…of broken lives and an endless wait

Sep 2014


After a long and arduous struggle, the repatriation of 10 Pakistanis from Bagram in May this year comes as a promising development. Since Justice Project Pakistan’s (JPP) petition to the Lahore High Court in October 2010, Justice Project Pakistan has strived to end the unlawful and indefinite detention of Pakistanis languishing in Bagram. Unfortunately, however, repatriation does not always end in a family reunion. After their handover to the Pakistani authorities, many former Bagram prisoners have been held incommunicado in Pakistani jails. JPP had to petition to the Lahore High Court to gain access to our clients. One of them is Iftikhar Ahmad.

In February 2010 Iftikhar called his family from Quetta and informed them that he will be returning home after months of labor at a construction project in Chaman. After four months of agonizing worry and wait, afraid that Iftikhar had been kidnapped or killed, International Committee of the Red Cross informed his family that he is being held at Bagram. Mentally ill prior to his imprisonment at Bagram, the physical and psychological torture he was exposed to in incarceration took a visible toll on him and Iftikhar’s mental health deteriorated. He was repatriated to Pakistan on 15th May, 2015 and is currently in detention at Central Jail, Sahiwal. His hopes for freedom dashed, Sahiwal Jail proved to be another Bagram for Iftikhar and his illness exacerbated. On 24th July 2014, Justice Khalid Mehmood Khan of the Lahore High Court, after ascertaining Iftikhar’s mental ill-health, ordered the Punjab government to transfer him to a private mental health facility.

Pakistani detainees in US custody have spent years at Bagram without charge, trial or access to a lawyer. In their absence their families endured trauma, economic hardship and social stigma. Amal Khan spent twelve years at Bagram without ever having presented a charge sheet of his alleged crimes. Eighty-four year old Bismillah Khan’s children struggled to make ends meet as he counted days of his nine years long imprisonment. These men represent some of the poorest and most marginalized communities in Pakistan with little knowledge of the complex repatriation procedure and no money or social clout to wrestle their rights.

Since the first Pakistani detainees started trickling back, lack of clarity and transparency has shrouded the repatriation process. According to an estimate from 2012, Bagram housed forty Pakistani inmates; of which sixteen have since been released while twenty four remain in US custody. For the past four years, JPP has been pushing the governments of United States and Pakistan to release official confirmation on the names of Pakistanis in US custody at Bagram. After tremendous effort and repeated requests, earlier this month, advisor to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs, Sartaj Aziz, released a list of twenty-four Pakistani detainees at Bagram. However, this is accompanied by a disclaimer that the government is still in the process of ascertaining their nationalities and is not sure who these people are.
Despite its fundamental responsibility to assist Pakistanis in indefinite detention, the government has done little to make the process more comprehensive and transparent. If the government abdicates as it has, then who will take what constructive effort to bring Pakistanis home, particularly in light of the compounded challenges caused by US withdrawal from Afghanistan?

Pakistanis whose incarceration is not acknowledged by either the US or Pakistani authorities suffer an added risk of abuse and torture. Since the status of their detention is unknown, there is little that can be done to ensure their repatriation to Pakistan. In addition, their families have no means of ascertaining their whereabouts.

The politico-legal limbo confronting the Pakistani detainees at Bagram can be attributed to a lack of transparency and clarity in the repatriation process, and to a dearth of effective communication channels between the governments of the United States and Pakistan to establish meaningful consultation about the fate of these detainees. As shown by numerous DRB (Detainee Review Board) rulings, many detainees had little to do with the War on Terror and were picked up on mere suspicion. Feeling betrayed by their own government, these Pakistanis want Islamabad to take substantial steps to end their plight.

Justice Project Pakistan is pushing for all Pakistanis to be repatriated ahead of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. Confusion shrouds the future of these prisoners as Afghan authorities refuse to take charge of Third Country Nationals post the March 2013 handover of Bagram to the Afghan government or allow the US to operate any detention facility on Afghan soil. If meaningful steps are not taken towards their freedom, there is grave risk that detainees may be entangled in an ever greater impasse of indefinite detention. Negotiations may have to begin anew bringing with them the incumbent delay and ambiguity associated with a new set up.

Zara Shahid is a Student of Law at LUMS and is a volunteer at Justice Project Pakistan.

Justice Project Pakistan (JPP) is a non-profit human rights law firm, that provides direct legal and investigative services, to the most vulnerable prisoners in the Pakistani justice system, particularly those facing the death penalty, victims of police torture, mentally ill prisoners and victims of the “War on Terror”.

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