Case of the missing poet – DAWN.com

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YET another case of alleged enforced disappearance has demonstrated the impunity granted to certain forces in the country, which consider themselves above the law in an increasingly repressive dispensation. Ahmad Farhad Shah, a Kashmiri journalist and poet, was reportedly picked up from his home in Islamabad a couple of weeks ago and has been missing since then.

He is the latest addition to a long list of missing persons, which highlights the state’s worsening human rights record and increasingly repressive nature. Over the years, the country has seen intelligence agencies orchestrate the abductions of dissidents. There has been a marked uptick in such cases over the past few years, with the hybrid administration becoming increasingly coercive.

There has been intriguing inaction from the administration over the fate of the young poet who dared to question the establishment. He was taken away after the recent violent protests in Azad Kashmir that caused fatalities. He had reportedly been facing harassment from the intelligence agencies for his political views.

The case of the missing poet has drawn wider traction after the Islamabad High Court summoned the officials of the ISI, MI, IB, the federal law minister and the secretaries for interior, defence and law to appear for the next hearing. Justice Mohsin Akhtar Kayani, the senior puisne judge of the IHC, also ordered the live-streaming of all cases pertaining to missing persons to “facilitate public awareness and understanding of important legal issues”.

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It has certainly been a bold decision by an increasingly assertive superior judiciary, which has been defying pressure from the intelligence agencies. The court order has also sharpened the clash between the judiciary and the establishment-backed dispensation.

These are the same political parties that, when in opposition, claimed to champion rights.

The case of Ahmad Farhad Shah has brought the issue of enforced disappearances in the country to the fore once again. Scores of cases of missing persons have been pending before the courts. Many of the abducted have been missing for years. The number of missing persons in the country runs into the thousands. Little is known about their whereabouts. Notwithstanding the government’s claim that it is committed to finding a solution to the problem, unlawful detentions have not stopped. Fifty-one cases of enforced disappearances were reported last year alone.

Over the past one year, we have also seen PTI leaders from Punjab and KP being abducted and later released after being forced to change their political allegiance. Many who were picked up have been languishing in detention for months without trial. The enforced disappearance of the Kashmiri poet is a glaring example of the government’s continuation of such unlawful acts. So much for the government’s democratic credentials.

What is happening these days is not an isolated phenomenon; it is a symptom of shrinking democratic space in the country, with the ‘legitimacy’ of hybrid rule being increasingly questioned. The rule of law seems to have completely collapsed as intelligence agencies appear to have been given a free hand.

An increasingly insecure PML-N-led government, struggling to sustain its rule, has taken draconian measures to completely stifle freedom of expression in the country. Recently, it placed restrictions on the coverage and reporting of court proceedings. The latter are also focusing on political and missing person cases.

These are the same political parties that, when in the opposition, claimed to be championing democratic rights and the rule of law. The federal government’s latest move to regulate social media seems to be a part of the effort to curb freedom of expression. The Punjab Defamation Bill, 2024, passed recently, is one of the blackest laws in the country’s recent history, and reminiscent of the era of authoritarian rule.

Despite strong protest by civil society and media organisations, the Punjab provincial government pushed through the bill on the pretext that it was aimed at curbing fake news and criticism of state institutions. There are no two views that there is a need for a rules-based and more responsible media. But the way the controversial defamation law has been drafted reflects sinister designs. Defamation in the bill has been loosely defined as the “publication, broadcast or circulation of a false or untrue statement … which injures or may have the effect of injuring the reputation of a person or tends to lower him in the estimation of others…”. So, any criticism of the government and the unlawful action of security agencies defined under the new law becomes a crime.

While the government claims that the law is meant to provide legal protection from false, misleading, or defamatory publication, it is being seen not only as an infringement on the freedom of the press but also as a means to clamp down on the political opposition.

It gives sweeping authority to tribunals set up by the government to prosecute anyone it deems to be against the security forces and other state institutions without giving them legal recourse. Such a draconian law has not been enforced even under the worst military rule. In fact, it provides protection to illegal and unconstitutional actions by the establishment and government. Curiously, Punjab is the only province to have passed a defamation bill.

While the controversial bill is still waiting to be signed by the governor for it to be promulgated into law, the Punjab government, led by Chief Minister Maryam Nawaz, has already decided to initiate legal action against former prime minister Imran Khan and some other PTI leaders “for building hate-narrative against the state institutions”. This makes it apparent that the defamation law is to be used as a tool to suppress the opposition and silence any voice of dissent.

How does criticism of the establishment’s extra-constitutional involvement in political manipulation become a criminal act? Similarly, questioning the apex court’s judgement cannot be declared unlawful. In fact, it is the harassment of judges by the government and establishment that is a criminal act.

Even before the draconian defamation bill, we saw poet Farhad being abducted and the judges facing pressure and intimidation. The country is in real danger of turning into an authoritarian state. One can only pity the PML-N-led government that is virtually signing its own death warrant by imposing such draconian laws that could be used against its own politicians in the future.

The writer is an author and journalist.

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X: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, May 29th, 2024

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