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Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

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PAKISTAN: Whereabouts unknown

The first bad sign is someone's mobile phone failing to ring. The Pakistani addiction to cellphones cuts across all social classes; if someone's phone is turned off, chances are good that something is amiss.

Over the last two days, as hundreds of lawyers, human rights activists and political leaders have been rounded up by police, those who have been detained or have fled into hiding are finding ways to get the word out to friends and associates, like a trail of electronic breadcrumbs left behind.

"JUST TAKING A LITTLE TIME OFF," said a wry text message from an opposition party worker who went to stay with relatives in the country because she feared arrest.

A well-known lawyer, without identifying himself but relying on the familiarity of his voice, left a message canceling an appointment — "Don't be offended, now! It looks like I'm canceling everything for a while."

Prominent human rights activist Asma Jehangir, under house arrest in the eastern city of Lahore, smuggled out a message that was e-mailed to friends and supporters. As usual, she did not mince words; President Pervez Musharraf, she said, "has lost his marbles."

A scanned copy of Jehangir's house detention order was making the rounds as well.

Now that landlines are working again in the capital — they were cut off after Saturday's government declaration of a state of emergency — one can try calling the family home of someone who is rumored to have gone missing.

That tends to produce conversations that are agonizing in their brevity and constricted formality. For a wife or son left behind when an arrest has occurred, talking for too long on the phone is not a good idea.

"Is he there?"

"No, he is gone. Taken."

"Oh. When?"

"Last night, very late. He forgot his blood-pressure medicine. I'm very worried."

One opposition party activist said she tried to keep a roll call of which of her associates had been rounded up. "I'm thinking of changing over to a shorter list — the ones who haven't been," she said ruefully.

Another avenue for checking on whether someone has been detained is to call their lawyer. The problem with that: Many of the lawyers are in jail, too.

— Laura King in Islamabad

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