Abid Raza Zaidi winces occasionally as he tells how police hung him upside down and beat him with leather straps to get him to confess to taking part in a deadly bombing in Karachi.
He remembers being forced to stand for hours without rest, and the strange serenity he felt when police said they had determined he was guilty and would execute him in the morning.
The police eventually let him go. The 35-year-old doctoral student is home now, surrounded by his beloved books on zoology again, sunlight and the squeals of children filtering into his house in the warrens of a poor Karachi neighborhood.
But for four months last year, Zaidi’s friends and family had no idea where he was. He is one of hundreds of Pakistanis allegedly swept up by the country’s security forces in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, when President Pervez Musharraf began a crackdown on Islamic extremists.
Human rights activists say the government has since extended its dragnet to include others who oppose it. At least 600 people, and perhaps hundreds more, are missing, they say, held without charge in undisclosed locations with no access to family or a lawyer.
The battle over the fate of Pakistan’s so-called disappeared has been a major source of friction between Musharraf and the country’s Supreme Court, which over the last year had begun to call the government to account for its missing citizens.
In rulings that encompassed more than 100 cases of missing people, then Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry ordered the government to disclose the whereabouts of the missing and file charges or release them.
Musharraf accused the court of endangering public security by setting terrorists free, and the tension was central to the escalating clash of wills between the president and the judiciary.
Although Musharraf’s decision to fire the country’s top judges last month came just before a Supreme Court ruling that could have disqualified him from the presidency, lawyers point out that he was already furious with what he considered to be grand-standing judges poking into areas where police, the army and intelligence services have long operated with impunity.
The government has been cagey about media reports last week that it freed, or was set to free, about 100 of the missing to assuage international criticism.
“I don’t want to say anything about that which I don’t know,” said Afzal Hayder, the law minister, when asked about the reports.
But human rights activists say none of the missing have been released. They say that any move to suddenly do so would only highlight the arbitrary nature of the detentions.
“The chief justice did not release a single terrorist; it is Musharraf who has released 25 of the most barbaric terrorists,” says Iqbal Haider, secretary- general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, referring to Taliban prisoners the president agreed to exchange last month for 213 captured Pakistani soldiers. “His strategy was to shut down a judiciary that was showing some clout on the illegal activities of the intelligence services. That is what he could not tolerate.”
Whatever the cause, the dismissal of the Supreme Court has brought a halt to the process of tracing those alleged to be missing. At the time of its dissolution, the court was hearing evidence in cases involving 487 people. The new Supreme Court, made up of judges handpicked by Musharraf, has so far shown no sign of resuming those hearings.
“All human rights cases have been shelved,” said Haider, the human rights official. “Whatever relief the families of the missing were receiving is no longer available.”
Critics also say Pakistan’s army and intelligence services have used the cover of the fight against Islamic extremism to intimidate other political enemies of the government, such as nationalists from the provinces of Sindh and Baluchistan. Most of those reported missing from impoverished Baluchistan are alleged to have links to the underground Baluchistan Liberation Army, which has been designated a terrorist organization.
“Missing people are asked if they have any links to the BLA,” said Hasil Bazinjo, a nationalist leader in Baluchistan. “They are pressured to reveal who provides money and ammunition to the BLA.”
Bazinjo says his party has evidence of 600 missing people, mostly students and journalists. One such is Muneer Mengal, a journalist who attempted to start broadcasting an independent Baluch TV channel into Pakistan from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Mengal has been held since April 2006.
“When you have no accountability on the intelligence service, you have fear,” said Athar Minallah, a lawyer who has been a leading organizer of the judicial protests against Musharraf and was briefly held last month. “If you pick up hundreds of people in Baluchistan who are simply fighting for their rights, then you create fear right across the country. People now believe that anyone can disappear.”
Zoology student Zaidi said the police eventually acknowledged that they had made a mistake in detaining him, but kept him in custody because the intelligence services remained convinced that he was linked to a bombing that killed more than 50 people.
His two sisters said they first thought he had been kidnapped, then realized after a police raid on their home a month later that he must be in custody.
“Everybody knows that people disappear,” said sister Sarwat Hasan, 28, a teacher. “But we couldn’t understand why they would take him, because he was not involved in politics or any sectarian activities.”
They had no money to hire a lawyer and no idea where their brother was until he showed up one day barefoot, after being pushed out of a police car, handed a few rupees and warned not to talk about what had happened. But he does talk, methodically recounting his story, though he remains afraid he is being watched.
“I refuse to submit to the fear they tried to create in me,” Zaidi said as his sisters watched protectively from across the room.
“When I was being held, they said, ‘We can kill you.’ I said, ‘Go ahead. Do it. But I will not tell a lie.’
“I had done nothing,” he said.
Wallace recently was on assignment in Pakistan. Special correspondent Shahid Husain contributed to this report.