ORIGINALLY POSTED AT DAWN
On the news of the IDPs’ return home to the Swat Valley, I had mixed feelings, both elation and concern. The joy of people finally returning to their houses was overwhelming. However, increasing fears of backlash overshadowed enthusiasm and questions about the rehabilitation of these people – along with the need to continue aid indefinitely – were frequently debated. It would have been naïve to assume that all would be well and good from here. We can only imagine walking into ruins of shattered houses, burned streets, and luscious valleys reeking of gunpowder.
And then came the bodies. Well after the army had wrestled control of the area and declared it a safe haven for civilians, the people of Swat witnessed the dumping bodies on their already destroyed streets.
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Soon after the incidents, news reports regarding possible human right violations started pouring in. Numerous allegations were made against the military, with human rights groups claiming that the military carried out extrajudicial killing during the Rah-i-Rast offensive in the valley. Meanwhile, locals and politicians dismissed the deaths as incidents of score settling by the local people against the Taliban. The Taliban had been ruthless, kidnapping, killing, and even decapitating many civilians. The locals of the war-ravaged valley had been first-hand victims of the Taliban atrocities, so it was not inconceivable that they would try to take revenge. With no reporters being allowed in the area for security reasons, eyewitness accounts and suppositions were all that the rest of the country had to go on. Indeed, there had not been any concrete evidence that could back the claims regarding violence by either military personnel or the residents of Swat.
Recently, however, a video that has been held up as evidence of violent treatment of detainees during questioning by the military has been released on social networking sites. The 10-minute video shows a soldier casually questioning a suspect about his links with the Taliban. The soldier then steps back allowing at least four soldiers to barge in, punching, kicking, and whipping the suspect as he writhes and screams in pain.
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In response to the video and earlier allegations of violence, Major-General Athar Abbas, the army spokesperson in Swat, has denied military involvement in extrajudicial killings, saying that the army has a foolproof accountability system. Speaking to Naveen Naqvi on Breakfast at Dawn, retired Air Marshal Masood Akhter said, ‘It’s a very sad matter if it is true.’ He added, ‘Maj. Gen Ather Abbas, DG ISPR, was very prompt in giving a statement. If the video is genuine, I’m sure the Pakistan Army will be very quick in its handling because the Pakistan Army is always very quick in such matters.”
Although the authenticity of the video remains dubious, fear has already piled up. It doesn’t help that the idea of torture in detention is nothing new for most Pakistanis. Many of us are already aware of the widespread deployment of such tactics by law-enforcers in prisons and holding cells across the country. So why exactly is this video causing a particular stir?
The video has been filmed in the presence of military men inside a detention centre. My first question is how the cameraman, who appears to be using a mobile phone camera, went unnoticed. Why was he not stopped from filming by the military men who surround him? I find myself wondering if the person doing the filming is also part of the military. In that case, why didn’t he release the video to the authorities directly, rather than distribute it virally on social networking sites. Whoever is aware of the way military works knows very well the circle of secrecy endorsed by them. In that context, the possibility of someone leaking such a video is startling because it hints at the gravity of the situation and the commonality of the practice. Of course, the other explanation is that the video is inauthentic.
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Unfortunately, despite doubts of the video’s authenticity, it has been making waves both in social and mainstream media and the timing of its release intrigues many. The military is on the brink of starting a counter-insurgency operation in Waziristan. According to experts, the threats faced by the military in Waziristan are far greater than they were in Swat. At this time, people need to have faith in the military in order to set the morale for the operation. Previous operations in Swat gained credible public support after widespread violence continued despite attempts at peace treaties. Video footage of flogging, decapitations, and blatant confessions of widespread violence led to a call for a stand of vigilance.
Now, however, the military’s alleged involvement in extrajudicial violence could damage public support for their latest, and most important, offensive. Keeping that in mind, journalists and analysts should be making every effort to authenticate the video, identify its source, and ensure that no one jumps the gun in flinging unfounded accusations against the military. Failing to do so may be one way of playing into the hands of the militants that threaten our national security. For its part, the army should aggressively address the concerns raised by that video and assure the public that their conduct is well within the scope of the law. One way to do this would be to increase transparency about what happens to militants after they are arrested: where are they held, who interrogates them, and how are they treated?
Both the authorities and the public should remember that in the unusual case of counter-insurgency operations, which are different and more complex than war situations, the people have an important role to play – symbolised by our support for the military. The people of Pakistan have paid a hefty price at the hands of militants. Let’s not undermine the actions of those who have paid with their blood in the absence of well documented evidence of their misdeeds.