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Pakistan's festering wound

By Malik Siraj Akbar

On February 8, representatives of Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International testified before the Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee on Oversight and Investigations at the US Congress against grave human rights abuses committed by Pakistan's security forces in the restive province of Balochistan. Since then, Islamabad has used as many as 10 different channels to strongly protest against what it calls America's "blatant interference" in its "internal affairs".

The issue has flared up further following the introduction of a House Concurrent Resolution by Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher seeking the right of self-determination for the native Balochs. Pakistan has summoned the acting US ambassador to Islamabad twice in a single week at the foreign office, passed a parliamentary resolution and protested through its ambassadors in Washington DC and at the UN. Wasim Sajjad, a former Pakistan Senate chairman, while referring to HRW, has called for "immediately taking action against those NGOs or persons who are accepting dollars from the US and are pursuing their agenda on the lands of Pakistan and destabilising Balochistan."

Although the congressional hearing and subsequent resolutions were not sponsored by the Obama administration, American diplomats still face the wrath of Pakistani officials due to utter ignorance of the American poli-tical system. Anti-Americanism is not unfamiliar in Pakistan, but bashing the Obama administration for a 'crime' it has not committed simply means there is something fishy in Islamabad's cupboard.

Support for Balochistan's right to self-determination by American Congressmen has been widely appreciated and celebrated by Baloch nationalist leaders and activists. Hundreds of missing political activists in the pro-vince have been tortured, killed and dumped, an issue which has compelled the Balochs to beg the international community to rescue it from abusers of power.

"If Pakistan justifies seeking Kashmir's right of self-determination, then why does it abhor the same idea for us?" asked Sardar Akhtar Mengal, a former chief minister of Balochistan who was imprisoned during former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf's military operation against the Baloch. Most Balochs are appalled at how the Pakistani elite has ganged up against international efforts to end years of torture and destruction in Balochistan. They wonder why Pakistan's elite did not ever show the same level of unity to protest against the exploitation of Baloch mineral wealth. The central government's attitude towards the Balochs is as contemptuous as it was towards erstwhile East Pakistanis (now Bangladeshis).

The issue of Balochistan has been consistently attracting human rights groups and members of parliament. The US government has often expressed concern over Islamabad's maltreatment of the Baloch. But Pakistan has done very little to improve its human rights record in the province whose natives do not control or even benefit from their natural resources of gas and gold. It has brutally killed, with absolute impunity, hundreds of dissenting Baloch leaders, lawyers, journalists and intellectuals in the past few years. These murders are never investigated by the so-called independent judiciary because the intelligence agencies are often blamed for carrying out these killings.

The so-called liberalisation of the electronic media did not mean much for Balochistan because the security establishment has kept the whole country in the dark about ground reali-ties there. Even in today's age of social media and blogs, hundreds of Baloch websites and blogs have been blocked and more than a dozen reporters have been killed or tortured during illegal detention.

The Balochs, who share borders with Afghanistan and Iran, are a secular people who some in the US expect to take the onus of containing Islamabad's interference in its neighbouring countries. In order to divert attention from legitimate Baloch demands, Pakistan has also accused India of meddling in its internal affairs.

On their part, most Balochs have been disappointed with the absolute indifference of the Indian intelligentsia towards the plight of a people who stand for secularism and democracy as opposed to the crazy ideas of pan-Islamism. Writers and progressive thinkers in India, a country which is the engine of democracy and pluralism in South Asia, should speak up for renouncing torture as a tactic to punish political rivals.

The landmark initiative Dana Rohrabacher has taken in support of Balochistan, together with five other Congressmen, should spur liberals in India and Afghanistan to move similar resolutions in their respective parliaments. It is for both the countries to decide to what extent they can stand by the Balochs. They should, nonetheless, make no concessions to Pakistan when it comes to human rights issues.

By such a concerted stand, we would set a positive precedent in the South Asian region of abjuring repression and joining those who believe in democracy and human rights. In today's globalised world, torture must not be pardoned because it is considered one country's internal affair.

Pakistan has too little time and too many things to do to fix Balochistan. It has wasted too many opportunities to provide justice to the Balochs. In order to bring the Balochs and Islamabad to the negotiation table without further bloodshed, the involvement of credible interlocutors and reliable guarantors has become inevitable. This may sound awkward to the generals in Pakistan, but that is where time and recurrent blunders have taken us.

Malik Siraj Akbar is a freelance journalist based in Washington DC and Editor-in-Chief of The Baloch Hal

Faiz Baluch