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    South Asia
     May 23, 2007
Mystery 'missings' haunt Pakistan
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - Saud Memon, one of the key suspects in the murder of US reporter Daniel Pearl, was buried last Friday amid unprecedented scenes in Karachi. Pearl's body was found in 2002 on a plot of land owned by Memon in this Pakistani port city.

When news broke of the death in hospital of Memon, who was in his early 40s, thousands of people descended on a radical mosque associated with the banned al-Rasheed Trust for funeral rites. According to the hospital, Memon died of tuberculosis and


Slogans seldom heard in Karachi were shouted, such as "Long live al-Qaeda," "The remedy for [President General Pervez] Musharraf is al-jihad," "The remedy for America is al-jihad." The mood of the crowd, which included several figures on the Ministry of Interior's wanted list, was one of anger.

Businessman Memon, too, figured high on Pakistan's most-wanted list in connection with the Pearl case and as a suspected al-Qaeda financier through such outfits as al-Rasheed Trust.

Memon, a cloth merchant, was never formally charged over the Pearl case. He is believed to have slipped out of the country after Pearl's murder and was then thought to have been seized in South Africa in March 2003 by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. He was reportedly then held at the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for more than two years before being handed over to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence.

His family filed a case in the Pakistani Supreme Court against his "illegal detention", but intelligence agencies refused to acknowledge his detention. He was simply classified as "missing".

Recently, he was abandoned near his residence in extremely poor condition. According to his family, he had lost his memory and could not identify any of them, and he could not speak.

Memon's case highlights the plight of "missing" people in Pakistan, said to number in the hundreds.

Previously, missing persons who have been dropped off at their homes after lengthy absences were found to have been detained for long periods by the intelligence agencies without their cases ever being officially acknowledged.

As a result, Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry summoned the chiefs of the agencies into court to explain themselves. These included serving generals. Subsequently in March, Chaudhry was suspended by a "presidential reference" over accusations of abuse of power and later made "non-functionable". This sparked countrywide protests. The Pakistani media believe the issue of missing people and the summoning of the generals had upset the establishment.

But at a public rally, Musharraf dismissed claims that the saga of missing persons had anything to do with Chaudhry's suspension. He then said nobody was "missing" and no intelligence agencies detained anybody. Instead, the president said those who were claimed to be missing were terrorists who had gone to Afghanistan, where they killed themselves in suicide missions.

According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the missing include jihadis and radical Islamists as well as a number of Baloch separatists. And, it said, there was little anyone could do, the courts were not helping and it was pointless for jihadis to communicate with the establishment. People were looking for a savior, and now they appear to have found one.

On the day that Memon died, Maulana Abdul Aziz of the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque), the flagbearer of the Islamic Center for the Defense of Human Rights and the first organization to champion the cause of missing persons, announced that if the government continued to detain people unlawfully, the mosque would do the same with security officials.

Brothers Aziz and Maulana Abdul Rasheed Ghazi head the influential Lal Masjid in Islamabad. They have strong pro-Taliban leanings and have frequently clashed with the government. Within hours of their warning, vigilantes from the Lal Masjid seized four policemen.

The Lal Masjid brigade
The brazen capture of the policemen was a direct challenge to the writ of the state right in the capital. The mosque rejected pleas for their release, instead coming up with a list of its own of detainees it wanted freed, which was presented to the local administration.

This was passed on to the leading intelligence agencies and a grand meeting was called at General Headquarters Rawalpindi, attended by all top security officials. They were directed to summon the provincial heads of their departments with summaries on the security situation.

Their reports suggested a serious wave of radicalization. The Tehrik-i-Nizam-i-Shariat-i-Mohammedi, which sent about 10,000 youths to Afghanistan in 2001 to confront the US invasion, has revived in North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and will begin an armed struggle for Islamization, as it did in the 1990s. Units of jihadist organizations have regrouped in Karachi and other parts of the country.

This is in addition to the restive situation in the tribal areas of North Waziristan and South Waziristan on the Afghan border and the districts in NWFP of Tank and Dera Ismail Khan where armed mobs are trying to take over control and enforce Islam.

And tellingly, the reports cited Lal Masjid as the "Mecca of Pakistani jihadis". Prayer leaders in the Waziristans have taken pledges from the faithful to combat coalition troops in Afghanistan, to strive for the Islamization of Pakistan and to rise to the defense of Lal Masjid.

The meeting in Rawalpindi did not formally come to any decisions, but on Sunday evening hundreds of policemen were deployed around the mosque. Paramilitary forces staged snap checks at all of Islamabad's exit and entry routes. Rumors of a grand operation spread like wildfire.

A defiant Aziz announced on megaphone the call for jihad, and students armed with sticks took up positions around the mosque as thousands of onlookers gathered. Aziz warned that if the government began an offensive, official installations across the country would be hit by suicide attackers. The provincial commanders at the meeting in Rawalpindi had pointed out that Aziz was capable of backing up his words with action.

The head of the national crisis-management cell of the Ministry of Interior, retired Brigadier Javed Cheema, appeared on television to rule out an operation, contradicting cabinet ministers and even his own minister, who had said earlier that something had to be done.
In the early hours of Monday, the troops were called off and Lal Masjid released two of the policemen after a few of the detainees on its list were freed. The other two policemen were still being held.

The "ping-pong" abductions continued when the Lal Masjid's associated seminary for boys, Jamia Faridia, abducted three policemen after two of its students had been detained. The detainees of both sides were later swapped.

Fire burns afresh
For many months after 2003 Pakistani security forces fought against militants in the Waziristans. With the aftershocks of that conflict still rippling throughout the country - despite a ceasefire agreement - it appears Pakistan could be in for another bloody season.

This conflict features a new cast of combatants in the Pakistani tribal areas consisting of breakaway and splinter groups of more established jihadist and other organizations with new organizational setups and ambiguous aims.

Once again Pakistan is at a crossroads: Should it retreat from the pro-American policies implemented in the name of the "war on terror" after September 11, 2001, or should it carry on, even though these policies have brought little but trouble for Musharraf's regime?

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com.

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Pakistan opposition tastes blood (May 15, '07)

Pakistan running out of options (May 12, '07)

Pakistan: Trouble in the mosque (Apr 12, '07)


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