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Threatened with ‘Christmas gift’, Karima Baloch’s death leaves more questions than answers

The Print logo The Print 25-12-2020 Naila Inayat
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Karima Mehrab Baloch was a known crusader of justice, relentless in her demand for equality for persecuted residents of Balochistan in Western Pakistan. Her death in Canada this week caused an uproar, even as the Toronto police said the incident appeared to be a “non-criminal” matter without any foul play. For Karima’s supporters in Balochistan and elsewhere, though, that is hardly reassuring.

Karima Mehrab, who had been living in exile in Canada, is not the first Pakistani human rights activist who faced death threats, harassment and had to ultimately leave the country – only to live under the fear of an attack even in exile. Karima had left for a walk Sunday in Toronto’s Centre Island near her house from where she went missing. Her body was found near the water the following day.

Karima’s husband Hammal Haider has demanded an investigation into the circumstances of his wife’s death: “I believe it’s our right to request the Canadian authorities to leave no stone unturned in looking into the circumstances of her death as well the threats she had been facing since moving to the country.”

Also read: The cost of speaking truth to power in Imran Khan’s Naya Pakistan — you might not return home

Constant threats

Hailing from the restive province of Balochistan and being a vocal critic of the Pakistani State on the issue of forced disappearances, Karima Mehrab had for long received threats and intimidation in Pakistan. She was forced to leave Pakistan but continued to receive threats on her life in Canada. Her uncle was killed, her home was raided more than twice, and her family in Pakistan was repeatedly threatened to persuade her to give up activism.

Her husband says they had received several threats on social media in the past few months for highlighting cases of human rights abuses in Balochistan. One such threat warned her that someone would send her a “Christmas gift” and “teach her a lesson”.

Other than the close community of family, friends, colleagues of Karima Baloch, Canada’s former immigration minister Chris Alexander tweeted to say that he sees “the circumstances of her death as deeply suspicious”.

We mourn with larger Canadian, Baloch & international families, who have obvious questions. All of us who knew Karima see the circumstances of her death as deeply suspicious. We must leave no stone unturned in uncovering & confronting the reality of what happened to her. 2/3

— Chris Alexander (@calxandr) December 23, 2020

Also read: In Imran Khan’s Naya Pakistan, a minority commission without minority

A volley of attacks

Canada is home to several Pakistani groups persecuted at home because of their politics, their exercising of free speech, human rights activities, or simply religion. Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who was wrongly incarcerated for almost nine years on charges of blasphemy, had to ultimately seek asylum with her family in Canada.

But living in exile doesn’t mean a peaceful life. And mysterious deaths like Karima Baloch’s only add to the distress among these vulnerable communities.

In May 2020, Sajid Hussain, the editor of Balochistan Times, was found dead in a river in Uppsala near Stockholm, Sweden. Hussain went missing in March and was last seen boarding a train from Stockholm to Uppsala. Citing the autopsy report, the police said it had “dispelled some of the suspicion that he was the victim of a crime.” Sajid Hussain used to report on human rights abuses and enforced disappearances in Balochistan.

Earlier this year, Waqas Goraya, a Pakistani dissident living in self-imposed exile in the Netherlands, was attacked and threatened outside his Rotterdam house. In 2017, Goraya was among the four progressive bloggers who were abducted for several weeks in Pakistan. On his release, he left for the Netherlands but his family back home faces intimidation even now.

Journalist and commentator Taha Siddiqui left Pakistan after escaping an abduction attempt in 2018. He feels unsafe living in self-exile in Paris. He says he has received multiple warnings from the French and the United States intelligence agencies that there are threats to his life.

If u think Pakistan Army cannot kill dissidents abroad, listen to this interview of General Musharraf, country's last military dictator. He hints at it, justifying assassinations of "traitors" abroad.

Was #SajidHussain, the dead exiled Baloch journalist victim of such a plan?

— Taha Siddiqui (@TahaSSiddiqui) May 1, 2020

Also read: Imran Khan’s Naya Pakistan is becoming Naya North Korea

Things can be different

When Imran Khan was still in the opposition making tall promises, one of the things he used to say was that if he were Pakistan’s prime minister and if the intelligence agencies picked anyone up illegally, then either the agency would pay the price or he wouldn’t remain the PM.

About two years and several disappearances later, and after threats to activists’ life and a long list of promises from PM Imran Khan, here we are. The issue of enforced disappearances persists and little has been done by the government to put a stop to it.

According to the Missing Persons Commission, the total number of cases has reached 6,854 while the independent rights groups in Pakistan say that the number is much higher. A scathing report by the International Commission of Jurists this year highlights how this Missing Persons Commission has failed in holding even a single perpetrator of enforced disappearance responsible: “A Commission that does not address impunity, nor facilitate justice for victims and their families, can certainly not be considered effective.” Meanwhile, people continue to disappear, with no answer to who and why took them away.

While protests seeking justice for Karima Mehrab Baloch by human rights groups in Balochistan and other parts of Pakistan continue, the larger question remains: how safe is it to demand equal rights for Baloch citizens in and outside Pakistan?

The author is a freelance journalist from Pakistan. Her Twitter handle is @nailainayat. Views are personal.

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