Hopes fade for Kashmir's disappeared

A key election pledge by Kashmir's ruling party to stop "disappearances" and trace thousands of missing persons has been denounced as little more than a "hoodwinking" process.

Indian-administered Kashmir has been a flashpoint between India and Pakistan for more than 50 years. Many people have vanished, presumed dead or imprisoned without trial or record.

Chief Minister, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, whose own People's Democratic Party (PDP) won an election in Kashmir last October promised to appoint an independent commission to help locate the missing persons prior to gaining office.

But nine months on little progress has been made and 26 more people have disappeared.

A week-long hunger strike in protest earlier this the year prompted Sayeed to admit 60 persons had disappeared in Kashmir over the past 14 years. But more recently Sayeed contradicted his statement in front of the Indian state assembly and admitted 3,744 persons had gone missing since 2000.

The Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) maintains two people disappeared from custody following a visit by the Indian Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, and Indian federal government interlocutor to Kashmir, NN Vohra.

APDP says its findings reveal 8,000 people have disappeared in custody in Kashmir over the past 14 years.

Pervez Imroz, a human-rights lawyer who spearheads APDP, said: "During his election campaign [Sayeed] repeatedly promised to set up an independent enquiry commission into the disappearances if he came to power. However, this has proved to be a hoax and more cases continue to take place."

Former State Law Minister for Kashmir Muzaffar Hussain Beigh - now Kashmir's Finance Minister - stated 135 missing persons had been declared dead up to June 2002, warning a far higher number could soon be revealed.

The APDP says more than 500 custodial disappearance cases have been established by Kashmir's judiciary.

"Vajpayee can understand the lingering pain a person with a disappeared son, father or husband in the family must endure," says Rahee Meraj, whose son disappeared.

As more Kashmiris disappear, opposition to Sayeed and his "healing touch" election pledges are dismissed as part of a hoodwinking process.

"They are misleading the international community by providing false data regarding the disappearances" said 15-year-old Bilquees, whose father was taken into custody and not seen again.

Nazim Jan, from the Kasmir border district of Uri, is looking for her three brothers. "I want justice. I have been searching for them for the last 13 years, but in vain," she said. "How can Sayeed, who claims to champion the cause of helping those hit by violence here close his eyes to us?"

"Is he not the same man who promised us the healing touch," asks APDP member Parveena Ahangar, whose son went missing 13 years ago.

"And what about the independent commission he promised to set up to investigate disappearance cases?" asked Akbar Jehan, whose two sons were picked up by the Indian army in Mashichod, Uri, five years ago and not seen again.

Ghulam Mohammad Bazaz, whose son, Sajjad, was picked up by the paramilitary Border Security Force on February 12, 1992, says he met with Sayeed twice who assured him his case would be looked into.

He said: "My son was arrested by commandant Rathore of 30 Battalion of paramilitary Border Security Force and it has been proven by a court. But no action has been taken."

On 4 July 1995 two Britons: Keith Mangan, from Middlesbrough, and Paul Wells, from Blackburn, were kidnapped by Kashmiri militants demanding the release of 21 of their jailed colleagues.

German, Dirk-Hasert; Norwegian, Hans Christian Ostroe, and US citizen, Don Hutchings, were also kidnapped whilst trekking in the Indian Himalaya mountains.

Ostroe was found beheaded in a remote Kashmiri forest the following month after India refused to release the militants.

Mufti Mohammad Sayeed's daughter, Rubaiyya Sayeed, was herself kidnapped by Kashmiri militants following his appointment as India's first Muslim home minister in 1989. She was released in exchange for militants.

The region's principle militant group is Al-Faran: an alias of the Pakistan-based Harakat ul-Mujahedin (HUM) organisation.

Al-Faran is a member of Osama Bin Laden’s International Islamic Front, according to the U.S. State Department.

The United Kingdom, Germany, the USA and Norway say they are continuing to strive - with the Indian and Pakistani governments - to determine what has happened to their missing nationals.

Their investigations - like those maintained by Kashmir's widows and fatherless children - will continue to be a solitary affair.