Pakistan is preparing an ambitious new human rights law to become the basis for recovering disappeared individuals including those who have vanished in the country's seven-year war on terror, the minister for human rights said Friday.
News of the proposed law comes as Pakistan grapples with the fate of potentially thousands of citizens who have gone missing, and according to human rights activists, may have been taken away by security and intelligence services investigating links between individuals and cases of militant terrorism.
Mumtaz Alam Gilani, the recently appointed minister for human rights told CBS News his office had begun preparing a draft for a new law that will be presented to parliament in the next three months for passage. "We obviously need to do something about this matter (of the disappeared)" he said in an interview.
Gilani said, his ministry has documented 567 cases of people who have disappeared and remain unaccounted. But critics believe the number could be much higher and may include people whose disappearances have never been confirmed by the government. "We are possibly looking at a much bigger number," Ghazala Minallah, a prominent civil society activist who has campaigned for judicial independence and a free of pressure legal system, told CBS News.
In the past week, reports that U.S. President-elect Barack Obama will order the closure of the Guantanamo Bay facility in Cuba elevated expectations in Pakistan that it will take the cue from the next administration in Washington and address the fate of its disappeared citizens.
A European ambassador based in Islamabad who spoke to CBS News on condition of anonymity said, "Pakistan is such a close ally of the United States that if President Obama moves to deal with such a contentious issue, then Pakistan may also feel it is time to begin ending this unfortunate chapter."
The debate over the disappeared people in Pakistan has, once again, coincided with controversy surrounding Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhary, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, dismissed by former president Pervez Musharraf last November. Chaudhary had earlier been dismissed by Musharraf in March 2007 but was restored to office in July that year after appealing to the Supreme Court against the president's order.
Chaudhary had emerged as a leading figure in voicing demands for the recovery of those who disappeared - including many thought to have been taken to secret detention centers for interrogation by security officials. Taking suo moto action - taking action voluntarily on his own without responding to a petition - in a number of instances, Chaudhary won widespread public acclaim for demanding that security officials appear in his court to explain circumstances surrounding disappeared individuals.
Many activists for the cause of the disappeared people believe only Chaudhary's return as chief justice of the Supreme Court will be the first vital step to begin dealing comprehensively with the issue.
"We cannot pretend that without bringing back Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary, that we will be able to deal with this matter. He stood for judicial independence in a way that nobody else did," said Minallah.
However, Gilani said he was primarily keen to improve the workings of the legal and constitutional systems to safeguard the lives of those who have gone missing and to guard against similar cases in the future. "Rather than going into the issue of personalities, I want to tackle the issue of our legal and constitutional systems," he said.
The European ambassador, though, warned that thorough investigations into the matter of the disappeared Pakistanis "have the chance of opening up a big can of worms. If some of the disappeared people come back, it is possible that we will hear horror stories of how they were treated and this could force Pakistanis to think deeply about how the previous government carried out its war on terror with the support of (U.S. president) George Bush."