A Conspiracy of Silence

In April of last year, private television networks in Pakistan repeatedly broadcast a two-minute (fake) video showing a burqa-clad young woman being flogged with a leather strap by a bearded man, believed to be a Taliban commander, while two other men held her down and a crowd of men looked on silently. The woman is heard screaming and begging for mercy throughout the flogging and at one point swears that she will not do “it” again. Her offence? No one knows exactly. The incident took place at Kabal in Swat, then under effective control of Taliban militants and was defended by their spokesman as appropriate under Islamic law.

This shocking act of savagery against a teenage girl sent a wave of outrage throughout the country and was strongly condemned by political leaders, human rights groups, the civil society and the media. Zardari ordered the arrest of the perpetrators and Gilani called for an immediate inquiry. The chief justice of Pakistan directed the Interior Secretary to bring the young woman before the court and formed an eight-judge panel in the Supreme Court to examine the case.

But nothing much came out of all the denunciations. No one was arrested or punished. Nevertheless, the distressing incident reignited public debate over the peace deal signed by the government with the Taliban last February, under which Islamic courts were to be set up in Swat. The failure of the peace deal led in May 2009 to the military operation against the Taliban in which they were driven out of the valley.

Fast-forward to September 2010. Another harrowing video of atrocities surfaced from Swat. This time the Taliban are the victims and the perpetrators are armed men wearing what appears to be the uniform of the Pakistani army. The five-minute video shows six young blindfolded men in civilian clothing, with their hands tied behind their backs, being led to a wooded area and lined up in a compound. A firing squad of at least six uniformed men then shoots them. They fall to the ground. There is agonised moaning. A voice is heard saying “finish them one by one.” One armed man with a rifle then walks over to the dying men and shoots them again from a close range.

In its gruesomeness, the video is even more shocking than the one on the flogging of the young woman in Swat. Yet, the reaction in the country has been largely one of silence and indifference and, in some circles at least, even one of quiet approval. There has been no public condemnation or call for investigation from Zardari or Gilani. Other political leaders of all hues, parliament, champions of human rights and much of the civil society have also been mum for the most part. The reason is simple: many of them see the Taliban – rightly – as a class enemy who could one day rally the support of other have-nots and pose a threat to the hold of the ruling elite on wealth, privilege and power.

The media, with a few exceptions, has also joined this conspiracy of silence. While it gave extensive coverage to the flogging of a young woman by the Taliban, it has largely ignored the story on the arbitrary execution of suspected Taliban militants. By doing so, the media has also wittingly or unwittingly conceded that public criticism of the army remains a taboo.

This is not the first time during the army’s operations in Swat and in FATA that allegations of abuse against Taliban militants have been made. Reports of extra-judicial killings, disappearances of suspects some of whom are later found dead, torture and mistreatment have been circulating ever since army action was launched. The video is probably only the tip of the iceberg. An earlier clip on the internet appeared to show soldiers beating two civilian men. An inquiry into the matter was promised but if it was indeed conducted, the results were not made public.

According to a report of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) released in May, 282 extra-judicial killings were committed in Swat after the military operation ended in July 2009, including 48 bodies found in a single day in October last year. Most of these killings are believed to be in revenge for Taliban attacks on military and police outposts. Besides, there have been arbitrary detentions without trial running into thousands and collective punishment against relatives of suspected Taliban militants in the form of forced evictions (ilaqa badari) and demolition of houses.

The reports of international human rights organisations are equally damning. According to Human Rights Watch, there is evidence of more than 200 summary executions of suspected Taliban sympathisers in Swat. Mullen told human rights activists in Washington last month that he believed this to be a conservative estimate and that the real number of deaths was “much higher”. This is a very serious indictment, also of the HRCP for giving a low figure.

The army at first dismissed the video on the executions as “fake”. An intelligence official said it was being investigated by “experts”, but expressed scepticism about its authenticity. Since then, the army has promised action against the culprits if the video is found to be genuine. It seems that the threat of sanctions under the Leahy Amendment had a lot to do with this promise. This law forbids US military assistance to foreign armed forces suspected of committing, encouraging or tolerating human rights violations. Washington has since imposed sanctions under this law against around six units from the 12 Punjab infantry regiment and the Frontier Corps. At the same time, the US has “encouraged” Pakistan to improve its human rights training and said that Pakistan is taking steps in that direction. Both US and Pakistan have played down the issue in public.

Some Pakistanis have expressed outrage at these sanctions, pointing to the atrocities committed by the American military in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. This is perverse logic. If American soldiers have been guilty of crimes against people of other countries – and there is no doubt that they have been – that cannot in any way condone abuses by Pakistani forces against their own citizens. The Pakistan army must act as a disciplined force which remains within the law, howsoever grave the provocation. This is not going to be easy, especially given the impunity it has come to enjoy under a succession of military regimes.

A month ago, Kayani directed army commanders at all levels to be vigilant and follow the policy of zero tolerance for excesses against the people. He also announced the setting up of a board of inquiry headed by a major general to probe the executions shown in the video and promised the “strictest possible disciplinary action” against the perpetrators of abuse, if identified to be soldiers of the Pakistan army. These are nice words. The public has a right to know now what action has been taken since then to put them into practice. There must be no attempt at a cover-up or whitewash and no unnecessary delay and the results of the inquiry and disciplinary process must be made public.

Kayani would be well-advised to announce also that the policy of zero tolerance for abuse against the local population, including insurgents, would be enforced in Balochistan where an army operation was launched by Musharraf. Disappearances and extra-judicial killings have been fuelling the insurgency. The provincial government has expressed its helplessness and efforts of the judiciary to stem these abuses have been fruitless. Last month, Amnesty International called on Pakistan to investigate the alleged torture and killing of more than 40 political leaders and activists in the province over the past four months.

The federal government has other priorities, mainly saving Zardari from accountability, and has no time to address the deteriorating situation in the province. The pronouncements made by Rehman Malik on Balochistan have been an unmitigated disaster. In these circumstances, the army itself should make a beginning and start the badly needed healing process.

By: Asif Ezdi , A former member of the Pakistan Foreign Service.
Email: asifezdi@yahoo.com