Justice for the Disappeared!

By the AIUSA Cogroup Writers

August 30 is the International Day of the Disappeared. Enforced disappearances are a horrific crime where a government or its agents detain someone and then deny all knowledge of their whereabouts or fate. Once largely used by military dictatorships, they now occur in every region of the world and in a wide variety of contexts. Enforced disappearances are used to spread terror in society, often during periods of armed conflict or repression.

Amnesty International campaigns against enforced disappearances. We stand with the families of the disappeared in their quest to learn the fate of their loved ones. In this blog post, we provide some examples of enforced disappearances and opportunities for action on these cases. Read on, learn and join the fight for justice for the disappeared!

Prageeth Eknaligoda

In Sri Lanka, Amnesty International has estimated that there are 60,000–100,000 enforced disappearances in connection with internal armed conflicts over the past 40 years. In the vast majority of these cases, there has been no accountability. One emblematic case is the disappeared journalist/cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda. 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.

In Syria, since the beginning of the conflict in 2011, more than 100,000 Syrians have been disappeared. The Syrian government, armed opposition groups and the states with most influence over them — Russia, Turkey and Iran — have failed the relatives of the disappeared and missing who have been struggling for years to know whether their loved ones are alive or dead.

Those forcibly disappeared in Syria include peaceful opponents of the government. Others were targeted because they were perceived to be disloyal to the government or because they had relatives wanted by the authorities. Armed opposition groups have also abducted civilians, including human rights defenders, many of whom are still missing.

Khalil Ma’touq

The disappeared include human rights lawyer Khalil Ma’touq, who went missing while driving on his way to work on October 2, 2012. He was last seen in a military intelligence branch office in Damascus. The Syrian authorities have not responded to the family’s repeated requests for information on Khalil; in February 2013, they denied they were holding him after an official inquiry by a group of fellow lawyers. Khalil’s family is particularly concerned about his health, as he suffers from advanced lung disease.

Khalil’s disappearance has deeply impacted his family. “It is like hell living without him,” a relative told Amnesty International. “He always defended my freedoms and raised me to be a strong, independent woman, but suddenly, without his protection, I was facing a hostile community.” Call on the government and armed opposition groups to disclose the fate of Khalil and all the other disappeared and missing in Syria.

In Turkey, local human rights and civil society organizations estimate that approximately 1,400 enforced disappearances have taken place since 1980. The Saturday Mothers have been protesting enforced disappearances every Saturday in Galatasaray Square in Istanbul since 1995, making them the longest sustained protest movement in Turkey. One of the cases they have highlighted is that of Hasan Gülünay. Gülünay was 32 years old when he was arrested in Istanbul on July 20, 1992. His family has not seen him since. Despite the Turkish Constitutional Court’s 2016 statement that Hasan’s case has not been sufficiently investigated by the courts, his family still does not know whether he is alive or, if he is dead, where his body lies. Yet, with the support of the Saturday Mothers, they have never given up searching for him.

Enforced disappearances in Nepal occurred primarily in the context of the armed conflict between the government of Nepal and Maoist insurgents, fought between 1996 and 2006. The war resulted in over 16,000 deaths, and thousands of grave human rights abuses, including enforced disappearances, torture, and abduction, committed by both government security forces and the Maoists.

Since the peace agreement of 2006, successive governments in Nepal have failed to deliver truth, justice, or reparations to the families of the disappeared. The Commission of Investigation on Enforced Disappeared Persons was established in 2015 but has made almost no progress in investigation or prosecution and has been plagued by a lack of transparency. Impunity for these grave human rights violations has undermined the rule of law in Nepal.

Many families in Nepal still do not know what happened to their loved ones. A group of these families of the disappeared has not given up on their quest for justice and continues to push the government. Newly installed Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba should urgently address this issue. Fifteen years after the conflict ended in 2006, families and victims finally deserve justice.

In Pakistan, enforced disappearances are pervasive, with no one held accountable for them. There are thousands of unsolved cases of enforced disappearance and killings of human rights defenders, journalists, political activists, students and members of ethnic and religious minorities. There has been little progress towards criminalizing enforced disappearance, an election promise of the current government.

Idris Khattak, a Pakistani human rights defender and researcher on enforced disappearances for Amnesty International, was himself subjected to enforced disappearance by armed men on November 13, 2019. After an international outcry, the country’s security agencies made the rare admission in June 2020 that he was in their custody. However, his whereabouts are still unknown. He is charged with espionage. Amnesty is calling for Idris Khattak’s unconditional release unless there is credible evidence of a criminal offense; in the event of such evidence, he should be remanded to a civilian court and given a fair trial. His whereabouts must be disclosed to his family immediately. Please write on his behalf.

Amnesty is also calling on the government of Pakistan to amend the draft amendment to the Criminal Penal Code tabled before the Senate to align it with the International Convention of Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

Now we turn to China. Imagine if you were detained in an internment camp or sentenced to prison for years merely because of your ethnicity; travelling or living or studying abroad, the number of children you have, or your religion. That’s the reality for huge numbers of predominantly Muslim people — perhaps 1 million or more — detained in Xinjiang since 2017. Family members are often unable to obtain information about persons who have gone missing in Xinjiang and are presumed to be detained. Amnesty International has gathered evidence of crimes against humanity by Chinese authorities including imprisonment in violation of international law, torture, and persecution.

In Algeria, enforced disappearances have deep roots. During the internal conflict of the 1990s, security forces and state-armed militias were responsible for enforced disappearances. Instead of investigating these crimes and bringing those responsible to justice, the Algerian authorities from 1999 onwards adopted a series of legislative measures which entrenched impunity and denied victims, survivors and their families access to truth, justice and reparation. Amnesty International considers that these actions may have amounted to crimes against humanity. Amnesty calls on the Algerian authorities to repeal existing laws which contribute to impunity and which criminalize public criticism of the conduct of security forces.

The above descriptions of countries and cases are just a small sample of all the enforced disappearances around the world. Although it may seem hopeless to expect justice in these cases, the families of the disappeared have not given up. And international pressure can work, as shown in the case of Idris Khattak, where the Pakistani government was forced to admit that they were holding him (although his whereabouts are still unknown). Please join our campaign, take the actions provided above and help the families of the disappeared obtain the truth and justice so long denied to them.

The AIUSA Cogroup Writers include the following Amnesty International USA country specialists: Sabina Henneberg, Jim McDonald, Geoffrey Mock, Claire Sadar and Julia Todd.