In an extraordinary institutional confrontation, Pakistan's Supreme Court says the country's paramilitary forces should stop human rights abuses in the country's largest province of Balochistan or face prosecution. For more than two months, Chief Justice Ifthakar Mohammad Chauhdary and two other judges have been hearing a case which implicates the Frontier Corps (F.C.), a paramilitary force and a recipient of American training and assistance to combat Taliban and al Qaeda insurgents, for forced disappearance, torture and murder of political opponents from the Baloch ethnic community.
The Supreme Court says it has come across ample evidence that confirms the F.C.'s involvement in a variety of cases of illegal disappearances. Thus, the Chief Justice has threatened to arrest personnel of paramilitary forces if they fail to reproduce people who have been subjected to extrajudicial detention.
In 2007, Pakistan's military ruler General Musharraf sacked Justice Chaudhry from his office because, some say, the latter endeavored to investigate the case of 'missing persons.' The Baloch political opposition says around five thousand activists; students and professionals have disappeared since Musharraf triggered a military operation in the province that borders Iran and Afghanistan in early 2000s.
Intelligence agencies connected with the Pakistan army and federal paramilitary forces are often blamed for these practices in the gas-rich province of Balochistan where the indigenous Balochs are struggling for statehood. The Chief Justice reopened the cases of the missing persons after his reinstatement by the Pakistan People's Party (P.P.P.) of President Asif Ali Zardari following the general elections of 2008 that eventually led to Musharraf's downfall.
Justice Chaudhary, although not an ethnic Baloch, is the first from Balochistan to become Pakistan's top judge. Balochistan, which accounts for 43 percent of the country's territory and only 5 percent of the total population, is the least represented province in Pakistan's military, bureaucracy and foreign services. The units of the army and paramilitary forces blamed for rights abuse normally comprise of personnel from other parts of Pakistan, predominantly the province of Punjab. While posted in Balochistan, the local residents complain, these personnel do not only deprive the indigenous Balochs of employment opportunities but they also violently control the population in order to muzzle political dissent and demand for equal rights.
In Pakistan, the army and paramilitary forces enjoy immunity as an unwritten tradition. When the Supreme Court asked various departments to explain their position on the situation in Balochistan, the Defense Secretary submitted an unsigned report which annoyed the apex court. The Supreme Court deems this as the Defense Secretary's unwillingness to take ownership for the violent situation that engulfs Balochistan.
"Neither the FC, nor the Military Intelligence (MI), the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), or the defence authorities are doing the right job. So it's fine for the court to dispose of this case and set you people free to do whatever you want," the chief justice said ironically, adding an early verdict of sorts: "It is a total failure and a constitutional breakdown because no one is willing to deliver."
The F.C. denies charges of its involvement in human rights. Instead, it demands more powers to deal with 'anti-state elements' referring to Baloch political rivals. The F.C. also seeks policing powers, a demand the Supreme Court is unwilling to meet because the three-judge panel says the F.C. already enjoys too much power.
There is some evidence that indicates F.C.'s involvement in cases of enforced disappearance.
On May 11, 2012, the Deputy Inspector General of the Police shared a video with the court showing personnel of the F.C. whisk away three people from a local hotel who were subsequently reported by their families as "missing." The footage was attained from closed circuit cameras installed in the hotel.
Hamid Shakil, the top police officer, said they were "absolutely powerless" in the wake of F.C.'s illegal activities. The police, for its part, views F.C.'s operations as a clear intrusion in its routine operations.
The ongoing hearing in the Supreme Court about security forces involvement in the misuse of power is very crucial in terms of introducing checks and balances in Pakistan's security institutions. While one major challenge is to relocate all the "missing persons", whose exact whereabouts the paramilitary forces are even unwilling to truthfully share with the Supreme Court, the long-term goal should be to strictly discourage and punish misuse of authority by security forces against civilians and political opponents.