‘Kill and dump policy’: Baloch protest man’s custodial murder in Pakistan

Nearly 400 ethnic Baloch, half of them women and children, camp in Islamabad weeks after ‘extrajudicial’ killing of a young man.

Baloch protest Pakistan
Baloch protesters holding photos of their missing family members [Abid Hussain/Al Jazeera]

Islamabad, Pakistan – The mercury has fallen below 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit) on a biting January evening in Pakistan’s capital. But Najma Mola Baksh is undeterred.

Najma is among nearly 400 members of the ethnic Baloch community camping outside the National Press Club in Islamabad for weeks now to protest against the extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances rampant in Pakistan’s Balochistan province.

The protesters – half of them women and children – kept shifting uncomfortably in the tents and under the open sky, holding on tightly to their jackets, sweaters and quilts to brave the cold.

Najma has travelled more than 1,500km (932 miles) from her hometown of Turbat city in Balochistan to demand justice in the murder of her younger brother, Balaach Mola Baksh, the youngest among eight siblings.

Baloch protest Pakistan
Najma holds a photo of her younger brother killed last year [Abid Hussain/Al Jazeera]

Balaach, 20, was abducted from his home in Turbat on the night of October 29 by men in civilian clothes, suspected officials from the security agencies. The family filed a missing complaint with the police but did not hear for nearly a month despite protests on the street.

He was eventually presented in a court in Turbat on November 21.

“We were there in the court when the police brought him,” Najma told Al Jazeera. “He looked at us quietly. He looked weak, as if he was beaten and threatened. We tried to talk to him, he would only nod and just acknowledge us, without speaking anything at all.”

Two days later, the family came to know Balaach had been killed in custody.

In a statement, the provincial Counter Terrorist Department (CTD) said Balaach had confessed his involvement in “terrorist activities” and identified places where his colleagues were hiding. The CTD claimed its team was attacked during an operation to arrest the fighters, killing Balaach in the crossfire.

But Najma and her family say it was yet another extrajudicial killing of one of their community members in the restive province bordering Afghanistan.

Baloch protest Pakistan
The Baloch community in Pakistan has a long history of marginalisation [Abid Hussain/Al Jazeera]

Decades-old conflict

Balochistan – Pakistan’s largest but least populous province – has a long history of marginalisation. The province was annexed by Pakistan in 1948, soon after partition from India, and there has been a separatist movement since.

Home to about 15 million of Pakistan’s estimated 240 million people, according to the 2023 census, Balochistan is also the country’s poorest, despite being rich in natural resources, including oil, coal, gold, copper and gas reserves, which generate substantial revenue for the federal government.

It also has Pakistan’s only deep-sea port at Gwadar, a crucial trade corridor for the $60bn China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that aims to link southwestern China to the Arabian Sea through Pakistan.

Baloch allege the Pakistani state has neglected their people and exploited the province for its mineral resources, triggering separatist sentiments.

Balochistan has seen at least five rebellion movements since the formation of Pakistan in 1947. The latest wave began in the early 2000s, with demands for a larger share of its people in the province’s resources soon turning into calls for complete independence.

Several Baloch armed groups have been fighting Pakistan’s security forces for the province’s independence for nearly two decades.

The Pakistani government’s response to the separatist movement has seen a violent crackdown, killing and disappearing thousands of ethnic Baloch suspected of either being a rebel or supporting the rebellion. Many of those missing turned up dead later, often with torture marks on their bodies.

In a 2016 report, the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances said their sources in Balochistan allege more than 14,000 people were missing there, but the provincial government recognised less than 100.

Baloch activists allege at least 504 people were killed extrajudicially in the province only last year. The government says they were suspected rebels.

“We had always heard of incidents of people being picked up and then turning up dead, but never in my wildest nightmare that I imagined something like this would happen to my own brother,” Balaach’s elder brother Younis Mola Baksh told Al Jazeera as he broke into tears.

Younis said his brother was a keen poet and singer. He showed videos of Balaach singing Urdu and Balochi songs. “My family is not going to sleep in peace again now,” he said.

‘Kill and dump policy’

After their protest, a case was registered in early December against the CTD and police officials in connection with Balaach’s murder. The provincial government also announced the formation of separate committees at both federal and provincial levels to investigate such killings.

But Mahrang Baloch, a young doctor in her 20s who is leading the protest in Islamabad, has no hope for any justice.

“We have seen so much in the past years that we do not trust the state at all. Yet, here we are, to raise our voices, to register our protest and we want the authorities to return our missing,” she told Al Jazeera. Her tone was soft but there was steeliness in her words.

Mahrang Baloch Pakistan
Mahrang Baloch speaking at the demonstration in Islamabad [Abid Hussain/Al Jazeera]

Mahrang was 10 when her father Abdul Ghaffar Langove was abducted in 2006 and released in 2009, only to be picked up again a few months later.

“Two years later [in 2011], his mutilated body was recovered,” Mahrang said, calling it the Pakistan government’s “kill and dump policy”.

In 2019, Mahrang joined the women-led Baloch Yakjehti Committee (BYC), a rights group that campaigns against enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings of the community.

The BYC’s latest protest was ignited by Balaach’s killing. When their demands were not met in Balochistan, the group decided to lead a long march from Turbat to Islamabad, where they camped outside the press club.

“Even though I know I am not going to get justice here, but I will not leave till we get justice for all the other families who lost their loved ones, those who were killed or abducted by the state,” Najma told Al Jazeera as she held a picture of her brother.

According to Pakistan’s Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances, at least 2,708 people went missing in Balochistan since 2011, when the commission was formed, till August last year.

The cases of more than 2,250 others were disposed of by the commission, claiming they either returned to their homes or were located at internment centres or prisons.

The protesters in Islamabad are sceptical of any action by the government.

“The response by this government is worse than ever before. They are not worried about their image, and they are acting with complete impunity,” Mahrang told Al Jazeera. “They even attacked us by shelling at us when we arrived in Islamabad and tried to stop us from protesting.”

On Friday, a case of sedition was filed against Mahrang and hundreds of other protesters for allegedly inciting people to revolt against the state.

“The sedition case against me, filed in Kahirpur city of Sindh [province], where I have never even been in my life, is only an attempt to threaten me,” she told Al Jazeera. “It is only an attempt to divert my attention from the sit-in. The state is trying to scare me.”

Pakistan is currently governed by a caretaker government which will oversee the national elections, due in less than a month.

Mahrang said they have presented a five-point charter of demands before the government, including the formation of a UN working group fact-finding mission to be sent to Balochistan to investigate rights violations by the security forces.

It also demanded the CTD accept culpability in Balaach’s murder in a “staged fake encounter” and called for the dismantling of CTD and other “death squads supported by the state agencies”.

“This protest will turn into a movement. It has nothing to do with politics or anything. We want the government to tell us if our missing people are alive or dead. All we ask for us is to give us a definitive answer,” Mahrang told Al Jazeera.

“Waiting for the return of your loved ones, not knowing if they will ever return, is the worst feeling.”

Source: Al Jazeera