The man who survived Pakistan’s Gestapo
Saturday, December 13, 2008
Businessman Munir Mengal’s disclosures about his 22 months’ detention in Pakistan are shocking and painful. The only known reason for his arrest and torture at the hands of former president Pervez Musharraf’s government was his intention to launch a Balochi language satellite television channel, Baloch Voice. If even half of his allegations are true, it would be easier for us to understand why so many Baloch are angry and willing to pick up the gun and fight for their rights.
For the first time after his arrest on April 4, 2006, and his release in February 2008, Munir Mengal has spoken in detail about his ordeal. He was interviewed in an unnamed European country where he has found refuge by the Reporters without Borders (or Reporters sans frontieres), a Europe-based non-governmental organisation dedicated to the freedom of the press.
In a press release issued on Dec 11, Reporters without Borders, said: “Munir Mengal’s shocking and damning account should prompt Pakistan’s civilian authorities to open an immediate investigation into the case. It is inconceivable that those responsible for this political abduction should be allowed to go unpunished.” The strong-worded press release added: “Mengal was arrested, physically and psychologically tortured, humiliated and robbed by members of the security forces, above all Military Intelligence. If Pakistan wants to put an end to such illegal and barbaric practices, justice must be done in this case, which has been the subject of a great deal of comment by the media and by leading figures in Pakistan and abroad.”
Munir Mengal wasn’t doing anything illegal or in secret. From his account it is obvious that he was getting his TV station registered in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where Dubai has emerged as the operational base for a growing number of satellite television channels, including some with Pakistani ownership. He had publicly announced the launch of his TV channel to more than 3,000 people at a major event in Quetta in February 2006. And he had willingly decided to come to Pakistan from the UAE after receiving a call on March 28, 2006, from an official of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), who invited him to come to Karachi to discuss his request for a license for Baloch Voice.
Munir Mengal alleged that, upon arrival at the Karachi airport on April 4 that year, an army officer in civilian dress confiscated his passport and took him to a military detention centre. In his interview, he named the army colonel and two majors who physically and psychologically tortured him at the military barracks at Malir in Karachi. He recalled how he wasn’t allowed to sleep for 72 hours and then thrown into a small underground cell where he spent several months blindfolded and handcuffed. He alleged suffered physical and mental torture at the hands of his captors, who kept asking him why he wanted to set up the Baloch Voice TV channel and as to who gave him the idea and support for the project.
Some of the claims and allegations made by Munir Mengal constitute explosive stuff. For example, he alleged that he was taken to see Gen Musharraf in some army barracks in Saddar in Karachi, where the then president offered to release him if he agreed to abandon his TV station project. The date was Oct 26, 2006, and Munir Mengal had been held incommunicado for six months. The meeting, in Munir Mengal’s words, went like this: “Pervez Musharraf was waiting for me in a room with Gen Azeem and Maj Gen Bajwa. After apologising for the way I had been treated, the president asked me, in English, to give up my TV station project. He promised to release me if I pulled out of the media domain. He also offered me a copy of his book so that I could appreciate his commitment to Pakistan. After refusing his deal, I was taken back to my cell and was tortured by MI agents again.” Mengal also claimed that Musharraf aide Tariq Aziz offered him a political job and money in return for abandoning the planned TV station.
Munir Mengal claims to have witnessed many human rights violation during his detention. He alleged that a young Baloch woman was sexually tortured and once thrown naked into his cell for his humiliation. He wasn’t aware as to what happened eventually to her.
Another allegation made by Munir Mengal is about his interrogation by Iranian agents in June or July 2006. The Iranians wanted to know as to what he had done to promote the cause of the Baloch, who inhabit not only parts of Pakistan but also Iran’s Sistan-Balochistan province and Afghanistan’s Helmand and Nimruz provinces. Until now we had heard and read about American secret agents interrogating Pakistanis and foreigners captured in Pakistan but this is the first time that allegations about Iranians being allowed to interrogate Pakistani Baloch have been made. If true, this means that Iranian and Pakistani authorities are cooperating in tackling their common Baloch problem.
All these are serious allegations and will surely be used by Baloch nationalists to stoke the fire of resistance and even separatism. Though the present democratically elected government wasn’t involved in arresting and torturing Munir Mengal and the command of the Pakistan Army has changed, the present set of rulers owe it to the nation and the Baloch people to clarify the situation in view of the negative fallout of the allegations made against Military Intelligence. The military command too should respond to Munir Mengal’s allegations, as holding someone in custody for 22 long months and torturing him merely for his planning to launch a Balochi TV channel is beyond reason and unacceptable. President Asif Ali Zardari, himself a Baloch, has already sought forgiveness from the Baloch people for the five military operations, including one ordered by his late father-in-law, former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and taken some steps to remove their grievances. But a lot more needs to be done to inspire hope among the Baloch in the federation of Pakistan. It is time for the politicians to undo the wrongs and heal the wounds of the Baloch people, who have suffered immensely in every military operation that was launched to crush their struggle for constitutional rights.
Munir Mengal was released by the intelligence services on August 4, 2007, after being held incommunicado for around 16 months in Sindh. By then a public campaign for his release had been launched by Baloch political parties and organisations like the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, the South Asia Free Media Association and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. The courts had also been approached on his behalf and decisions given in his favour. The Balochistan High Court ordered his release on Sept 10, 2007, after ruling that he had committed no crime. However, he was kept in Khuzdar province in Balochistan under the Maintenance of Public Order Act on the ridiculous charge that he was disturbing public order, despite his being in captivity. His woes finally ended on Feb 23 this year, but not before someone in the security services threatened to kill him. Following his release, Munir Mengal stayed in hiding for several weeks before managing to leave the country from Turbat airport in Balochistan. From the safety of his European abode, he has now told the story of his ordeal while in custody of an intelligence agency.
As the name of his aborted TV channel, Baloch Voice, suggests, Munir Mengal wanted to give a voice to his people at a time when human rights violations were being committed in Balochistan and many Baloch had gone missing. He was a prosperous businessman and had even been given a “Legend of the Year” award by President Musharraf in August 2005. He had sold his properties and raised Rs13 million to start up the TV station. Instead he landed in a secret detention cell and lost his money. His plans to launch the Baloch Voice TV channel in June 2006 are now in tatters.
At a time when private TV channels are mushrooming and the number of stations broadcasting in national languages such as Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto and Saraiki is growing, it is unfair to deny permission for a Balochi language television channel. According to an estimate there are six million Baloch living in South Asia and in the Middle East, where they have found work and prosperity. One way of undoing the wrongs committed against the Baloch people and removing the grievances of Munir Mengal and others like him is to allow a Balochi TV channel to operate from Pakistan. The Baloch must be given their provincial rights and encouraged to join the political mainstream if the Pakistani establishment wants Balochistan to stabilise and remain a proud and willing unit of the federation of Pakistan.
The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar. Email: rahimyusufzai @yahoo.com