Numbers can be affecting. It is shocking indeed to learn through the reports of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that at least 861 persons were disappeared by security agencies in Pakistan during 2012; around 325 Shia minority persons were killed on sectarian grounds; and around 100 were extra-judicially killed by the military officials. These numbers do not include the thousands who lost their lives in Balochistan and Sindh in military actions during the past decade.
What pierces through the deepest core of a human heart about the rights violations are the stories, which unfold, as numbers cannot, the real level and nature of brutalities. A single instance is enough to portray the truth about the so-called internal national security and sovereignty notions of a federation like Pakistan, where the terms “security” and “sovereignty” apply to geography only – not to the people.
On the sunny Thursday of April 21, 2011, Pakistani electronic media carried breaking news of the burning alive of three Sindhi nationalist leaders – Qurban Khuhawar, Ruplo Cholyani and Nadir Bugti – in Sindh’s Shanghar district by unknown assailants. The victims were associated with Jeay Sindh Mutahida Mahaz (JSMM) – a political organization advocating Sindh independence recently banned by Pakistan authorities. All of the victims, the report said, were sitting in the car, which was torched on a country road.
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After a few days, we formed a fact-finding mission of rights activists, journalists, and academicians to inquire into the incident on the behalf of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. It was a drive of 117 kilometers of curvy road from Hyderabad, the second-largest city of Sindh, amid the mixed texture of green pastures and sand dunes on the roadsides. The place where the incident occurred was 7.5 kilometers from Sanghar town on the Sanghar-Khipro road and was between Bakhoro Bridge and Mithrau Canal Bridge – historical sites where, during early 1940s, a Sindhi Hur guerrilla army was stationed fighting British troops for the freedom of Sindh. A small bazaar runs between both bridges with a couple of dozen shops and tea vendors. The distance between the bridges is 1 kilometer.
We started mingling with the people regarding the incident. Eyewitnesses told us that the incident took place by 1:30 PM. According to them, a couple of hours before arrival of the ambushed, extraordinary movement by a black car and a military green jeep was observed.
Both vehicles, the onlookers said, were positioned near Mithrau Bridge earlier and started blocking and diverting the vehicular traffic. Furthermore, people were asked to stay in the bazaar until told otherwise. As soon as the victims’ car (ARW 028), hailing from Sanghar, crossed the Bakhoro Bridge, a white car was already chasing them. It blinked the front lights near Bakhoro Bridge and turned away. Swiftly thereafter, a red double cabin Jeep already positioned at the bridge moved toward the victims’ car. A car from the Bakhoro Bridge side also reached there. According to the peasants in the nearby fields, both vehicles opened fire from automatic guns on the victims’ car from two directions.
The victims’ car lost the track and fell in the ditch near cultivated fields. According to the peasants working in nearby fields, the assailants, in military camouflage as well as in plainclothes, disembarked from the vehicles and opened fire over the car again. They also threw small plastic bags on the car. Witnesses said the car caught fire from various directions immediately after the bags were thrown.
Fifteen men remained at the site for around ten minutes after torching the car, said Juman Leghari – a peasant from nearby village Maulvi Kher Mohammad Ahmedani. Six or seven were in commando camouflage, and the others were in plainclothes, he added. Once the assailants left, bystanders rushed to the car.
Shortly thereafter, a black car reached the scene from the direction of Sanghar; people in the car fired shots into the air, and the car drove away. Police reached the scene afterward. Bystanders wanted to fight the fire, but the police did not allow them to. In the meantime, a person cried from the torched car that he was alive and begged for his rescue, Muharram said with tears in eyes. “As we rushed to him, police officials stopped us by shouting that the ambushed persons were terrorists.” At this point, the victim later identified as Noorullah Tunio said they were Sindhi nationalists and that the Punjabi (Pakistani) Army had attacked them. Thereafter, the people pushed the police officials back and rescued him. According to the person who rescued him, Tunio crawled out of the car, put mud on the burnt lower part of body and chanted slogans for the freedom of Sindh. The villagers escorted Tunio on a motorcycle rickshaw to the hospital in Sanghar.
We met constable Bachal Dars and others at the police post. They told us that no one was at the police post at the time of incident because they had been sent by higher-ups to a nearby school where examinations were being held. According to them, as soon as they learned about the incident, they informed the station house police officer; however, he instructed them to stay in the school.
The shopkeepers of the bazaar said no arms were found in the vehicle. They said it was an assault, not an encounter, because only the armed forces opened fire.
The people told us that they contacted the Edhi Foundation for an ambulance, but it reached the scene after 90 minutes. The Edhi Foundation representative in Sanghar, Ashraf Hussain, showed us the record carrying invoice number 837737, which said an ambulance (PA 3355) was sent to the location at 3 PM. Area residents also kept calling the police helpline, but police who reached the scene tried to stop the people from rescuing the only survivor.
On the way back to Sanghar, we examined the torched car in the local police station and found at least 24 bullet holes in it; however, the vehicle’s compressed natural gas-petroleum cylinder and petrol tank were intact. The police registered case FIR 96/2011 of April 25 after five days of incidents. The deputy superintendent of police, Sanghar Ghulam Shabir, said the victims were against Pakistan and therefore very bad persons. While asked about the police action for identification and detention of the culprits, he said that they had managed to flee.
Dr. Abdul Razzaq Leghari of the Sanghar civil hospital said 60 percent of Tunio’s body was burned. He also said the arms and leg bones of the persons sitting in the front seats could not be found from their ashes. This created doubts regarding the use of chemicals in the bags thrown upon the victims’ car. Medico Legal Officer Dr. Shabir Cheema said the way security agencies were pressuring him was indicative of their involvement in the assault.
Local journalists told us that the news they released was not carried by the country’s mainstream English print and electronic media; however, a distorted news story released from the city of Mirpurkhas, some 40 kilometers away, was carried by those outlets.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister took the notice of the carnage and asked Chief Minister Sindh to order an inquiry. All other political parties demanded a judicial inquiry. No official inquiry has taken place since 2011.
Finally, Tunio was shifted to Civil Hospital Karachi on the same day and later on to the Patel Hospital, where he died May 1, 2011. Before his death, he said the ISI and Pakistan Army’s commandos ambushed him and his comrades.
The details of the incident portray Pakistan’s government’s approach toward political dissent. It also is indicative of unnecessary and unlawful use of militarization in Sindh and Balochistan. Worst of all was the silence of Pakistan’s human rights ministry.
This was not an isolated incident. Hundreds of such incidents have taken place mostly in Sindh and Balochistan in the past three decades. While discussing Pakistan, it is important to note that human rights violations there have an exclusive peculiarity: state organs and their proxy non-state elements jointly plan and effect heinous crimes against humanity. It is not the legal framework alone that must be changed; it is the nature of statehood and its ethnic chemistry that needs to be altered.
No other state like Pakistan has shared its statehood characteristics of legitimacy over the use of violence with non-state actors. Such non-state actors have been known to kidnap and forcibly convert Hindu and Christian minority girls as well as to harass these communities through Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy law. The trigger-happy state security outfits disappear and extra-judicially kill activist citizens and use the virtual means of ethnic cleansing that have been adopted in Sindh and Balochistan. This is the time when humanity on globe should think seriously about the 70 million Sindhi and Balochistani of Pakistan.
The author is a Pakistan-born activist, analyst and researcher living in exile. Twitter: @shahzulf