June 19, 2018

Balochistan: Tales from the dungeon

Tales from the dungeon: Haji Naseer

Sajid Hussain June 19, 2018

Featured In the Tales from the Dungeon series of Balochistan Times, former victims of enforced disappearance recount their ordeal. Haji Naseer was one of the first political activists to be whisked away by Pakistan military from Balochistan in 2004. He now lives in Germany as a refugee.

 

My name is Haji Naseer, and I am one of the first victims of enforced disappearances in Balochistan.

I was one of the founding members of the Baloch National Movement (BNM), a political party formed in 2004 to campaign for an independent Balochistan. We, under the leadership of Ghulam Mohammed Baloch, believed that the forcible annexation of Balochistan into Pakistan in 1948 was the main factor behind the poverty and misery of the Baloch people.

At the time of my forcible disappearance, I was serving as the Finance Secretary of the BNM. The finances of the party were meagre that mostly came from donations by small business owners and the Baloch diaspora. So I did not have to do a lot of record keeping. Most of this money was spent on seminars and public awareness campaigns.

My role in BNM was more about running awareness programs rather than worry about book keeping. Those programs were generally about creating awareness among the Baloch about their basic rights – their right to self-determination, education and human rights.

General Pervaiz Musharraf had recently staged his coup d’etat and was in the process of strengthening his power. We knew that it was during the dictatorships that Pakistan turned more brutal to Baloch nationalist voices. It was also during dictatorships that Baloch became more vocal about their rights.

Being a leader of the BNM, a party openly refuting Pakistan’s rule over Balochistan, I knew that my actions tended to annoy the powerful military. Yet I expected some sort of concession for being the Nazim (mayor) of the Mand town in the nascent local government system recently introduced by Musharraf. I understood that I could be arrested or trialled in a court, but I had no idea whatsoever that this military regime was going to introduce a more brutal policy to curb dissent: enforced disappearances. I had heard of a couple such random cases, but that was it.

On July 24, 2004, I arrived at my hometown, Mand, from a trip to Karachi. Next day, I along with some friends and relatives sat in front of my auto parts shop discussing the recent visit of the National Party (NP) leaders in Mand.  Both BNM and NP had been born out of the Balochistan National Movement in 2004. I knew the NP leaders well as they had been my former colleagues.

As we criticized NP’s politics, I saw four vehicles of the Frontier Corps (FC) approaching at around 16:30. They cordoned off the area in no time. The FC is a paramilitary force meant to guard the borders, but it has lately been used by the army to intimidate, arrest or even kill political activists in Balochistan.

At the time, Major Nasar was the face of the FC in Mand and he was quite well known in the town. He walked up to me while his men kept guard. We knew each other because I was Mand’s Nazim and he was the military’s representative, who practically ran all the affairs of the town.

He informed me reluctantly that he had been sent by the Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s feared intelligence agency, to arrest me.

Hundreds of people were busy shopping in the bustling market of Mand, and they were all puzzled by the FC’s raid to arrest the town’s Nazim, but no one intervened.

I knew better than to resist. It would have been futile to resist against a bunch of heavily armed soldiers. I only hoped that Nasar, for the past’s sake, would not be severe with me. It was, in fact, because of him that no one misbehaved with me as long as I remained in the FC’s custody in Turbat, but incommunicado detention is a torture in its own right.

The harshest retribution I expected from the government was to be framed in a false case and some years of imprisonment until the courts sorted things out. I believed that the FC or the ISI did not have any constitutional power to arrest anyone. All the while I was in their custody, I could not stop thinking how Pakistani army was flouting the country’s constitution. It strengthened my belief for an independent Balochistan

I was taken to the FC camp and put in a cell. Approximately after two hours, I was blindfolded and taken to Major Nasar’s office. He asked his guards to remove the blindfolds and ordered them to wait outside.

When we were left alone, he expressed his regret over my arrest saying he knew I had not committed any crime. He informed me to my relief that the FC’s intelligence department that spied upon every single person in the town had no case against me. He said he was helpless and asked for my forgiveness.

“I know you’re not involved in any criminal activity, but if you have any information about the attack on the FC camp you should give it to me, so that I can save you from the ISI,” he then asked me in a friendly tone.

A few weeks earlier, residents of Mand had been waken up at around 3 in the morning by thunders and tremors. The sky had by lit bright as rockets flying from hills landed on the FC camp. We had never seen anything like this before. It was the first attack by the newly-formed Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) on the military. The BLF claimed the attack the next day saying they were fighting for an independent Balochistan.

“I don’t have a clue,” I told Major Nasar to his disappointment.

He told me an ISI team was to arrive to interrogate me. He was still apologetic and kept saying his hands were tied. “I can’t stop them from torturing you,” he said.

I was taken back to the room which was about six feet long and five feet wide. A bulb hanging outside illuminated the room. It was quite hot as the cell didn’t have any window or fan.

At noon on July 26, I was once again taken to the Major’s office. A group of interrogators were already there. They asked me about the attack on the FC camp. They accused me of harbouring the attackers and letting them fire the rockets from my house.

No sensible man would let someone fire rockets from his house, but ISI interrogators are not very fond of arguments. I could only plead with them that they were mistaken and that the rockets did not come from my house. I told them that everyone in the town knew that the rockets had been fired from the hills outside the town. Yet, the interrogators insisted either I proved myself innocent or named the attackers.

Then they noted down the names of all of my family members – children, siblings, cousins, cousins’ cousins.

They also asked me about the relation between the BNM, and the BLF and BLA.

After the interrogation, they handed me over to the civilian Levies force in the night of July 26. I was relieved, as I was no longer a missing person. My friends, relatives and political colleagues visited me at the Levies lockup. The general public also came to see the town’s Nazim in the prison. There was sort of a circus around the Levies office. Surrounded by people, I felt secure. July 27 was spent talking politics with the people. I fell asleep that night hoping to be produced in the court next day.

But I could not be produced in a court as there was no FIR against me. I had to be locked up for another day until the ISI prepared an FIR against me. Visitors kept pouring in.

At 9pm, FC personnel came again for me, dashing all my hopes of a quick and painless release. The Tehsildar (top administrator of Mand), Muneer Ahmed, a cousin of former Balochistan Chief Minister Dr Malik, feared that he might lose his job if I was not presented to the court. I suggested that if he was letting FC personnel take me, he should at least make FC admit in writing that I was in their custody. This would help him defend himself in the court and ensure that I would not be killed in the torture cells. The Tehsildar miraculously succeeded in getting a transfer letter from the FC. All my hopes were now on that piece of paper which would help the court in pressurizing the FC to produce me in a court of law.

The FC soldiers took me to their district headquarters in Turbat. We reached there at about 12 o’clock in the night. I was put in a small cell. But, at around 4 in the morning, they bundled me into a Toyota Cruiser and drove away. Two Toyota stout pick-up trucks escorted our vehicle. After two hours of drive, they stopped and unfolded my eyes. It was the FC camp in Hoshab. I was served tea.

The journey continued. The next time my blindfolds were removed, I was in the Panjgur FC camp. I was handed over to the FC officials in Panjgur who welcomed me with a few punches and slaps. The FC Panjgur was supposed to transport me to Quetta. I was being posted to one postman to another like a package.

We reached Quetta early morning after a fortnight’s journey, featuring occasional beatings and frequent threats, on dirt roads. I was repeatedly told that no prisoner had returned from Quetta. I was taken to the Quetta cantonment. I was blindfolded but I could hear cries and screams of other prisoners.

It took me some time to getting used to be spoken with a distinct version of Urdu riddled with profanity and swearing.

They took my clothes off and made change into khaki shalwar kameez. I was put in a small, square cell, about four feet wide and four feet long, coloured white and black in circular patterns. My guts screamed to throw out whenever I saw those zebra strips.

I was hanged at a corner of the cell with a chain attached to my handcuffs. I had already lost the sense of time. I did not remember how long I was hanged there. It seemed forever.

The next time they came to visit me was when they dragged me to a torture chamber which I believed was in a basement as I was made to climb down stairs. I was once again hanged by my hands. I could tell that a group of people were present there but only one asked me most of the questions. Others spoke only occasionally.

I was again asked about my name and details about my family and relatives. Other questions included:

Who attacked the FC camp in Mand?

Who is funding the BNM?

Which government officers are BNM members and which of them paid membership fees or donations?

Why are you against the army and Pakistan?

Why do you people seek help from Iran, India and the USA? Are they better than us?

Have we not given you enough freedom?

Have you visited Dera Bugti?

I told them I had in fact visited Dera Bugti to meet Nawab Akbar Bugti.

“Why,” the main interrogator asked.

“Akbar Bugti is a senior Baloch politician. Our meeting was covered by the press. There was nothing to hide,” I replied.

He said they had information that the BNM was receiving money from Balach Marri, the then leader of the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) who was killed in an encounter with military on November 21, 2007. They asked me about any meeting between Balach Marri and BNM leader Chairman Ghulam Mohammed? I told them I had no information about such a meeting.

On this, they beat me with a leather belt to make me confess to BNM’s collaboration with Marri.

Being hanged by hands, I had not slept for days. I had to switch the weight of my body from my wrists to toes in intervals. When my wrists refused to bear any further pain I stood on my toes, and vice versa.

I guess this constant torture of being hanged in days and beaten at nights continued for eight to nine days. Later, I was shifted to another cell where I was allowed to sit for half an hour a day without being tied to the ceiling. They had perhaps noticed the swelling of my legs.

I was allowed one toilet visit a day. They had given me a bucket to urinate in the cell, but since my hands were always tied to the ceiling, I had to cry and beg them every time I needed to urinate. The guard would level the bucket under me and lower my pants, so that I could pee without being untied. I could tell that the guard did not enjoy this part of his job as much as he enjoyed the beating part. I realized I should drink water only when I was extremely thirsty in order to minimize our problems, mine and the guard’s.

No matter what different food they gave me, I could never tell the taste due to the overbearing smell of the urine and vomit in the room.

Within few days, two other Baloch from Dera Bugti were brought in and hanged in the same manner in the same cell. We were all stumbling upon each other due to lack of space. So one of them was taken back. Although torture continued, I was happier as I had someone to talk to. But he too was shifted to another cell after a few days and I was once again left alone.

Every night I was asked the same questions. Only occasionally they asked a new question which would mostly be about the BNM or my colleagues. I figured they had arrested more people from Makran and wanted me to confirm the information they were getting from the new prisoners.

One day the Kashmiri guard, who was sympathetic to me, told me that a new prisoner from my hometown of Mand had been brought to my neighbouring cell. The new prisoner was Gwahram Saleh whom I knew quite well. I now understood the purpose of the new questions the interrogators asked me. They wanted me a second opinion on the information they had obtained from Gwahram.

The Kashmiri guard kept me updated about the happenings of the outside world. He told me that my case was being heard in the court. I remembered the paper I had made Levies officials obtain from the FC. I felt proud of myself.

The guard also informed me that there was a mic placed at the roof of my new cell to which I was going to be soon transferred. Long before I was shifted to the new cell which was located across Gwahram’s. Since the guard had tipped me that my transfer near Gwahram was on purpose so that they record our conversation, I tried to keep silence to avoid unnecessary problems. Who knows what statement raised suspicion?

The next night I was brought down to the torture cell in the basement, I found the interrogator high on alcohol. I was blindfolded but I was conveniently allowed to smell the interrogator’s breath. He slide-racked a pistol saying it was loaded and he would not hesitate to shoot me.

“You don’t want to upset me. I’m drunk and short-tempered. I won’t think for a second before shooting the life out of your fat ass,” he warned me.

Every time the pistol was slide-racked, my heart pounded like a galloping horse.

He was not satisfied with my answers, so, at the end of the interrogation, he ordered the guards to beat me with the cheter as hard as they could. I was beaten till I fainted. When I regained consciousness, I found myself hanged again with my arms tied to the ceiling.

One day, a young boy was thrown into my cell. He was not tied to the ceiling like me. During our conversations, I found out that he was a close relative of a high-level judge. He was arrested tipsy while walking near a bomb-attack site. He was beaten and questioned about his presence at that specific place at that specific time. He was released the next day.

A few days later, an officer burst out at me, making use of every single profanity Urdu language is capable of producing.

“So your people have gone to the court. Today is the hearing of your case. But you should know that we don’t listen to fucking courts. We don’t listen to any fucking one. We’re our own judge, and we’ll release you only when we wish it,” he said.

I did not say anything. I had no control over the people in the outside world. I could not stop them from taking my case to the court.

The torture continued without them showing any sign of tiredness. I could not see an end to it. No matter how hard I tried, I could not imagine a life without torture. During this state of hopelessness, I was one day presented before an official who told me he was the in-charge of the dungeon.

“Congratulations, you’re being released,” he said, handing me over my clothes. After I wore my clothes, he gave me a farewell speech.

He tried to make me believe that our movement was being funded by foreign powers and that we were playing to their tune. In rather a polite tone, he called me a pimp serving these foreign powers.

Sensing freedom, I all again became capable of showing anger. Taking offense at being called a pimp, I gave a counter speech.

“We are not pimps. We’re protesting and agitating for our basic rights. For a just cause. We are no pimp of no foreign power,” I blurted.

He ordered me out of his office. As I was being escorted out, I heard him making a phone call and bringing to use all the profanities of the Urdu language against me.

A few minutes later, I was dragged back into his office. He welcomed me with more profanities. He ordered me to remove my clothes and wear the prisoners’ uniform. My release had been suspended.

They took me back to the cell and resumed the beatings with renewed energy. I first repented misbehaving with the in-charge, but then I thought they perhaps never wanted to release me. Why would they suspend my release for an innocent argument? Or perhaps it was because of language barrier that they took my argument as dissent.

After about one week, I was once again taken to the in-charge’s office and ordered to wear my clothes. This time the in-charge did not bother to give his farewell speech.

I was made to sit in the back seat of a small car and two guards sat on each side. The vehicle took speed slowing down only at a few check posts. After half an hour, I was taken out of the car, blindfolded and told to walk straight without removing my blindfolds. They told me that they were watching over me and I must at all costs keep walking. They threatened me if in case I removed my blindfolds I would be shot from the back. I complied.

After walking for a while I felt someone was following me. He pushed me all of a sudden making me collide with something. I later learned that I had fallen on a biker who started punching me and tearing my clothes. He also removed my blindfolds and I found myself in the middle of a road in the middle of night being punched by an unknown man with a bicycle. Within minutes, some police officers arrived and took me to the police station which was just a few meters away.

The police locked me up in a cell with some drug addicts. The Pakistan police is notorious for killing people in fake encounters, so I feared I had been handed over to police to be killed.

No one said a word to me the whole night. I was clueless about what was happening. Despite the fear of being killed in a fake encounter, I had a good night’s sleep.

In the morning, I learnt I had caused the addicts some trouble. The police station had been put on high alert due to my presence and the friends or relatives of addicts could not steal in drugs. The addicts gave me hateful stares, yet some of them shared their breakfast with me.

On August 28, 2004, at around the noon, the SHO asked me to sign a charge sheet. I tried to read it but I could not understand the scrambled writing. After signing the paper, they took me to the court and presented me to Judge Qadir Mengal’s chambers. It was in the court where I learned about my crime for the first time. I had been arrested for assaulting a policeman on his bike and breaking his fingers. The judge sent me to the Huda jail on remand.

I was welcomed like a celebrity by the Hudda jail prisoners. My enforced disappearance had made headlines in the local press due to the persistent protests of my political colleagues. After greetings with prisoners, I took this opportunity to use the washroom and take a bath after about two months. I was still in the washroom that I heard someone calling my name. I hurriedly washed myself clean, wore my dirty clothes and hurried to the meeting room.

Agha Zahir was waiting there. He told me he was my lawyer. I did not believe him, so I asked the jail superintendent to connect me to someone from my family. After some initial reluctance, he allowed Agha Zahir to call Chairman Ghulam Mohammed who confirmed to me that Agha Zahir was my lawyer in the high court against my enforced disappearance.

The supposed policeman whom I had assaulted was also present in the room along with Agha Zahir and the jail superintendent, but he was not the same guy with the bicycle. This guy’s fingers were in fact broken but I did not know how.

The jail superintendent told me that since the high court had ordered my release and the “assaulted” policeman was ready to forgive me for breaking his fingers I was being released. The policeman signed an agreement withdrawing his case and I was allowed to walk out of Huda jail.

Agha Zahir took me on the back of his motorcycle but soon he realised two-up riding was banned in Quetta for security reasons. He, therefore, called a rickshaw for me.

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