Barkhan case – 24 Feb 2023
The bodies of three persons, pulled out from a well in the Barkhan district of Balochistan, have thus far raised more questions than answers. There is still uncertainty surrounding the identity of the victims, the circumstances surrounding their deaths, the culpability of the accused, and the involvement of others, including the accused’s son. On one thing, though, some history is instructive: the minister accused in the Barkhan case, Sardar Abdul Rehman Khetran, was found to have held at least seven people captive in a private jail back in 2014; the held included women and children. At the time, police had filed charges against the minister, his son and others for orchestrating the kidnapping and torture of three police officers. That one could still be a minister after the 2014 happenings speaks volumes as to how little sway the law holds over powerful men in Pakistan. For what it’s worth, Khetran denies the latest accusations against him, as he did in 2014, terming them as a political conspiracy to ruin his reputation and remove him from power.
The Barkhan killings are not the first such case. The institution of the ‘private jail’ has remained a challenge for years, carefully protected by the powerful and cloaked under layers of customary subservience to a system that thrives on depriving a whole layer of society its innate rights. We also need to look at the full spectrum of unlawful or extra-judicial imprisonment and unequal power relations and their implications for justice and rule of law. Even urban areas are no stranger to extrajudicial prisons – years of reports of political parties’ militant wings hosting torture cells and running a parallel-shadow justice system can provide testiomny to that. Urban sprawl has also seen real-estate businesses and corporations trample all over the rights of farmers and residents of small town and villages – expropriating their land, stealing their water and driving them from their homes, often with the implicit permission and, in certain cases, active support of the state authorities. Then there is the spectre of unlawful detentions and torture at the hands of police and other law-enforcement agencies, not least in Balochistan.
What has transpired in Barkhan – and other such private jails in tribal or feudal settings – is then part of a larger system based on the principle of might makes right. Whether it is a powerful sardar locking up innocent people or real-estate barons driving poor farmers of their land, individuals, businesses and institutions with great wealth, access and influence at their disposal can easily trample down ordinary citizens of modest means. The whole point of a justice system is to ensure that those with power do not become a law unto themselves. That there are standards that apply to all regardless of their position in the social hierarchy, that those on the lower rungs cannot simply be victimized – and that the powerful can and must be held to account. Preventing a repeat of the events at Barkhan requires standing up for the rights of the powerless regardless of the identity and affiliation of the alleged perpetrators.