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Family Of Pakistani Activist In The Dark Over 'Secret' Espionage Conviction

Human rights activist Idris Khattak with daughter Talia Khattak before his disappearance in November 2019.
Human rights activist Idris Khattak with daughter Talia Khattak before his disappearance in November 2019.

Prominent human rights activist Idris Khattak spent years campaigning against enforced disappearances in Pakistan, where critics say the practice has been used by authorities to stifle dissent.

But the 58-year-old himself became the victim of an enforced disappearance in 2019 when Pakistani intelligence agents bundled him into a car in broad daylight and whisked him away to an unknown location.

For seven months, Khattak’s family had no idea where he was or why he was taken. Then, in a rare admission of an enforced disappearance, Pakistan’s powerful military confirmed he was in custody and had been charged with treason.

Now, following a secret trial, a military court has convicted Khattak of espionage and leaking sensitive information to a foreign intelligence agency, sentencing him to 14 years in prison, his family and lawyer say. His whereabouts are still unknown.

Authorities have not made the December 4 verdict public, leaving Khattak’s family in the dark over the exact status of his case and conviction.

“First they took my father and then they disappeared him,” Talia Khattak, the 21-year-old daughter of the rights defender, told RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal. “Now they have found him guilty but haven’t said what evidence they have against him.”

She added that the family had not been notified of Khattak’s trial. His conviction was disclosed by a liaison army officer during a hasty phone call, she said.

“Without offering any details, they told me that my dad was found guilty of espionage,” she said, adding that she also did not receive any information from her father’s lawyer.

“We are very worried,” she added. “Fourteen years in prison means that my father would be 72 years old when he completes his sentence, if he stays healthy. He is diabetic and needs regular medical attention.”

Pakistani human rights activists protest against enforced disappearances in Karachi.
Pakistani human rights activists protest against enforced disappearances in Karachi.

Khalid Afridi, Khattak’s lawyer, told Radio Mashaal that he was also not notified of Khattak's trial or sentencing. He said he found out through “informal means.”

“We are going to file a petition against the verdict,” Afridi said, adding that he would appeal to a higher military court and, if that failed, take the case to the Supreme Court.

Khattak was tried by a military court behind closed doors even though he is a civilian. Attempts by Khattak’s lawyer to have the trial take place in a civilian court have twice been rejected.

Rights groups have condemned the secrecy surrounding Khattak’s case and conviction, saying it violates the activist’s right to a fair trial and prevents his family and lawyer from planning any legal recourse.

Rights activists suggest Khattak was arrested because he spoke out against the arbitrary detentions and forced disappearances committed by the military, which has an oversized role in domestic and foreign affairs.

Criticism of the army has long been seen as a red line, with activists and journalists complaining of intimidation tactics including kidnappings, beatings, and even killings if they cross that line.

The Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the military's media wing, did not respond to calls from Radio Mashaal seeking comment.

‘Baseless’ Charges

Khattak spent years compiling a list of the victims of enforced disappearances in the tribal belt in northwestern Pakistan, home to the country’s largest ethnic minority, the Pashtuns. Khattak himself is a Pashtun.

A former militant stronghold, the restive area has been the scene of brutal military offensives and terrorist attacks that have killed thousands of civilians and uprooted millions more since 2003.

Khattak had also campaigned against the army’s alleged abuses in the southwestern province of Balochistan, including enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings of political activists and suspected separatists, arbitrary arrests, and torture.

A former consultant with Amnesty International, Khattak was traveling from the capital, Islamabad, to his hometown of Nowshera when his car was intercepted by intelligence agents in November 2019.

After a monthslong legal battle and a social media campaign by his family, Pakistan’s Defense Ministry admitted in June 2020 that Khattak was in the custody of the Military Intelligence, a spy service.

The ministry said Khattak was being charged with treason under the Official Secrets Act (OSA), a law that criminalizes espionage and the disclosure of government secrets. Rights groups say the colonial-era legislation has been used to suppress free speech.

Pakistani journalist Asad Ali Toor, a vocal critic of the country's military, said three people broke into his apartment, gagged him, tied his hands and feet, and beat him with a pistol.
Pakistani journalist Asad Ali Toor, a vocal critic of the country's military, said three people broke into his apartment, gagged him, tied his hands and feet, and beat him with a pistol.

The OSA also gives military courts jurisdiction to try civilians for some offences, including espionage.

The conviction against Khattak is believed to stem from a meeting with Michael Semple in July 2009, more than 10 years before his enforced disappearance.

A court order described Semple as an agent for Britain’s MI6 intelligence service. At the time of the meetings, Semple was a fellow at Harvard University and had been a high-ranking United Nations and European Union official in neighboring Afghanistan.

Khattak was convicted of providing information to Semple about Pakistani military operations in the country’s tribal areas.

He was expelled by the Afghan government for "unauthorized activity” in 2008. Semple is currently a professor at Queen's University in Belfast.

Yameema Mitha, Semple’s Pakistan-born wife, has denied that her husband was an MI6 agent, saying the allegations were “fictitious.” Semple himself has not publicly commented on the allegations.

“This is baseless,” Talia Khattak told Radio Mashaal. “At the time my father disappeared, he was researching civilian casualties from Pakistani military operations in the tribal areas. He had also interviewed family members of victims of enforced disappearances.”

During Khattak’s two-year detention, his daughter has been allowed to meet with him only three times.

“Our meetings were only brief,” said Talia Khattak, who is a university student. “We weren’t allowed to speak in Pashto, our native language, during our meetings. We were also not allowed to speak about the case. Papa always tried to stay strong and asked me to focus on my studies.”

‘Shameful Two-year Process’

Rights groups have condemned Khattak’s secret trial and conviction.

“Khattak’s conviction under these circumstances is the culmination of a series of egregious abuses that began with his abduction, seven-month enforced disappearance, and subsequent secret trial that violated due process and fair trial standards,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement on December 6.

The rights group called on Pakistani authorities to “quash the verdict and sentence against Khattak,” and instead conduct his trial in a civilian court, if there was “any credible evidence that a crime has been committed.”

In a statement issued on December 4, Amnesty International said that, if confirmed, Khattak’s conviction will be the “culmination of a shameful two-year process that has been unjust from start to finish.”

The rights group said that “enforced disappearance has been used as a tool to muzzle dissent and criticism of military policies.” The individuals and groups targeted in enforced disappearances include members of ethnic minorities, political activists, and human rights defenders.

In 2011, the Pakistani government created a commission to document and investigate cases of enforced disappearances. The commission has since received complaints in over 8,000 cases, of which around 2,200 remain unresolved. But the body has been criticized for failing to “address entrenched impunity.”

A protest in Peshawar against the disappearance of activists.
A protest in Peshawar against the disappearance of activists.

Last month, Pakistan’s lower house of parliament passed a bill that, for the first time, defined and criminalized the practice of enforced disappearances. But rights groups have criticized the proposed law and said it would not do enough to hold perpetrators to justice.

Rights groups have described the heavy toll on the families of the disappeared and their difficulties in obtaining information about their detained relatives.

Talia Khattak said despite the immense pain the ordeal has inflicted on her family, they will not give up their fight to secure her father’s freedom.

“I will knock every door and use all legal options to release him,” she said.

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