Pakistan's continued detention of the Baluch nationalist hero, Akhtar Mengal, is fanning the flames of insurrection
(Courtesy The Guardian)
The years of western-backed dictatorship in Pakistan are coming to an end. Candidates supporting the tyrant Pervez Musharraf were trounced in last month's elections. Now, the democratically elected government of Pakistan's new prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, has ordered the release of the judges that Musharraf deposed and detained. They were dismissed because they dared uphold the rule of law and challenge his regime's systemic violation of human rights.
The next big democratisation step being urged by the people of Pakistan is the release of the vast, unknown numbers of political prisoners. As well as the hundreds of people who are known to be detained, there are thousands more who have simply disappeared into hidden detention centres.
One of Pakistan's most celebrated political prisoners is the former chief minister of Pakistan-ruled Baluchistan, Akhtar Mengal, the president of the Baluchistan national party.
To the people of Baluchistan he is a nationalist hero. Many see him as their Nelson Mandela - unjustly jailed for defending the human rights of the oppressed Baluch people. His continuing detention without trial is fanning the flames of nationalist resentment and popular insurrection against Islamabad's tyranny.
According to Amnesty International and the Asian human rights commission, Mengal is illegally detained. Held in solitary confinement in Karachi prison since December 2006, he has been denied justice by the use of delaying tactics. In all this time, he has never been tried in an open court. Cursory court hearings have been conducted inside prison. No one, except one family member, has been allowed to witness any of the legal proceedings against him.
Mr Iqbal Haider, secretary-general of the human rights commission of Pakistan, was present at the first hearing of Mengal's case in Karachi prison and this is what he saw: "Mr Mengal was brought into the courtroom and shoved into an iron cage with bars all around that stood in a corner away from his counsel."
Akhtar Mengal has not been arrested on corruption charges nor has he been charged with the abuse of power. He is facing trial for the alleged "abduction" of two undercover agents of Pakistan's security forces.
He was arrested, along with 500 party activists, in November 2006, the day before President Musharraf was due to visit Baluchistan. The mass arrests were apparently intended to stop party members from protesting against the savage Pakistani military operations on Baluch territory, and against the widespread arrests of Baluch human rights activists and their enforced "disappearance".
The events that led to his arrest began in April 2006. Mr Mengal reports that he and his family had been receiving threatening phone calls at the time. Because of these threats, he personally chauffeured his children to school.
On April 5, two men on a motorbike followed his car as he was taking his kids to school. Feeling menaced, Mengal stopped his car and asked the men who they were. They refused to explain themselves. Fearing for his safety, Mengal's security guards detained the two men and took them back to the Mengal residence, intending to hand them over to the police. By this stage, the two men admitted being army personnel.
The Pakistani senator, Sanaullah Baloch, recently recounted what happened next:
"Almost immediately, a large party of law-enforcement agency men arrived on the spot and took away their two colleagues who had been picked up, and laid siege to the house and its occupants.
On the intervention of the Sindh chief minister, it was agreed that no case would be filed if Mr Mengal's guards who were involved in the case were handed over to the police for questioning ... Akhtar Mengal remained free till November 28, 2006, when the Baluchistan police arrested him, along with senior members of his party.
Since then, all proceedings are being conducted in camera. Repeated humiliation of the Baluch and their political representatives will intensify the animosity felt by the troubled Baluch population. The judiciary's tilted role and the unproductive hearings ... have already shattered the credibility of the bench."
Akhtar Mengal is not the only political prisoner. Many other leaders from Pakistan's minority nationalities - Baluch, Sindhi and Pashtun - have been detained and abused on trumped up charges.
Veteran Baluch nationalists Sardar Attaullah Mengal, Nawab Khair Bux Khan Marri, Khan Abdul Wali Khan, Mir Ghous Bux Bizenjo, Sher Mohammed Marri and Mir Gul Khan Naseer have spent many years in prison for defending the human rights of the Baluch people and refusing to act as quislings for the Punjabi-dominated political and military establishment in Islamabad.
Senator Sanaullah Baloch has noted:
"Mengal's prolonged detention, mortification and the delay in the dispensation of justice has exposed the inequality that characterises our system. They also point to the inability of our courts to act independently without being influenced by the powers that be.
The (Pakistan) constitution guarantees that 'all citizens are equal before law and are entitled to equal protection of law'. The international convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination also emphasises 'the right to equal treatment before the tribunals and all other organs administering justice'. However, the Baluch have not been treated according to national and international laws. Constitutional guarantees and the courts have failed to protect their fundamental rights.
Akhtar Mengal, as a senior leader of a political party, is entitled to all basic rights and facilities. But he has been denied basic legal and human rights because of his political affiliations. The large number of political activists in Baluchistan, who have been detained and denied legal and prison rights, are entitled to just treatment in accordance with UN conventions. The government of Pakistan must abide by the laws of the country and international law and respect the rights of the Baluch. There should be an end to the injustice, intimidation and harassment being meted out to them."