By Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
One more messenger of peace fell prey to Pakistan’s Mullah-military nexus in the night of April 24, 2015, when unidentified assailants shot dead Sabeen Mahmud, a prominent Pakistani women’s rights activist, in the Phase-II area of the Defence Housing Authority (DHA) in Karachi, the provincial capital of Sindh.
According to reports, Sabeen, accompanied by her mother, was just returning home after organizing a discussion on ‘Unsilencing Balochistan’ at ‘The Second Floor’ (T2F), a café that had been developed as a forum for open debates, of which she was Director.
The event, “Un-Silencing Balochistan (Take 2)” was organized after the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) cancelled the talk due to security threats allegedly from Pakistan’s intelligence agencies.
The panelists in the discussion included ‘Mama’ Abdul Qadeer Baloch, the President of Voice for Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP), who had led a ‘long march’ to protest forcible disappearances in Balochistan; Baloch activists Farzana Baloch and Mir Muhammad Ali Talpur; and journalists Malik Siraj Akbar and Wusut Ullah Khan.
Sabeen sought ‘an open and honest debate’ on Baloch disappearances and, acknowledging that there were strong opinions on the issue, she urged a debate that was mutually respectful. She joked that, while LUMS had been forced to cancel its event, she had received no such warning about the talk at T2F, knowing little that she was crossing a critical red line by organizing an event highlighting the Baloch issues. Zohra Yusuf, Chairperson, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) observed after the killing, “It appears that an attempt is being made to silence human rights defenders or those who take up the causes of the people.”
Meanwhile, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spokesperson Mohammad Khorasani declared, on April 26, 2015, “We categorically deny involvement in the murder of Sabeen Mahmud” and that “investigation by the TTP’s intelligence wing suggests Government agencies are behind the killing of Sabeen Mahmud.”
During the talk show, Qadeer Baloch spoke at length about the forced disappearance and extrajudicial killings of Balochs and the role of Army. He noted:
The situation today is that thousands of Baloch are victims of violence in the army’s torture cells. The courts, political parties, human rights organizations, and civil society are helpless in front of the Pakistan Army and its agencies. The media is forced to remain silent on the missing persons and the tortured bodies [that are found regularly in Balochistan]. International human rights organizations and media is forbidden from going to those areas… Today when I am addressing this conference, the number of missing persons from Balochistan is over 21,000. This is the figure for 2014. We are writing up the figures for 2015 and release them every six months together. So until 2014, over 21,000 missing persons and over 6,000 tortured bodies have also been found. We knocked on every door for the missing person’s issue.
The attack on Sabeen Mahmud for bringing the Baloch plight into the limelight is no aberration. Exactly a year ago, top Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir barely returned from the brink of death after he was attacked on April 19, 2014, soon after he left Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport on the way to his Jang group-owned Geo TV’s office. He was going to Geo TV’s Karachi studios to interview the same ‘Mama’ Qadeer Baloch, who had led more than 2,000 kilometers-long ‘peace march’ with relatives of ‘disappeared/missing’ persons of Balochistan, from Quetta to Islamabad, in February 2014. Mir had earlier told his family, friends, colleagues, Army and Government officials in writing that he would hold ISI chief Lt. Gen. Zaheerul Islam responsible if he was attacked. Hamid Mir had been relentlessly highlighting the issue of missing persons in Balochistan.
The threat to media persons and activists raising Baloch issues is particularly acute. State agencies, the ISI and their non-state proxies have executed and abducted a number of Baloch journalists who had focused on forced disappearances in Balochistan. On August 21, 2013, for instance, the body of Haji Abdul Razzaq Baloch (42), a sub-editor at the Daily Tawar (Voice), a leading anti-military Baloch newspaper published in Urdu, was recovered from the Surjani Town area of Karachi. His face was mutilated, and his body showed signs of torture and strangulation. He had ‘disappeared’ from Chakiwara area of Lyari Town in Karachi on March 24, 2013. Razzaq was also a supporter of the Baloch National Movement, a nationalist political organization.
Similarly, the mutilated body of Javid Naseer Rind, the former Deputy Editor of Daily Tawar, had been recovered from the Khuzdar area of Balochistan on November 6, 2011. He had been abducted by unidentified persons on September 10, 2011, from the Hub Chowki area of Lasbela town in Balochistan. His relatives blame ISI for his abduction and killing.
Malik Baloch, Chief Minister of Balochistan, on March 20, 2014, announced the formation of a Special Task Force to arrest culprits involved in the murder of around 30 journalists in the Province over the preceding seven years. He announced the decision to journalists protesting outside the Provincial Assembly. The President of the Balochistan Union of Journalists (BUJ), Irfan Saeed, however, pointed out on the same day, “Despite repeated assurances, the killers of journalists are still at large.”
Significantly, on February 7, 2014, a BUJ delegation headed by Irfan Saeed, met with Balochistan’s Inspector General (IG) of Police, Mushtaq Ahmad Sukhera, to ask for immediate Government action to arrest those responsible for the killing of Mohammad Afzal Khawaja, a reporter for Daily Balochistan Times, on February 2. The IG had then promised that the Police Department would take ‘all measures’ to ensure the speedy arrest and trial of the reporter’s murderers. However, no arrest has yet been made in this case.
Despite repeated efforts to focus on the issue of ‘disappearances’ in Balochistan, the official response has been suppression and falsification. A July 23, 2014, report by the Home Department stated that only 71 people were missing in the Province [Balochistan]. Human rights organisations and Baloch activists variously estimate between 8,000and 21,000 disappearances, with Mama Baloch claiming over 6,000 tortured bodies recovered.
There was a staggering rise in recoveries of such tortured bodies in 2014, primarily accounted for by the discovery of three mass graves in the Totak area of Khuzdar District. Between January 25, 2014, and April 2, 2014, a total of at least 103 bodies were recovered from these graves (local sources claimed that 169 bodies were found). The bodies were too decomposed for identification. According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), based on open media sources, at least 153 bullet-riddled bodies were recovered in Balochistan through 2014, as against 39 such recoveries in 2013. 124 of the bodies found in 2014 where recovered from the Baloch separatist areas of South Balochistan, and 29 from Pashtun-dominated North Balochistan. Significantly, on February 10, 2015, the Pakistan Supreme Court directed the Federal and Provincial Governments to launch coordinated efforts for the recovery of missing persons as well as to address the issue of unidentified dead bodies found dumped in different areas.
Of the 3,375 civilian fatalities recorded in Balochistan since 2004 [data till May 3, 2015], at least 837 civilian killings are attributable to one or other militant outfit. Of these, 325 civilian killings (202 in the South and 123 in the North) have been claimed by Baloch separatist formations, while Islamist and sectarian extremist formations – primarily LeJ, TTP and Ahrar-ul-Hind (Liberators of India) – claimed responsibility for another 512 civilian killings, 506 in the North (mostly in and around Quetta) and six in the South. The 325 civilian killings attributed to Baloch formations include at least 146 Punjabi settlers since 2006. The remaining 2,538 civilian fatalities – 1,543 in the South and 995 in the North – remain ‘unattributed’. A large proportion of the ‘unattributed’ fatalities, particularly in the Southern region, are believed to be the result of enforced disappearances carried out by state agencies, or by their proxies, prominently including the Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Aman Balochistan (TNAB, Movement for the Restoration of Peace, Balochistan). The large number of unattributed civilian fatalities strengthens the widespread conviction that Security Agencies engage in “kill and dump” operations against local Baloch dissidents, a reality that Pakistan’s Supreme Court has clearly recognized.
The Supreme Court has been hearing the Balochistan missing person’s case since 2012 and has already reprimanded the Government for its failure to comply with its orders on several occasions. The Government has, on occasion, pleaded helplessness in the matter. Significantly, a three-member bench of the Supreme Court, headed by then Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, on December 10, 2013, had ordered that all the missing persons be recovered or accounted for by December 19, 2013, and made the Federal and Balochistan Governments responsible for execution of its directive.
Having failed to implement the order, the Balochistan Government on January 30, 2014, conceded before the Supreme Court that it was handicapped in recovering missing Baloch persons, because it had no effective control over the Frontier Corps and none of the 16 FC officials accused in missing persons cases, had appeared before the Police to record their statements. As a result, on March 7, 2014, the Supreme Court sought a reply from the Balochistan Government as to whether it would proceed against the FC officials involved in missing persons cases under the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), or refer the matter to the Army to take action against them under the Army Act 1952.
On March 25, 2015, the Federal Government and counsel for Frontier Corps (FC) told the Supreme Court that a requisition has been sent to the Army for trial of two Army officers; Major Saif and Major Moin, allegedly involved in enforced disappearances, while the Army had also assured the initiation of proceedings against the officers. During the hearing, the counsels told the Court that trial of these two Army officers would start ‘soon’. The proceedings are yet to commence.
Balochistan in general and the issue of Baloch disappearances in particular are no-go areas for Pakistan’s security establishment, media and activists. Those who have tried to cross the line have faced the extreme consequence. Like others, Sabeen Mahmud lost her life as she hit too close to the state’s vulnerabilities. Though there has been some hue and cry about her killing and a ‘high level enquiry’ has been ordered by the Government, it is unlikely to yield results any different from those of similar enquiries in the cases of the killing of journalist Saleem Shehzad and the assassination attempt on journalist Hamid Mir. The tragedy of Balochistan has no proximate ending.