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13 November 2020

Whereabouts of human rights defender Idris Khattak still unknown, one year since enforced disappearance

On 13 November 2019, human rights defender Idris Khattak was forcibly disappeared in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa by an unidentified group. For nearly seven months there was no information regarding his fate or whereabouts, until 16 June 2020, when it was revealed that the defender was in the custody of the Pakistan military. A year since his enforced disappearance, the defender continues to be detained incommunicado in an unknown location and is the subject of a military trial under the Official Secrets Act. To date, there is no information shared on the place of detention, and he is denied access to independent legal counsel for the ongoing trial. The treatment of Idris Khattak, is in direct violation of fundamental human rights norms and due process rights, recognised nationally and espoused internationally by the State of Pakistan.

Idris Khattak is a human rights defender whose work includes documenting and advocating against human rights violations in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. He has been at the forefront of the human rights movement in the region and has been particularly outspoken on issues minority rights and freedoms.

On 13 November 2019, Idris Khattak’s car was intercepted by a group of plain-clothed men near the Swabi Interchange of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The unidentified individuals forced the defender and his driver to wear sacks over their heads and took them to an undisclosed location. While the driver was released two days later, there was no information on the whereabouts of Idris Khattak. The defender’s family were only made aware of his enforced disappearance from the driver, who was released by the abductors shortly afterwards. A habeas corpus case which was filed in November 2019 in relation to the enforced disappearance was routinely delayed and showed little progress for some time. Repeated requests for information to Pakistan authorities on whether he was held in State custody, where he was being held and on visitation access for family members, was met with silence for nearly seven months.

On 16 June 2020, a private media channel, Geo News, announced that Idris Khattak was in military custody. The source stated that Idris Khattak was being held under the Official Secrets Act (OSA). On 17 June 2020, the Joint Investigation Tribunal (JIT) in Islamabad, tasked with inquiring into cases of enforced disappearance, informed the human rights defender’s family that Idris Khattak was being held by the Pakistan Military Intelligence (MI).

Despite assurances of the JIT, Idris Khattak’s case has continued before a military tribunal for nearly three months, without the calling of witnesses and without access to independent counsel during court sessions. Khattak has been permitted to see his family and lawyer on two separate occasions, but not in the place of detention. To date, the family has no information as to where the defender is being held, and has not been permitted to visit the defender on a regular basis, meaning that Idris Khattak continues to held in a state of enforced disappeared and incommunicado detention. On 15 October 2020, the Peshawar High Court granted interim relief to the defender’s family, by ordering a temporary stay on Khattak’s proceedings before the military tribunal.

In late June 2020, United Nations human rights experts expressed repeated concern over the treatment of Idris Khattak, most recently in a letter sent to the Government of Pakistan on 31 August 2020. Pakistan has a history of targeting human rights defenders with enforced disappearances which it uses as a tool to silence dissent against the administration and military on human rights issues. Victims are frequently denied access to family, lawyers, medical treatment and many basic rights to fair trial and due process. Those released are pressured and threatened into silence. Despite assurances from successive governments, there has been little attempt to criminalise enforced disappearances. Pakistan is also yet to sign the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

Front Line Defenders condemns the enforced disappearance and continued incarceration of Idris Khattak. It is particularly concerned by use of the draconian Official Secrets Act against the human rights defender and it believes that he has been targeted solely as a result of his human rights activities and the exercise of his right to freedom of expression. Front Line Defenders calls on the authorities in Pakistan to guarantee his right to fair trial and ensure that the treatment of Idris Khattak, while in detention, adheres to all the conditions set out in the ‘Basic Principles for Treatment of Prisoners’, adopted by General Assembly resolution 45/111 of 14 December 1990 and, to guarantee his physical and psychological security and integrity, as well as that of his family. Front Line Defenders expresses further concern over the lack of a safe and enabling environment in Pakistan for human rights defenders to carry out their valuable work.