The death of a high-profile critic of the Pakistan government, one that fled that country in 2016 and sought refuge in Canada saying she was in fear for her life because of the army and intel agencies, is in itself sure to raise uncomfortable questions for Islamabad
Over the weekend, Karima Baloch, a prominent Baloch rights activist, was found dead under mysterious circumstances in Canada.
The death of a high-profile critic of the Pakistan government, one that fled that country in 2016 and sought refuge in Canada saying she was in fear for her life because of the army and intel agencies, is in itself sure to raise suspicions in the minds of the public and uncomfortable questions for Islamabad.
And while the Canadian police have stated that there is no reason to suspect foul play, news of Karima’s death, coming on the heels of the body of Sajid Hussain, chief editor of the Baluchistan Times, being discovered in Sweden earlier this year, should, at the very least, cause enquiring minds to, well, enquire.
After all, there are certain similarities between the two cases: both Karima and Hussain sought refuge in foreign lands, both were spotted in public spaces before going missing (the former albeit briefly and the latter for more than a month) and both were found drowned.
In addition, both were nuisances for the powers-that-be.
In 2018, raising the issue of gender inequality in Pakistan at the United Nations during the 39th Session of the Human Rights Council, Karima stated, “If a woman is killed by her brother in the name of honour, Islamic law allows him to settle the case with the father or the rest of the family. In most of the cases, the family forgives the murderer who goes scot-free. Also, as a testimony of two women is equal to one man, rape cases are less likely to be decided in favour of the victims.”
In 2016, she was on BBC’s list of 100 inspirational and influential women, in which she was described as a campaigner “for the independence for Balochistan from Pakistan”.
Hussain, on the other hand, as per AFP, was writing about drug trafficking, forced disappearances, and a long-running insurgency in Balochistan. He came to Sweden in 2017 and secured political asylum in 2019 after facing threats in Pakistan.
As per the BBC, Hussain’s wife, Shehnaz told Pakistani newspaper Dawn that before fleeing for Sweden, her husband had sensed he was being followed. As well as writing about forced disappearances, he had exposed a drug kingpin in Pakistan.
“Then some people broke into his house in Quetta when he was out investigating a story,” she said. “They took away his laptop and other papers too. After that, he left Pakistan in September 2012 and never came back.”
As per India Today, Pakistani dissident groups in Canada are already raising the alarm. “Though the Toronto Police said that the death of Karima Baloch is investigated as a non-criminal death and there are not believed to be any suspicious circumstances, we believe that given the threats to her life by Pakistani authorities because of her political activism, a much thorough investigation into the murder of Karima Baloch is needed,” the groups said in a joint statement.
The joint statement was issued by Baloch National Movement, Balochistan National Party-Canada, World Sindhi Congress-Canada, Pashtun Council Canada, and PTM Committee Canada, as per India Today.
“The death of activist Karima Baloch in Toronto, Canada is deeply shocking and must be immediately and effectively investigated. The perpetrators must be brought to justice without recourse to the death penalty,” said Amnesty International South Asia in a tweet.
PAKISTAN: The death of activist #KarimaBaloch in Toronto, Canada is deeply shocking and must be immediately and effectively investigated. The perpetrators must be brought to justice without recourse to the death penalty.
— Amnesty International South Asia (@amnestysasia) December 22, 2020
With regard to Hussain’s death earlier this year, Swedish police said a crime could not be ruled out, but that his death could equally have been the result of an accident or a suicide.
Afterward, Erik Halkjaer, head of the Swedish branch of Reporters without Borders (RSF), had this to say to the AFP: “As long as a crime cannot be excluded, there remains the risk that his death is linked to his work as a journalist.”
In the recent past, several other Pakistani journalists living abroad who are critical of the government have reportedly been attacked.
As per The Guardian, in February, Ahmad Waqass Goraya, a Pakistani dissident blogger living in Rotterdam, was attacked outside his home by two figures allegedly from the Pakistan intelligence agency.
“When you think about who could find interest in suppressing a dissident journalist, the first hypothesis leads to Pakistan’s security agencies,” Daniel Bastard, the Asia Pacific head of Reporters Without Borders, told the newspaper.
And for good reason.
Pakistan’s exploitation of Balochistan and its continuing crackdown on its people is well documented.
Home to roughly seven million people, Balochistan is poor despite its natural resources, a source of great anger to residents who complain they don’t receive a fair share of the gas and mineral wealth.
Resentment has been fuelled by billions of dollars of Chinese money flowing into the region through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a key part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which locals say gave them little benefit as most new jobs went to outsiders.
Balochi activists have often accused shadowy security agents of kidnapping or “disappearing” thousands of people over the years.
One group puts the estimates that some 55,000 people have been kidnapped and 18,000 bodies found since 2000: figures Pakistani officials dispute. Only 155 people are missing in Balochistan, according to a recent federal government inquiry into forced disappearances.
In retrospect, the assassination of Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and the lack of consequences visited upon the Kingdom and Mohammed Bin Salman may only have served to embolden those that would target critics, dissidents, and journalists.
As Francesca Marino writes in The Quint: “Western governments must act, and act now. Before it is too late, before the roads and the rivers of civilised countries will start looking like Balochistan, before all we declare to stand for human and civil rights, democracy, and the rule of law, will slowly vanish. Before they come for us, there won’t be anybody left to stand for freedom.”
With inputs from agencies
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