June 21, 2024


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‘My father was taken and I don’t know why’

Talia’s parents separated when she was a little girl, and her father became her only caregiver – from cooking breakfast to making “cool hairstyles” for her for school.

“He was a really nice dad,” says Talia, who is 20. “I think my whole life, my worst fear has been losing Papa.”

But last November her worst fear came true. Idris Khattak, a well known human rights campaigner, was taken in broad daylight from his car in northern Pakistan, and for seven months Talia had no idea who had taken her father or why.

And then, a breakthrough. In a rare admission of a forced disappearance, Pakistan’s military confirmed it had Idris, 56, in custody, and that he was facing charges under the secrets act.

Now the thought of where he might be, and in what condition, keeps Talia up at night. That, and her guilt for the train ride she was on the day he disappeared.

Talia was due to take the train from the capital Islamabad, where she studies, to Karachi to attend a conference. Her father had reservations about letting his young daughter travel alone, which is considered unsafe in Pakistan, but she convinced him. He said he would call every hour to check on her. Mid-journey he told her he had a bad feeling and offered to pick her up if she got off at the next station.

“I feel so guilty now, I think about it every day. If I had said yes and I had gone with Papa that day then I would have been with him in the car,” she says.

The last time she spoke to him he sounded rushed and out of breath, and told her he wouldn’t have his phone for the next few days. Then he stopped responding to messages or calling. It was completely out of character, and worried Talia.

A few days later, she was headed back to Islamabad when she got a message from a friend: “I’m so sorry your father was abducted.”

In attempt to protect her, Talia’s family had not told her the news. But the headlines and her father’s picture splashed on news websites confirmed her fears.

Idris was taken by men in civilian clothing from his car at the Swabi interchange in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the province where the family has its home. His driver, who was also taken, was released after two days. The driver gave a statement to police saying unknown men put bags over their heads and drove them away in a separate car.

Two days later, unknown men went into Idris’s house and took his laptop and hard drives. Talia says most of their family pictures were on there. Then for months, they heard nothing. Talia and her sister Shumaisa worried about his health and if he was being given his daily diabetes medicine.

Idris Khattak’s brother filed a police report, and tried to petition the Peshawar High Court to force police to investigate. Amnesty international, where Idris Khattak was a former researcher, said he was “forcibly disappeared” – a term used for state-backed abductions.

But after six months and no information on his whereabouts, Talia posted a video appeal on social media asking for people to petition the government to provide answers.

It is still unusual in conservative Pakistan for young women to be the ones on public platforms demanding justice. And her family had reservations.

“I always think, what would Papa do? And I know he wouldn’t stay quiet. He would speak up if it was any of us,” says Talia.

“There are so many cases just like my dad. My father is not the first and he won’t be the last. It makes me mad and it worries me that there’s not a lot we can do about it.”

Enforced disappearances have a long history in Pakistan, gaining prominence during the leadership of General Pervez Musharraf which began in the late 1990s. Historically, those who went missing were insurgents or separatists from restive regions like Balochistan or more recently Sindhi nationalists.

But in recent years the security forces are accused of using the practice more widely, including against activists, bloggers and journalists who have been critical of the government.

Idris Khattak’s family claim they have no idea why he was taken, as he was not a particularly vocal critic of the government or military in recent years. He is affiliated with the National Party – one of the largest political parties in Balochistan.

The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) estimates that at least 2,100 political dissenters and rights activists are currently missing in the country, although the actual number may be much higher.

Harris Khalique from HRCP says the practice is particularly painful for families unaware of their loved ones’ whereabouts, sometimes for years. Or until a body or grave turns up. But more fundamentally, it goes against the individual rights enshrined in Pakistan’s constitution.

“If the state indulges in extra-legal actions what legitimacy does the state have to go after those non-state actors who have similar practices?” says Mr Khalique.

In 2011 a Commission of Inquiry of Enforced Disappearances was formed but successive governments, including the current one, have failed to deliver on the promises of criminalising state-sponsored abductions – mainly because of what experts say is the close relationship between the government and military in Pakistan.

“Despite repeated promises to criminalise enforced disappearances, it continues to be used as a tool to muzzle dissent or criticism,” says Amnesty.

The BBC approached the government for comment but received no response.

Idris Khattak’s family and human rights activists mounted a campaign to put international pressure on the authorities, reaching out to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).

And then in June, in a rare occurrence, the family were told that the military’s intelligence agency had him in custody and were charging him under an archaic 1923 secrets act.

The family later found out he is to face a military trial conducted in secret. They have no idea what the charges are against him and they are likely never to be told.

They have still not been able to meet him or speak to him. And for Talia, who used to speak to her father every night about her day, it hasn’t got any easier.

She is in touch with her mother, who now lives in Switzerland, but says that despite everyone’s support it’s the loneliest she’s ever been.

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