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Families of Pak's missing pin hopes on CJ

Zahida Sharif has one hope as Pakistan's reinstated top judge returns to court Tuesday for the first time in 16 months -- that her husband who went missing four years ago will come home.

world Updated: Mar 24, 2009 10:45 IST

Zahida Sharif has one hope as Pakistan's reinstated top judge returns to court Tuesday for the first time in 16 months -- that her husband who went missing four years ago will come home.

Her life as a happy, pregnant wife ended when her doctor husband disappeared on his way to work on September 16, 2005.

Suspecting he had been arrested by Pakistan's secretive security agencies, and alone with two young sons, she says she was too frightened to report his case to police. There has never been any word from the authorities.

Hope came when the independent chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry took up the cases of several of the missing -- out of hundreds allegedly taken into government custody after Pakistan joined the US-led "war on terror."

Chaudhry ordered the security services to produce several of the missing in court before he was sacked by military ruler Pervez Musharraf in November 2007.

"The restoration of Iftikhar Chaudhry has given me new hope of seeing my husband, Abid, soon," said Zahida from her home in Rawalpindi.

Unemployed, she depends on her brothers to survive. Her youngest son has never met his father, born seven months after he disappeared. Her two elder sons are away at school on scholarships.

Her husband was a doctor in a government hospital in Taxila, a UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for its ancient Buddhist ruins near the capital Islamabad.

"He left home for the hospital at 6:00 am and told me he would return after four days. That was the last I heard of him," Zahida said from under the niqab -- a black veil through which only a woman's eyes can be seen.

Rights groups accuse the authorities of holding hundreds of people in secret detention as part of the "war on terror" in Pakistan, a frontline state battling Taliban and Al-Qaeda, buffeted by a wave of deadly violence.

Zahida says her husband, a pious Muslim, did not visit Afghanistan, where the Taliban are fighting against US troops. She thinks he may have been arrested because of his hostility to Musharraf.

"He's a good Muslim, praying five times a day and he has beard. He used to openly abuse General Musharraf. That may be why he was arrested," she said.

"The way Abid vanished suggests it was the work of agencies," her lawyer, Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui, told AFP, alluding to the country's shadowy military and civilian intelligence services.

Chaudhry's supporters say a factor in his dismissal was his interest in the missing persons, which could have embarrassed Musharraf and his US allies.

Two months before he was dismissed, Chaudhry said there was "overwhelming evidence" that the missing were held by government agencies.

The vast majority have never appeared in any court.

Rights groups accuse the government of violating these people's rights by holding them in secret, failing to charge them or put them on trial.

Amnesty International has called on Pakistan to act immediately to resolve the cases and last July cited local organisations as saying there were at least 563 cases of enforced disappearance.

"We don't know exactly how many people have been detained and where they have been kept," Pakistani human rights activist Tahira Abdullah told AFP.

"There are many intelligence agencies in Pakistan. They keep these people in the country and some have been handed over to the US," she alleged.

The US embassy in Islamabad could not comment.

Pakistan's human rights ministry said it was investigating cases of the missing, working from a list provided by activist Amina Masood Janjua, whose husband disappeared.

"The previous government suspected that these people, one way or the other, were helping militants," said spokesman Khalid Amin Qureshi.

"We are fully cooperating with Amina and pursuing the cases of missing people with the interior and law ministries," he added.

Dozens of relatives have thronged outside Chaudhry's house, calling for him to make finding their loved ones a priority despite his enormous work load.

"The chief justice fixed November 11, 2007 to hear the case of my missing husband. I hope he will start hearing the case where he left off," Zahida said.