Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Notes on "Missing in Pakistan"

At around the six-minute mark, with the increasing hysteria of Amina Masood’s screams, Missing in Pakistan finally progresses from a thoughtful but not-entirely riveting narrative to an extremely gripping – and disturbing - documentary about the spate of ‘disappearances’ in Pakistan.[1]

Amina’s panic arises as she realizes that her 16 year old son has been arrested by the police – and stripped of his trousers before being pushed into the police van. The site of his arrest, and its cause, is a peaceful protest organized by Amina to protest the disappearance of her husband. Ahmed Masood Janjua, was last seen by his family on July 30, 2005. Since then, Amina has received information through informal channels that her husband is in custody of the police, but no official is willing to confirm this, let alone provide her with a reason.

Janjua is one among several hundred Pakistanis who have gone missing since the launch of the ‘war on terror’. Evidence suggests that the missing have been abducted and detained in secret locations on the orders of the Pakistan government, which is one of America's allies in the War on Terror. It is reported that several have been transferred to America's custody as well.

The Musharraf government claims that it is only apprehending terrorists, but has failed to provide evidence linking several of the missing to terrorism; neither has it brought them before Pakistan courts.[2] Some of the missing, like Janjua, are members of groups like the Tablighi Jamaat, described as “a global Islamic proselytizing movement with one of the largest numbers of followers in the world.” It has been suggested that such religion-based groups may be recruiting grounds for terrorists, but there is no evidence establishing this particular group’s link to terrorists or terrorist activity.[3]

There is increasing bitterness in Pakistan at the government’s blind allegiance to American foreign policy at the cost of serious threat to the rule of law in Pakistan. “Do countries sell their own people?” screams one poster. It is an open secret that President Musharraf, who seized control of the government via a military coup in 1999, has been able to prolong his dictatorship due to backing from the western world, particularly the Bush government. BBC’s Zafar Abbas notes that as an active partner in the war on terror, Musharraf has been perceived by many in the West as one of the most liberal and enlightened faces of the Muslim world. Swayed by the exigencies of the war on terror, the American government has been able to overlook the suspension of due process in Pakistan, even as it goes about bringing “democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights” to other Islamic nations.

The 24 minute documentary brings out the very thin line between acts of terrorism and those sometimes perpetrated in the name of counter-terrorism, it addresses the terror v. torture debate discussed in the post on the Battle of Algiers, it raises questions about the extent to which a state allows its internal governance to be overridden by its obligations to other states and it provides an insight into the ‘conditional aid’ policies that governments of the North can use to arm-twist governments of the South. It also alludes to the ease with which values of democracy and rule of law can be co-opted or ignored. And of course, most significantly, it brings to public notice, several cases of disappearances in Pakistan and splices together the response from different communities of interest – the families of the missing, the government, the human rights fraternity and the lawyers.

This blog reports that the documentary has been circulating through informal channels as its content is too explosive for broadcast networks in Pakistan. It suggests that while there is a producer mentioned in the credits, there are doubts as to whether the person’s real name has been used. Other sites however indicate that Zafar is an independent journalist and film-maker. The documentary is freely available on Google video and on Youtube. Do watch.

[1] This is not to say that first five minutes were superfluous – in a second viewing I noticed details I had missed while settling down in the first; it is more a compliment to the film’s ability to shake even the over-exposed or desensitized (to documentaries, or the issues they cover) out of their passivity.

[2] The Supreme Court of Pakistan, seized of this matter, has encouraged the government to regularize the detention of those being held in secret prisons.

[3] See here for a presentation by Eva Borreguero, a Fulbright scholar and Professor of Politics, whose research is focused on this group, at the United States Institute of Peace.

Missing in Pakistan was screened at NYU on February 26, 2008.

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