Pakistan’s human rights hero

The Guardian – Comment Is Free – 3 March 2008


As he continues to cling to power, Pervez Musharraf presides over a regime in Pakistan that routinely engages in kidnapping, detention without trial, torture and extra-judicial killings, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

Symptomatic of Musharraf’s lawless, abusive regime is the illegal detention and torture of Sindhi human rights activist Dr Safdar Sarki.

His persecution has been widely documented by the international media and human rights groups.

Dr Sarki is currently being held in Zhob prison in a remote region of occupied Baluchistan, far from his place of origin, Sindh province.

The Pakistani police, military and intelligence agencies have refused to release him, despite court orders granting him bail and despite appeals from human rights organisations and civic dignitaries in Pakistan and worldwide – including Amnesty International.

Due to prolonged torture and the denial of medical treatment, Dr Sarki’s health is seriously deteriorating. His access to his lawyers, family and friends is severely restricted. There are growing fears that he might soon die from the sustained abuse that he has suffered in prison.

A former Chairman of the World Sindhi Congress (WSC), Dr Sarki is the embodiment of democracy, peace and secularism, and has been honoured with humanitarian awards.

His opposition to fundamentalism and terrorism, and to President Musharraf’s collusion with political and religious extremists, has earned him the wrath of the dictator’s agents.

WSC campaigns for the political, economic and cultural rights of the people of the Sindh province of Pakistan, who have long suffered victimisation and discrimination at the hands of the Punjabi-dominated Pakistani state.

Persecuted because of his Sindhi human rights activism, Dr Sarki was forced to flee Pakistan and seek exile in the US, where he eventually secured US citizenship.

In 2006, when Dr Sarki was on a return visit to his ancestral home in Karachi, in Sindh province, he was seized by Pakistani police and security agents. Witnesses say he was severely beaten, and his luggage, along with US passport and laptop, was confiscated. He was taken to unknown destination. For 18 months he disappeared. No one knew his whereabouts.

On many occasions the Pakistan Government has engaged in arbitrary arrests, torture and extra-judicial killing of pro-democracy activists in Sindh and other provinces, such as Baluchistan and North West Frontier. According to the US State Department’s damning Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour on March 8, 2006: “Pakistan’s human rights record continued to be poor. Major problems included restrictions on citizens’ right to change their government, extrajudicial killings, torture, and rape. The country experienced an increase in disappearances of provincial activists and political opponents….The government (has) limited freedoms of association, religion, and movement, and imprisoned political leaders.”

Late last year, shortly before Musharraf dismissed the senior judges, the Pakistan Supreme Court decreed that Dr. Sarki was a victim of forced disappearance by the government. It demanded that the Attorney General produce him in court. Then, and only then, did the Pakistani authorities reluctantly acknowledge that they were holding him and reveal his whereabouts. He was finally bought to court in Baluchistan in October 2007.

The Supreme Court ordered the Secretary of Health of Baluchistan to ensure Dr Sarki’s hospitalisation and proper medical treatment, and that he should be allowed to meet his family members.

Six months later, these court orders have still not been fully implemented. Dr Sarki has not received the medical treatment he needs. He has not been admitted to hospital, and his family has very restricted access to him.

On 2 November 2007, the judges granted bail to Dr Sarki and ordered his immediate release.

Within two hours, the bail and release orders were cancelled, the judge who made the orders was removed from the case and a pliant replacement judge appointed.

A month ago Dr Sarki’s lawyers persuaded another judge to grant him bail. But that court order has also been thwarted by Musharraf’s men. The jail authorities have privately conceded that they are under government pressure to keep Dr Sarki in detention.

In the meantime, Dr Sarki’s medical condition is worsening. According to his lawyer, he can no longer stand on his legs. His eyesight is failing.

Dr Sarki is one of thousands of political prisoners in Pakistan, many being held without charge or without trial. During last year’s crackdown by President Musharraf, an estimated 10,000 political, human rights and trade union activists were arrested. In annexed and militarily-occupied Baluchistan, there are thought to be around 4,000 political detainees.

Despite the defeat of Musharaff’s candidates in last month’s parliamentary poll, the sacked judges have not been reinstated and the rule of law has not been restored. These are the preconditions for ending human rights abuses and freeing political prisoners like Dr Sarki.

As of the moment, there is no indication that the British and US governments, which have long backed Musharraf’s dictatorship, are doing anything serious to press for the release of Dr Sarki and other prisoners of conscience. Yet again, our government, in our name, is siding with tyranny and ignoring its victims.

* For more information about the World Sindhi Congress (WSC) see: