EDITORIAL: Mysterious disappearances (and releases) in Pakistan

Mysterious disappearances (and releases) in Pakistan

On July 13, 2004, Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, a 25-year-old computer engineer, was detained by Pakistani military intelligence. The following month a Reuters report quoted a Pakistani intelligence source saying that:

“After [Khan’s] capture he admitted being an al Qaeda member and agreed to send emails to his contacts… He sent encoded emails and received encoded replies. He’s a great hacker and even the US agents said he was a computer whiz.”

Last weekend US officials said someone held secretly by Pakistan was the source of the bulk of the information justifying the [elevated Homeland Security “orange”] alert [which, just by chance, coincided with the Democratic National Convention] .

The New York Times obtained Khan’s name independently, and US officials confirmed it when it appeared in the paper the next morning.

None of those reports mentioned that Khan had been under cover helping the authorities catch al Qaeda suspects, and that his value in that regard was destroyed by making his name public.

A day later, Britain hastily rounded up terrorism suspects, some of whom are believed to have been in contact with Khan while he was under cover.

Washington has portrayed those arrests as a major success, saying one of the suspects, named Abu Musa al-Hindi or Abu Eissa al-Hindi, was a senior al Qaeda figure.

But British police have acknowledged the raids were carried out in a rush.

For the following three years, Khan remained in detention — but was never charged. This week, his case — along with that of over 200 other missing people — came before Pakistan’s Supreme Court. It was then revealed for the first time that Khan had in fact been quietly released a month earlier (July 24, 2007). The New York Times reports that, “American officials declined to speak for the record on Monday, but said they were dismayed at the news of his release.” They may have been dismayed but that’s not quite the same as saying they weren’t already aware of what had happened.

This story is hard to unravel and so far no one in the U.S. media seems to think it’s worth the effort. But there are numerous questions that need to be answered. Did the Bush administration receive advance notice of Khan’s release? Does the administration support the efforts of Pakistan’s Supreme Court to uphold the law and secure the release of uncharged detainees? Or, is the administration currently looking for new venues of secret detention outside Pakistan in order to avoid the risk of detainees being granted their legal rights?

Given the focus that this administration has generally had in finding ways to maneuver around the law, one assumes that it is currently busy exercising its well-honed skills in the outlaw domain where it most comfortably operates.

But as for America’s attitude towards Pakistan’s invisible prisoners — what does it say about us if we have more concern about a government’s efficiency in clamping down on terrorism than we have about its use of what at other times would have been seen as the instruments of state terrorism?

Who wields the more dangerous power? The terrorist who might blow up innocent people, or the government that can make suspicious people “disappear”?

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