By Matthew Green
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - U.N. experts urged Pakistan on Thursday to investigate allegations that security forces had abducted hundreds of people and take steps to hold powerful intelligence agencies to account.
The remarks are likely to irritate the military establishment in Pakistan, where Western allies mostly avoid making public statements over the disappearances for fear of antagonizing generals who exert huge sway over foreign policy.
The first U.N. team to visit Pakistan to collect testimony from relatives of the missing concluded its 10-day trip by saying Islamabad needed to make sure suspects within the security forces could be prosecuted.
"Even though Pakistan may recognize that some disappearances have occurred, not a single perpetrator has been convicted," said Olivier de Frouville, who chairs a Geneva-based U.N. panel that monitors allegations of state-sponsored disappearances around the world. "They should really fight against impunity."
Pakistan's intelligence agencies have long resisted oversight by civilian governments in a country that has experienced long periods of military rule. The military has repeatedly denied involvement in abductions.
The French law professor said the Pakistan government should take steps to ensure it could exercise transparent oversight over the intelligence agencies and that military personnel suspected of abuses are tried in civilian courts.
"The state has to take some measures - and show that these measures are being taken - to supervise the work of these (intelligence) agencies. It has to be visible," he told reporters.
His comments will grate with Pakistan's army, which has long sought to cultivate a climate where support for the military is equated with patriotism and public criticism of intelligence agencies is taboo.
They may also upset Pakistani lawmakers who have questioned whether the team's visit represents a breach of sovereignty.
Requests by the U.N. team to meet the head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, the premier intelligence agency, and officers responsible for security in Baluchistan province, where many of the disappearances have been reported, were declined, de Frouville said.
His team visited five Pakistani cities including Quetta, Baluchistan's provincial capital, to speak with civilian officials and about 100 relatives of victims.
Pakistani officials explained some of the disappearances by blaming them on armed groups or saying the missing individuals had fled the country, de Frouville said.
"NOTHING BUT LIES"
The U.N. mission has no mandate to investigate allegations of abuses and its primary role is to serve as conduit between victims' families and the government.
While the team has heard of cases of disappearances from across Pakistan, the phenomenon is most pronounced in Baluchistan, where security forces have been accused of waging a campaign of abduction and murder to try to silence separatists.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said in May that at least 300 bodies, many bearing marks of torture, had been dumped in the province since early 2011.
Baluch activists say the remains are evidence of a state-backed policy of "kill-and-dump" designed to intimidate activists campaigning for Baluchistan's independence.
Farzana Majeed, the sister of a prominent student leader who was taken away by men in uniform in June 2009 and remains missing, urged the United Nations to take action.
"We gave them documented evidence and Pakistan officials gave them nothing but lies," she said. "Let's see if they side with the oppressed or the oppressor."
Nasrullah Bangulzai, chairman of the Voice for Baluch Missing Persons, an advocacy group, said he had handed the U.N. delegation case files on 1,320 abductees, and the names of another 940 missing Baluch for whom fewer details are available.
"I hope that the U.N. team will not just prepare a report and sit idle," Bangulzai said. "We expect them to report the issue to the Security Council and recommend action for the recovery of missing persons."
Provincial authorities say fewer than 100 missing people remain untraced in Baluchistan.
The U.N. team says it is beyond its scope to assess the credibility of the allegations it receives and that Pakistani authorities are responsible for launching investigations. It will present a report to the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2013.
(Reporting By Matthew Green; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)