ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Pakistan's intelligence agencies and police have disappeared hundreds of Pakistanis, including children as young as 9, as part of the U.S.-led war on terrorism, Amnesty International charged Wednesday.
The missing Pakistanis frequently were tortured and have been moved among secret detention centers regularly so that they become impossible to trace, the human rights group said.
Amnesty said that allied countries, primarily the United States, had "benefited from this activity," which began under the regime of President Pervez Musharraf. Some citizens were handed over to foreign intelligence agents for questioning in Pakistan or abroad, it said.
The human rights group was highly critical of Pakistan's newly elected government for not taking firm steps to recover the apparent terrorism suspects, some of whom have been missing for up to seven years and never been charged.
Amnesty didn't give a number of those missing but backed the claims of relatives groups' that at least 563 people remain unaccounted for.
Amina Janjua, who leads one relatives' group, told McClatchy that hundreds more haven't been brought to the attention of human rights activists. She said that new cases were still coming to her, more three months after the new government took power.
Amnesty said that many of the missing were involved in nationalist movements from the smaller provinces of Baluchistan and Sindh, and it charged that the Musharraf regime had exploited the anti-terrorism agenda to crack down on political opponents.
It called for the government to compile lists of missing people and to shift detainees into official prisons and process them through the courts. "This is an easy and achievable step forward that would signal a very strong break with the policies of the government of General Musharraf," said Sam Zarifi, the Asia Pacific director at Amnesty.
"It really is a nonpolitical issue, and the government should start showing some concrete results."
Amnesty said there was little hope of progress on the missing persons until the new government reinstated the judges whom Musharraf fired last November when he put the country under six weeks of martial law. Those judges, led by deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, had hauled top officials into court and demanded that they produce the missing, a tactic that led to the recovery of dozens of people, some of whom were taken into court on stretchers.
But there's no sign that the judicial crisis is about to be resolved, as the coalition government is bitterly divided on the issue.
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Janjua has met the new prime minister and the head of the Interior Ministry.
"They (the government) talk a lot, but that is not enough," said Janjua, whose husband, Masood, vanished three years ago and is thought to be in the custody of Pakistan's notorious Inter-Services Intelligence agency. "We want our loved ones back at home. For them, the politicians, this is routine, but for us, it is a matter of life and death."
Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for the Pakistan People's Party, told McClatchy that the missing-persons issue is "high on the agenda," and that Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani had mentioned it to him several days ago.
Babar said that the Interior Ministry had been "tasked to call a meeting of the (intelligence) agencies and sort it out." The law minister is compiling a list of missing persons for further action, he said.
The government has kept the Supreme Court judges whom Musharraf appointed in November, who, according to activists, have taken up no human-rights cases since they were installed.
The new government also has retained Malik Qayyum, the attorney general from the previous government, as well as Kamal Shah, the chief bureaucrat at the Interior Ministry, and Lt. Gen. Nadeem Taj, the head of Inter-Services Intelligence, the organization most accused of disappearing people.
Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.
© 2008 McClatchy Newspapers