“We are here to tell the founder of this country that we are being persecuted and discriminated in your country.” That is the message from the families of Shia missing persons, who have been holding a sit-in outside M. A. Jinnah’s Mausoleum in Karachi since April 2. A Shia activist informed The Diplomat that the community has tried to seek assistance from every government and civilian institution, and held sit-ins outside the Chief Minister’s House, the Governor’s House, and all the relevant authorities, but to no avail. The Shia community, the activist said, has come to the realization that these institutions are either apathetic or incapable of addressing their plight. Therefore, a group of Shias resorted to a sit-in outside the final resting place of the country’s founder – more of a public confession of their defenseless and unprotected condition than a protest.
In August 2020, Pakistan witnessed a surge in anti-Shia politics. At least six huge anti-Shia rallies were carried out by different Sunni groups in five different cities, including the capital of the country. At least five Shias were killed in different incidents, more than 40 blasphemy cases were registered against Shias, and a place of worship was attacked. The rise in online hate speech was also alarming. Between August and September 2020, the Minority Rights Group reported that a sentiment algorithm documented an increase in negative tweets about Shias, which “collectively reached millions of social media users in Pakistan.” Fully 46 percent of social media mentions of Shias examined during that period were negative. The most frequent word used to refer to the community was the Urdu word for “infidel.”
For Shias, the negative perceptions make them a target not only for extremists but for the security forces. In May 2018, estimates for the number of forcibly “disappeared” Shias ranged from 140 to around 300. In April 2019, the Shia community, led by the Joint-Action Committee for Shia Missing Persons, held a two-week-long sit-in outside the President’s House in Karachi. As a result, some 17 Shias were freed and 16 appeared in court, officially charged with. Currently, there are 34 recorded cases of Shia missing persons from different parts of the country who have been missing for two years or more, some as many as six years.
Pakistan’s track record on enforced disappearances has been an issue of grave concern for the international community. In September 2020, four U.N. Special Rapporteurs demanded the end of enforced disappearances in Pakistan. According to one estimate, more than 700 people are still missing. Yet Pakistan has been ignoring these humanitarian appeals. The government’s Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances, formed in 2011, seems helpless to prevent these disappearances. The International Commission of Jurists shared its disapproval of the commission and stated that it has “enabled and entrenched impunity for enforced disappearances instead of providing redress to victims.”
The practice of enforced disappearances is targeted at particular groups, mostly ethnic minorities such as Balochs, Sindhis, Pashtuns, Seraikis, and Urdu-speaking Muhajirs. Lately the abductions have expanded to include Punjabi dissidents. The state sees their legitimate political demands as a “national security threat” and uses extrajudicial and illegal tactics to silence them. However, with the addition of Shias to the missing person list, it seems the state has expanded its scope and is now aiming to target religious minorities, starting with Shias.
It is not clear why and on what grounds Shias are being “disappeared.” The abductors – presumably the security agencies – claim that the missing persons were involved in the Syrian civil war and sectarian violence in the country. According to an unofficial and unverified estimate, between 700 and 5,000 Pakistan Shias from Karachi, Parachinar, and Gilgit-Baltistan, recruited by Iran, went to Syria to fight against the Islamic State. The security agencies fear that Shias who returned from Syria pose a threat to Pakistan’s stability.
Under this pretext, the security agencies have picked up Shias who returned from Syria. Police and the paramilitary often raid homes and tell the families that their loved ones will be sent back once the investigation is done. But the people are moved to undisclosed locations, with no information given to their families. Family members are left to search at local police stations, hospitals and even morgues for some news of their loved ones.
More concerningly, some of those who have been “disappeared” never went to Syria, Iraq, or Iran. The reason for their abduction is still a mystery for the families. For example, Shamim Haider, a resident of Karachi, who was a puncture repairer on the edge of poverty, has been missing for the last six years, his family presuming him detained by security forces. He had never been to Syria. Nor had Azhar Hussain and Ebad-ul-Hassan, both residents of Karachi, who were picked up by the law enforcement agencies in 2017. Similarly, Ali Mehdi, also from Karachi, has been missing for the last two years. Mehdi, who played for the junior national hockey team, had never been to Syria and did not have any criminal record.
Let us us assume for a moment that the security agencies have undeniable proofs of all the abducted Shias’ involvement in criminal and terror activities. Even if that’s the case, why did they resort to enforced disappearances? Why have the missing Shias not been officially charged with crimes, and their cases handed over to the police and courts? Although the families have their reservations about court cases – some of those who were previously presented in the courts after many years were linked to crimes that had happened while the accused were being illegally detained by the security agencies. Despite the risk of bogus charges, the families demand that their loved ones either be officially brought to court or released.
The increase in illegal detentions is a worrying sign is that there is a section within the state that still views Shias as a security threat – a suspicion that was embraced after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The recent abductions make Shias a doubly persecuted community that is simultaneously facing genocidal violence from the state-backed religious militants and harassment and intimidation from the state. Shias have already been questioning the state’s neutrality vis-à-vis banned anti-Shia outfits roaming free. The ongoing issue of enforced disappearances reaffirms the existence of anti-Shia paranoia among some state actors who are apparently unaccountable and unanswerable to any authority.