How you can help to find the disappeared

By AIUSA Co-group Writers

Today, we’re highlighting “enforced disappearances” — a horrific crime where a government or its agents detain someone and then deny all knowledge of their whereabouts or fate. Enforced disappearances are used to spread terror in society, often during periods of armed conflict or repression. Once largely used by military dictatorships, they now occur in every region of the world and in a wide variety of contexts. The UN Secretary General has said that new cases are reported almost daily to the U.N., including disappearances of environmental defenders.

August 30 is the International Day of the Disappeared. In this blog post, we’ll give some examples of enforced disappearances, from Uyghurs in China to businesspeople in Pakistan and journalists in Sri Lanka. On a related note, we’ll discuss femicide in Mexico, which often involves disappearances of the victims. For each example, we’ll have opportunities for you to take action. While many of the disappeared never return and are presumed killed, that’s not always the case. We’ll show you how human rights activism can make a difference for the disappeared. The families and friends of the disappeared continue to campaign for their loved ones. Please join us in supporting their efforts to achieve justice.

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© Amnesty International

Hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and members of other predominantly Muslim minorities have disappeared in China in the last three years. Without prior notice or notification to their families, the disappeared are taken to “vocational and educational training centers” located throughout the Xinjiang region, where they are subjected to constant ideological indoctrination and “patriotic education” designed to erase their cultural and religious identity. These facilities are in effect massive prisons and re-education centers. Some Uyghurs who were living overseas were forced to turn in their passports to Chinese diplomatic authorities, return to China, and immediately enter into the re-education centers. The case of Yiliyasijiang Reheman is a typical one. You can take action on his case here,

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© Private

In Sri Lanka, there are an estimated 100,000 enforced disappearances in connection with internal armed conflicts in recent decades. One emblematic case is the disappeared journalist/cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda (pictured above). He went missing after leaving work on January 24, 2010. Two days earlier, he had published an article critical of then President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Despite years of police investigations, the Sri Lankan government has not accounted for his fate. Please call on the government to conduct an effective investigation and bring to justice those responsible for his disappearance.

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Masood Janjua /Faisal Faraz

Enforced disappearances have long been a stain on Pakistan’s human rights record, and thousands of people have been victims of disappearance over the years. Those targeted include, among others, human rights defenders, political activists, people from Sindhi, Baloch and Pashtun ethnicities, the Shia community, and proscribed religious and political organizations.

July 30 marked 15 years since Masood Janjua, a businessman from Rawalpindi, and Faisal Faraz, an engineer from Lahore, disappeared as they journeyed by bus to Peshawar in 2005. AIUSA Local Group 40 in Ames, Iowa has joined Masood’s wife, Amina Janjua (Founder and Chairperson of Defence of Human Rights Pakistan), to raise awareness of enforced disappearances in Pakistan and to pressure authorities for information on the fate of Masood, Faisal, and other disappeared individuals.

Please TAKE ACTION and write, email, or tweet Prime Minister Imran Khan asking for immediate accounting of the whereabouts of Masood Janjua and Faisal Faraz. If found, they should be immediately released. Please also ask for the release of all those held following enforced disappearance. Those responsible for enforced disappearances must be brought to justice. Please write to : Prime Minister Imran Khan, Pakistan Secretariat, Constitution Avenue, Islamabad, Islamic Republic of Pakistan; email: info@pmo.gov.pk; tweets to: @imrankhanPTI (please use hashtags #freedom4masood, #freedom4faisal, #freedom4alldisappeared). You can also leave politely worded comments on the Prime Minister’s Facebook page.

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© Itzel Plascencia López / Amnistía Internacional México

For women and girls in Mexico, “disappearance” too often turns out to be yet another case of femicide. Since the early 1990s, hundreds of women disappear or are killed each year in Mexico. The bodies of those who are later found dead often show signs of sexual assault or other torture.

The Mexican National Database of Missing or Disappeared Persons (RNPED) reports that between 2014 and 2018, the fate or whereabouts of 8,987 women was unknown. This figure probably represents a significant underestimate, since most crimes in Mexico are never reported. In addition, many of these cases are recorded as other types of crime, such as kidnapping or human trafficking.

Femicide is the killing of women because they are women. A culture of machismo, economic inequality, misogyny and impunity from justice enable and perpetuate violence against women. When girls, adolescents or women have disappeared, police officers often assume the victim is “with her boyfriend” or that there is a domestic dispute. Failure to take reports of the disappearance of women and girls seriously results in delayed investigations or outright dismissal of complaints.

Because of lack of trust in the criminal justice system, Mexican women, especially the mothers of the victims, have organized efforts to search for their missing loved ones and voice their demands for government action to end impunity for the disappearances and femicides of women and girls. They have formed support groups, investigated disappearances, and demonstrated in the streets. On March 8, 2020, Mexican women and girls “disappeared” by staging a mass strike and staying home from their schools, work and other daily activities. Pink crosses marking the locations where the bodies of victims were found have become a symbol of justice for disappeared or murdered women and girls across the country. Please take action by signing our petition calling on the Mexican authorities to investigate disappearances and femicides and bring those responsible to justice.

After reading each of these examples above of disappearances, you may wonder why you should bother writing the governments about them. After all, if the disappeared are dead, nothing will bring them back. But there are at least two reasons to take action. First, the families of the disappeared continue, in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, to demand that the governments return their loved ones or at least account for their fates and prosecute those responsible for their disappearance. These incredibly brave human rights defenders should not work alone; global attention and solidarity will increase the pressure on the governments and help ensure their safety.

Second, sometimes the disappeared return. In Morocco, over 300 “disappeared” civilians were released by the government in June 1991; they had been held in secret detention for up to 15 years. More recently, human rights defender Idris Khattak was forcibly disappeared last November in Pakistan. His family, Amnesty activists and many other organizations campaigned relentlessly for his return. The government of Pakistan has now admitted that it has him in custody and has said that he will be charged under the Official Secrets Act. While we are pleased that he has been found, Amnesty continues to campaign for justice in his case.

The families of the disappeared need and deserve our support. Your activism can make a difference. Please join us and take action on each of the cases above. Thanks.

The AIUSA Cogroup Writers are the following AIUSA country/thematic specialists: Alice Dahle (Women’s Human Rights), Jim McDonald (South Asia), Steve Piergastini (China) and Julia Todd (South Asia).

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