Pakistan Quietly Frees 100 Terrorism Suspects

By Carlotta Gall
December 18, 2007

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan's military and intelligence agencies, apparently trying to avoid acknowledging an elaborate secret detention system, have quietly set free nearly 100 men suspected of links to terrorism, human rights groups and lawyers say.

Those released, they say, are some of the nearly 500 Pakistanis presumed to have disappeared into the hands of the Pakistani intelligence agencies cooperating with Washington's fight against terrorism since 2001.

The reasons for the releases are murky, but as pressure has mounted to bring the cases to court, the government has decided to jettison some suspects, thereby sparing itself the embarrassment of having to reveal that people have been held on flimsy evidence in the secret system, its opponents say.

Interviews with lawyers and human rights officials here and a review of cases and court records by The New York Times show how scraps of information have accumulated into a body of evidence over recent months.

In one case, a suspect tied to the killing of Daniel Pearl, the American journalist, was dumped on a garbage heap, so thin and ill he died 20 days later.

At one point, his family says, he had been transferred and held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. He, like another detainee, was arrested in South Africa, transferred to Pakistan at some point and released this year in very poor health. In at least two other instances, detainees were handed over to the United States without legal extradition proceedings, Pakistani lawyers and human rights groups say. American officials in Pakistan and in Washington refused to comment on the cases.

"They are releasing them because these cases are being made public," said Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui, a lawyer working at the Supreme Court who has taken many cases of the missing. "They want to avoid the publicity."

The rights groups and lawyers allege also allege that the government has swept up at least 4,000 other Pakistanis, most Baluch and Sindh nationalists campaigning for ethnic or regional autonomy who have nothing to do with the U.S. war on terrorism.

In total, human rights groups and lawyers describe the disappearances as one of the grimmest aspects of the presidency of Pervez Musharraf and one that shows no sign of slowing.

Under previous governments, "there were one or two cases, but not the systematic disappearances by the intelligence agencies under Musharraf," said Iqbal Haider, secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

The issue of the missing had become one of the most contentious between Musharraf and the Supreme Court under its former chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry.

The release of the suspects is particularly galling to lawyers, because Musharraf had accused the courts of freeing terrorist suspects as a justification for imposing emergency rule on Nov. 3. That decree was lifted Saturday, but the former chief justice and other judges were dismissed and remain in detention. The Supreme Court hearings on the missing have been halted.

While Musharraf criticized the court as being soft on terrorists, court records show that Chaudhry was less interested in releasing terrorist suspects than in making sure their cases entered the court system. He stressed at each hearing that his primary concern was for the families of the missing, who were suffering great anguish not knowing where their loved ones were.

"Not a single person who was convicted was released on the Supreme Court's order," Siddiqui said.

Detainees have been warned on their release not to speak to anyone about their detention, yet fragments of their experiences have filtered out through relatives and their lawyers. A few even appeared in court and told their stories and it became increasingly clear that the "disappeared" men had in fact been held in military or intelligence agency cells around the country, often for several years without charge.

Still, the government denies detaining people illegally or torturing them. Javed Iqbal Cheema, spokesman for the Interior Ministry and head of the national crisis-management cell that deals with terrorism, said many of the men said to be missing had been found in jails or police cells and had been charged with crimes.

Others, he said, may have gone to the hills or to Afghanistan to fight and died there. Other cases, he suggested, were fabricated. "Let me assure you that there's a lot of politics going on into the missing persons also," he said.

Critics say the abuses continue. The director of the Human Rights Commission, I. A. Rehman, said the government had set up a nearly invisible detention system.

"There are safe houses in Islamabad where people are kept," he said, citing accounts by the police and those who have been freed. "Police have admitted this, flats are taken on rent, property is seized, people are tortured there."

In some cases, detainees recounted that they had been interrogated in the presence of English-speaking foreigners, who human rights officials and lawyers suspect are Americans.

A U.S. Embassy spokeswoman said she could not comment on the allegations and referred all questions to Washington. A spokesman for the CIA, Mark Mansfield, declined to comment on Rehman's accusations or on any specific detainees.

One detainee, a Jordanian named Marwan Ibrahim, who was arrested in a raid in the city of Lahore, where he had been living for 10 years, said he had been sent to a detention center in Afghanistan, then Jordan and Israel, and was finally released in Gaza, according to an account Ibrahim gave to Human Rights Watch.

Another, Majid Khan, 27, a Pakistani computer engineer who disappeared from Karachi four years ago, surfaced on April 15 before a military tribunal in Guantánamo Bay. His American lawyers say he was subjected to torture in CIA detention in a secret location. Mansfield, the CIA spokesman, declined to comment, saying only that the "CIA's terrorist interrogation effort has always been small, carefully run, lawful and highly productive."

"Fewer than 100 hardened terrorists have gone through the program since it began in 2002," he added, "and, of those, less than a third required any enhanced interrogation measures."

As more and more such accounts have come to light, Musharraf has fought vigorously to keep the details of Pakistan's secret detentions hidden.

A week into emergency rule, he passed a decree amending the 1952 Army Act to allow civilians to be tried for general offenses by military tribunals. The tribunals are closed to the public and offer no right of appeal.The amendment was made retroactive to January 2003.

Cheema, the Interior Ministry spokesman, acknowledged that prosecutors and investigators had had difficulty pinning crimes on detainees. Hundreds of people in Guantánamo had not been charged either, he pointed out. The Army Act would resolve much of the problem, he said.

"Sometimes it becomes difficult to prove a case, but you have reasons that a person poses a threat to humanity and to society," he said.

The intervention of the Supreme Court under Chaudhry was undoubtedly exposing the system of secret detentions. He had first taken up the cases of the missing in 2006, demanding that the government trace the detainees and account for them.

His steady requests for information from senior police, Interior Ministry and military officials helped to trace nearly 100 detainees. Most of them were subsequently released without charge.

"This was very embarrassing to the government because the people who were supposed to be found and released, they told all their stories," Rehman said.

Only four or five detainees ever appeared before the Supreme Court, and they were ordered released, but their accounts were starting to open a trove of information, said Amina Masood Janjua, who has led a campaign to trace the missing, who include her husband.

She, for instance, first learned news of her husband, who disappeared in July 2005, from a written account by another detainee. Later the detainee, Imran Munir, was produced in court and told her he had been held in the military base at Chaklala, in Rawalpindi, south of the capital, and saw her husband in another cell.

Another detainee, Hafiz Muhammad Tahir, was brought before the court and told the judges he had been ordered by the police to give a false account of his detention and charges against him, Janjua said. In fact he had been held secretly for three years without charge. The chief justice ordered him to be freed and he was released the same day.

It is rare that detainees are produced in court. The majority of the 100 detainees released this year have been freed surreptitiously by the police and intelligence agencies, lawyers and human rights officials said. "They do not want a legal challenge, so they release them secretly," Janjua said.

One such detainee, Saud Memon, was dumped on a garbage heap, she said. Memon owned a plot of land where Pearl, the American journalist, was beheaded in 2002. Pearl's newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, reported recently that Memon drove three men who were the killers to the site, citing witness accounts by Pakistani investigators.

Memon was picked up in South Africa in March 2003, according to his family, taken to Guantánamo Bay at some point, they believe, and later brought to Pakistan and held by the intelligence agencies. His brother, Mahmood, said the family had learned that Memon was in Pakistan only this year from another detainee who had also been released. He was dumped near his home in April, so ill that he never recognized his wife and children, and died within three weeks. He was never charged, and the government never acknowledged holding him.

Mansfield, the CIA spokesman, declined to comment on Memon's case, saying, "The CIA does not, as a rule, comment on allegations regarding who has, or has not, been in its custody."

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