We are living in disturbing times. “No one is above the law and every citizen, including the state, is subservient to the rule of law and the supremacy of the Constitution,” said the chief justice of the Islamabad High Court in his verdict on the kidnapping of senior journalist Matiullah Jan in broad daylight in the federal capital on July 21.
The court held that the case of kidnapping was a challenge to the federal government and public office holders. “They have to demonstrably show that there is a political will to put an end to impunity for crimes against citizens and to protect journalists from harm for exercising the right to free speech,” said the chief justice. He remarked that merely registering criminal cases and giving public statements were not enough. “Abduction or enforced disappearance of any citizen is one of the gravest offences,” he lamented.
It is heartening to note that the reaction from civil society, media, diplomats, politicians and the legal community was strong and immediate. “One can agree or disagree with the point of view of Mr Matiullah Jan, but no one can usurp his right to speak,” said PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari.
Matiullah Jan is a vocal critic of key public office holders within the military establishment, intelligence agencies and the superior judiciary. His mode of reporting “that verges on the accusatory” may have caused consternation in the corridors of power where paranoia prevails. However, resort to brute force and brazen kidnapping is a crime that must not go unpunished. A thorough investigation can unearth the designs of the perpetrators.
Based on my experience as a police officer, I can say without any fear of contradiction that police were not involved in this kidnapping. The perpetrators used police-like vehicles and wore police uniforms to create the perception that it was another act of police high-handedness, given the general reputation of the police for resorting to illegal detentions and torture. This misleading behaviour is also a serious penal offence; the investigators must have taken due cognisance.
An impression was created in social media that the journalist had staged his own kidnapping a day ahead of his scheduled appearance before the Supreme Court that had taken note of his ‘contemptuous’ remarks about some of the judges. Hearing his version on social media and after a careful scrutiny of the crime scene, this story lacks credibility and appears to be an attempt to malign the victim.
A glaring mistake in this spin is evident from the narration of the victim about a lock-up that looked like a police detention facility with police colours on the walls when he was allowed a brief respite from being blindfolded. Outside the lock-up, he saw a wall inscribed with Moharrar (station clerk) with an arrow pointing in the direction. Nowhere in any police station in the country is a station clerk’s office situated near the lock-up. This was a blatant error on the part of the kidnappers and the masterminds.
Who carried out this criminal act and under whose orders was such a crude display of crass arrogance and disregard for the law executed? The journalist has held institutions and individuals who have no regard for the Constitution and the law responsible. There are only a few institutions or agencies which operate without any legal mandate. All previous attempts to bring them within the framework of the law have failed. Even a recommendation by a judicial commission headed by a former Supreme Court justice in the kidnapping and murder of journalist Salim Shehzad was not implemented by parliament. So much for parliamentary oversight of state agencies. This latest case of kidnapping should provide our lawmakers an opportunity to rein in the agencies that consider themselves above the law. The ‘silence of the lambs’ must be broken if this nation is to qualify as a democracy where the rule of law is supreme.
While one is thankful that Matiullah Jan lives on to raise his voice, another tragic happening in Balochistan cannot be condemned enough. Social media activist Anwar Jan Khetran was killed recently in Barkhan. A voice has been silenced for highlighting ‘corruption’ of some elements within the provincial government. Senator Hasil Bizenjo, while condemning the killing, said that “powerful elements of the state, influential politicians and various criminal-minded people are behind the attacks on media people”. Pakistan’s vibrant civil society is justified in asking why the kidnappers of Matiullah Jan and the killers of Anwar Khetran haven’t been arrested.
Another disturbing development was the recent ‘raid’ on the Karachi Press Club by the Rangers when they barged in unannounced. Why did the civil armed force make a brutal entry on an ostensible security ‘drill’ without informing the management? Is it part of the recent authoritarian tendencies on display across the country? Who will rein in the unbridled state agencies? It is only through the rule of law that this culture of impunity can be curbed and the genie of arrogant power put back in the bottle of the rule of law that must be safeguarded by all.
Bullies are cowards. They cannot stand the power of civil society that is beginning to stir and whose protests are bound to act like boulders against the waves of totalitarianism. In this context, the words of late civil rights activist Rosa Parks are both instructive and inspiring when she said that when one’s mind is made up, it diminishes fear. So, down with tyranny. Let us rise.