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Pakistani Protests: Baluch Women Seek Answers, Justice In Disappearance Of Loved Ones

Women rally in Islamabad last month on behalf of ethnic Baluch victims of forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.
Women rally in Islamabad last month on behalf of ethnic Baluch victims of forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.

Sammi Deen Baloch recalls growing up happily in remote parts of Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan Province.

But her world crumbled in 2009 when she was just 10 years old.

That’s when her father, Deen Muhammad Baloch -- a doctor working in state health clinics providing care to the region’s neediest people -- was taken away by “intelligence agencies” because of his activism. He was a member of the separatist Baloch National Movement.

Traumatic Times

Now 25, Sammi Deen Baloch told RFE/RL that nobody knows what happened to her father. He never appeared in court and there has been no information about his whereabouts since then.

“We were a happy family before his disappearance, but our lives were traumatic after his forced disappearance,” she said.

In the 14 years since her father disappeared, Sammi Deen Baloch and her sister Mehlab have been relentless in trying to find their father.

“I have been to courts, countless protest camps, marched for thousands of kilometers, appeared before government commissions, and met numerous officials,” she said of her nonstop efforts.

“Yet uncertainty and delays haunt our lives,” she added.

Sammi Deen Baloch is part of a protest in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, where hundreds of ethnic Baluch activists are demanding that the government put an end to the forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in Balochistan and provide information to the families about the fate of their loved ones.

Baluchis March In Pakistan Against Alleged Deaths In Police Custody
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They traveled more than 1,000 kilometers last month to demand that the government account for their relatives who were either killed or disappeared amid the 20 years of the nationalist insurrection.

They also want justice.

“We want the state to punish all accused after the due process of law,” she said.

Simmering Conflict

Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province, borders Iran and Afghanistan and is hemmed in by 1,000 kilometers of the Arabian Sea coast. Since 2000, numerous armed Baluch ethnonationalist groups have fought against Islamabad seeking secession.

Pakistan accuses the rebels of attacks on security forces, infrastructure that includes Chinese-funded projects, immigrants from the eastern Punjab Province, and even pro-government Baluch figures.

Baluch political groups, including those seeking greater autonomy through parliamentary politics, accuse Pakistan of engaging in grave rights abuses. They blame Islamabad for exploiting their vast natural resources and seeking to control the province by appointing pro-government figures who lack popular support.

The Baluch people are a majority of their province's estimated 15 million residents but are a relatively small minority in the South Asian country of some 220 million people.

Thousands of Baluch people have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced in the simmering conflict that began in the early 2000s.

According to Pakistan's Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances, it has received nearly 10,000 cases of forced disappearances in Pakistan as of August. Of these, more than 2,700 came from Balochistan.

Baluch activists, however, claim that the number of people missing is many times higher. Mahrang Baloch, a physician who is leading the protest in Islamabad, says forced disappearances in Balochistan continue unabated.

Baluch Women Seek Answers For Disappearances Of Loved Ones
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She told RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal that they would only trust the Pakistani government if it acknowledged its involvement in such grave abuses of human rights.

“They should admit that they have been involved [in these actions], that their forces have been involved,” she said.

Pakistani Counterterrorism

But Pakistan's caretaker prime minister, Anwar ul-Haq Kakar, strongly disagrees.

He told a gathering on January 1 that Islamabad is fighting against separatist groups such as the Baloch Liberation Army, the Baloch Liberation Front, and the Baloch Republican Army.

“These groups have killed between 3,000 to 5,000 people,” he said, adding that the security forces kill many of the militants involved in the violence.

“We do acknowledge the right of protest of the relatives of these terrorists,” he said. “But we do not acknowledge the right of [those militants] to commit [acts of terror].”

Acting Pakistani Prime Minister Anwar ul-Haq Kakar
Acting Pakistani Prime Minister Anwar ul-Haq Kakar

Kakar also implied that the legal system has failed to deal with the perpetrators of the attacks that have caused mass casualties among security forces and citizens.

“We are being told to present [the disappeared] in courts," he said. "Over 90,000 people have been killed but not even nine perpetrators have been convicted."

Most of the some 90,000 Pakistani victims of militant attacks were ethnic Pashtuns. Their homeland in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa became the epicenter of Islamabad’s domestic war on terrorism after the demise of the Taliban's hard-line government in Afghanistan. Pakistani military ruler Pervez Musharraf’s government -- which ruled from 2001 to 2008 -- failed to prevent the Taliban and Al-Qaeda from regrouping in his country.

Mahrang Baloch said the main aim of their protest is to confront Islamabad’s longstanding views that all Baluch people killed extrajudicially or forcefully disappeared are terrorists simply because they were members or supporters of separatist groups.

“It is illegal, inhuman, and illogical to detain a person for 14 years in torture cells -- to detain a minor, to detain a woman, and not present them before courts,” she said.

Political Problem

Experts see a clear link between Islamabad’s use of excessive force and the growing protests among the Baluch people for basic human rights protections.

Kiyya Baloch, an exiled journalist who covers Balochistan, says the ongoing protest was prompted by the alleged killing of a young Baluch man in the custody of counterterrorism police in Balochistan’s remote Turbat district in late November.

"Locals were afraid that, if they failed to protest, it might result in further extrajudicial killings by law enforcement,” he said, adding that women played a crucial role in rallying support for the protest.

Kiyya Baloch argues that the core problem in Balochistan is political, not merely a counterterrorism problem, as Islamabad portrays it.

“It is a struggle for greater rights, control over resources, and autonomy,” he said. "But the mindset within the state's security institutions perceives it as a security issue that must be dealt with by force."

He sees Islamabad’s approach to quell the nationalist rebellion by empowering loyalist politicians, silencing dissenting voices through violence and disappearances, imposing bans on nationalist political groups, and militarizing Balochistan as failing to address the central issue haunting Balochistan.

“The key to resolving this is to recognize it as a genuine indigenous issue that requires a political approach to resolve,” he said.

Written and reported by Abubakar Siddique in Prague with additional reporting by RFE/RL Radio Mashaal correspondent Wasim Sajjad in Islamabad.
  • 16x9 Image

    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

  • 16x9 Image

    Wasim Sajjad

    Wasim Sajjad works with RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal.

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