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Balochistan – a human rights free zone

By Malik Siraj Akbar

Every year on this momentous day, 60-year old retired bank employee Abdul Qadeer Baloch organises special events in Balochistan capital, Quetta, to mark the international human rights day. He has organised, for instance, hunger strike camps and convened press conferences to raise the voices of the families of the disappeared Baloch political activists, students and professionals.

Qadeer had remained absolutely aloof to such hardcore activism until February 13, 2009, when officials attired in plainclothes whisked away his son Jalil Ahmed Reki, 35, from Quetta. The disappearance of a breadwinning son turned Qadeer’s life upside down. He eventually joined the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP), an organisation representing the families of missing persons, to campaign for the release of his disappeared son.

Jalil Reki, Qadir’s missing son, had regularly operated as the central spokesman for the Baloch Republican Party, a nationalist political group seeking self-rule for the resource-rich Balochistan province. He was articulate, charismatic and well-connected with the local media. Qadeer made every attempt possible to seek the release of his missing child but completely failed to bring him back from the custody of the captors. After his involvement in similar missing persons’ cases, Qadeer realised his was not the only family which had a loved one listed as ‘missing’.

“Every missing person is my son,” Qadeer assured as he was recently promoted as the vice president of the VBMP. With more organisational responsibility came more pressure. In October, two secret agents reached out to Qadeer in Quetta warning him to immediately and unconditionally end the demand for the release of the disappeared activists.

“They warned if I wanted my son alive then I should end the hunger strike camp,” Qadir shared his insecurity with the media soon after being warned in person and also on telephone.

Qadeer would have routinely snubbed this warning if he had been contacted two years ago. In the past one year, the situation in Balochistan has dramatically changed. The bullet-riddled dead bodies of at least 220 missing persons have been found from different parts of the province in the past eight months.

Thus, Qadeer and his friends were totally cognizant of what he bills as the “nasty capabilities” of the captors of their loved ones. He took the threats seriously but it was no longer practically possible to abandon an organisation which funnelled hope to the relatives of hundreds of other missing persons.

“Quitting wasn’t simply an option” said Qadeer. Those who had warned him stood by their words. On November 24, the tortured and bullet-infested dead body of Qadeer’s disappeared son was found in Turbat district.

This year brings a totally different international human rights day for Qadeer. He says his young son’s killing has not undermined his resolve but given him a reason to stand beside those who still await the return of their loved ones.

‘Moral Crisis’

There is increasing international concern about human rights violations in Balochistan. Official denial of access to international media, human rights groups and researchers and increased role of agencies further make it difficult to independently analyse the crisis in Balochistan.

On November 16, the deputy spokesman of the US Department of State, Mark Toner, expressed concern over the situation in Balochistan.

Amnesty International’s Pakistan researcher Mustafa Qadri terms Balochistan as one of Pakistan’s “greatest moral crises”. The province, he says, has fast become a “human rights-free zone” with security forces and armed groups acting with total impunity.

Qadri, whose London-based global human rights watchdog has actively sought an end to killings and disappearances in Balochistan, says there are no excuses for the government to continue “such policies” in Balochistan.

“The failure of the state to protect its citizens’ right to life has left all of Balochistan’s diverse communities living in constant fear of abductions, torture, and targeted killings. The state continues to suppress the Baloch community’s right to freedom of expression whether with respect to nationalist politics or calls for justice for victims of enforced disappearance,” he claims.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has decided to dedicate this year’s international human rights day to the people of Balochistan in order to urge Islamabad to “make vigorous efforts to ensure respect for the rights of the people in the long suffering province.”

Zohra Yusuf, HRCP’s chairperson, says at least 107 new cases of enforced disappearance have been reported in Balochistan in 2011, and the ‘missing persons’ are increasingly turning up dead.

“Bodies of at least 225 ‘missing persons’ have been recovered from various parts of the province since July 2010,” she reveals, “It is scandalous that not a single person has been held accountable for these disappearances and killings.”

Alarming Trends

With numerous existing indicators, there are valid reasons to paint a murky future scenario for Balochistan vis-à-vis the state of human rights.

Firstly, defenders of democracy, champions of human rights and the advocates of press freedom are all being forcefully dragged into the ongoing conflict. At least two HRCP coordinators, eight journalists and one campaigner for the IDP (internally displaced persons) rights have been tortured and killed in less than a year.

In addition, the so-called ‘kill and dump operations’ provide a glimpse into the prevalent and sophisticated network of illegal torture cells maintained inside Balochistan. For example, when activists, such as Qadeer’s son, disappear from Quetta and are found dead 856 kilometres away in Kech district, it gives a clear idea about the extraordinary operational and logistical capabilities of people involved in such regular and untraceable operations.

Meanwhile, an underground armed group calling itself as the Baloch Musla Defai Tanzeem (Baloch Armed Defence Organisation) recently issued a hit-list of four journalists in Khuzdar district warning to kill them all if they reported the activities of Baloch nationalists. At least two former presidents and two members, of the same district press club have been murdered in recent past, highlighting the threats faced by journalists working in Khuzdar.

Amidst the crises, the governments at the centre and the province do not currently have an engagement policy in Balochistan to give an idea where it stands on the issue of disappearances, killings and warnings to defenders of human rights. It demonstrates absolute official indifference toward the issue while the attacks on defenders of democracy and human rights are taking place with flagrant impunity showing a total absence of an accountability-driven system.

The number of unknown, shadowy armed groups is increasing day by day. Emboldened over lack of official action against them, these groups have become less reclusive, more assertive and more selective while singing out their targets.

Turning a blind eye, the provincial and central governments and the executive and the judicial branches of the government continue to throw the issue of human rights into each other’s court. Additionally, the government has not either completed or initiated investigations into killings for which it has been blamed, such as the murder of Professor Saba Dashtiyari of the University of Balochistan, to assure its commitment to independently probe blatant attacks on educators and free-thinkers.

The government has also not fulfilled the promise it made unveiling the Aghaz-e-Haqooq-Balochistan Package that all missing Baloch persons would be released.

Decades of unabated attacks on dissenters have eroded Balochistan’s political landscape to such an extent that violence has knocked out an ambiance of political dialogue.

Malik Siraj Akbar is a freelance journalist based in Washington DC.

Faiz Baluch