a flood. ”
As Masood administered the family business and met a visiting journalist this month, her secretary interrupted. A man had arrived and insisted on seeing her. Excusing herself, Masood met the man, who spoke with her pleadingly, handing over a sheaf of handwritten papers.
“He is a gentleman from Abbottabad,” 60 miles to the north, Masood said, returning to her office. His brother “is missing, and they think he is with the agencies,” she said. “We will add his name to our list.”
© Newsday 2006.