Enforced Disappearances in Sindh

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The world will observe Human Rights Day on December 10. As Chair of the Congressional Caucus on Sindh and Ranking Member of the Asia Subcommittee in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, I have repeatedly drawn attention to human rights abuses in the Sindh province of Pakistan, and Human Rights Day is an appropriate time to reiterate my concerns.

In August, I sent a letter to the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs and the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, discussing human rights violations in Sindh. Six of my House colleagues—three Republicans and three Democrats—co-signed this letter. We noted that hundreds of individuals in Sindh have been forcibly disappeared. Many of those missing are writers, students, activists, and politicians who campaign for human rights and speak out against abuses committed by Pakistani security personnel and fundamentalist groups connected with Pakistan’s security establishment. The United Nations Human Rights Committee defines enforced disappearances as “an arrest or detention by state officials followed by a refusal to acknowledge the person’s fate or whereabouts.” By this definition, hundreds of Sindhi people have been victims of enforced disappearance. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, over 700 individuals went missing in 2016 alone. The Sindhi people also endure torture, extrajudicial killings, decreasing freedom of religion, and decreasing freedom of speech. Another concern is the forced conversions of young Sindhi Hindu and Christian girls upon marriage.

Notable enforced disappearances this year include that of human rights activist Punhal Sario, who was abducted by Pakistani security forces in August, as well as that of the youngest disappeared person, 16-year old Saif Jatoi, who was abducted from his home in July.

Fortunately, on October 18—soon after I raised Mr. Sario’s case in a speech on the floor of the House—Mr. Sario was returned to his family.

And Mr. Jatoi was brought by his abductors to court, although he has yet to be released. These two cases are exceptions, rather than the rule. Most of those who disappear are not lucky enough to be returned to their families. And those that are released have usually been mentally or physically traumatized during their time in detention.

Pakistani authorities have not responded to frequent requests by the family members of the disappeared persons to open or continue investigations into their disappearances. Further, although the United Nations Human Rights Committee has recommended that Pakistan’s government outlaw enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and torture, Pakistani authorities have not been responsive.

I would also like to mention my now-deceased friend, human rights activist and Sindh United Party leader Dr. Anwar Laghari, who was shot dead in his election office in 2015. Despite numerous inquiries by friends and family members of Dr. Laghari calling for an investigation into his murder and the identification of those responsible, Pakistan’s authorities have remained silent. Tragically, Anwar’s son Asad was found dead under mysterious circumstances just a few weeks ago, on October 30.

When I spoke about disappearances in Sindh on the floor of the House on October 11, I noted that “these types of human rights abuses cannot go unanswered. We must speak out and demand accountability for these disappearances and other violations of human rights.” Pakistan’s government and its security and law enforcement agencies have remained unaccountable when it comes to accepting responsibility for the hundreds of forcibly disappeared, killed, and tortured individuals in Sindh. It is imperative that these human rights violations are highlighted in bilateral discussions between the United States government and the government of Pakistan.

Congressman Brad Sherman (D-CA) has served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee for 21 years.