Baluchistan and atrocities faced by locals

The killing of missing persons reportedly in fake encounters in Ziarat and Harnai districts of northern Balochistan by the Pakistan Army have angered rights activists who have condemned the brutal murders.

Six of the nine men killed by the Pakistan Army in the past few days have been identified as forcibly disappeared persons, allegedly by the Pakistani Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs). Their families had registered them in missing persons’ list and were protesting for their release since.

On the night of July 13 and 14, the Pakistan Army carried out a military operation in Ziarat and Harnai following the abduction and subsequent killing of army officer Lt. Col. Laiq by Baloch’s “pro-independence” armed group — the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA).

As the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) claimed that the forces had killed nine BLA members, the latter denied the claims and said those killed had no connection with the group. “Pakistani military’s claims of killing freedom fighters of BLA during its so-called search operation around Ziarat and Harnai areas are merely propaganda tactics to hide its catastrophic failures in Balochistan,” the group said. It added that not a single fighter was injured or harmed in any way during the operation.

Photos of the deceased doing the rounds on social media show them with scruffy, overgrown beards and untidy clothes, sparking a debate whether the nine men were insurgents or Baloch missing persons.

The bodies were moved to the Quetta civil hospital for identification where six of the nine were identified by their family members.

According to the families and the Voice of Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP), a campaign group for missing persons, “these men were forcibly disappeared by the Pakistani LEAs and they were missing since”.

Among the first to be identified was Shams Satakzai, who was taken away allegedly by Pakistani security forces in 2017. The second person killed in the Ziarat operation has been identified as Shehzad, s/o retired DSP Khuda Baksh Dehwar, who was forcibly disappeared by security forces from Quetta on June 4, 2022. The third body was identified as that of Salim Karim, a student and resident of Panjgur. He was whisked away in April 2022 when he was on his way to Quetta. The fourth was Engineer Zaheer Bangulzai who was forcibly disappeared from his office at Airport Road Quetta on October 7, 2021. The fifth body was identified as Dr Mukhtar, a physiotherapist by profession, who was forcibly disappeared on June 11, 2022, from Quetta. The sixth victim of Ziarat’s “fake encounter” has been identified as Shah Baksh Marri.

It should be noted that such “fake encounters” have been reported earlier in Balochistan where forces have reportedly killed missing persons portraying them as insurgents and terrorists.

Washington Group, a think tank working for peace and democracy in South Asia and comprising journalists and activists residing in North America, has condemned the Pakistani army for setting a horrifying example of ethnic cleansing in occupied Balochistan. It also demanded that the Supreme Court of Pakistan take suo motu action and bring the culprits to justice.

“Enforced disappearance is a crime and putting a missing person to death by framing a false encounter as a terrorist is a crime as well as a gross abuse of human rights that cannot be blameworthy,” the committee tweeted in Urdu.

Commenting on the situation, Balochistan Liberation Army Chief Bashir Zaib Baloch said in a video statement: “The only way to stop ‘Baloch Genocide’ is the freedom of Balochistan. The fascist Punjabi state is only interested in resources of Balochistan but not the people. If we want to save our future generations we must fight until victory.”

Baloch leaders also called upon the international community to take note of the situation and “stop the vicious cycle of Baloch Genocide”.

The extrajudicial execution of enforced disappearances or missing persons in staged encounters is not a new phenomenon. Baloch rebel groups allege that thousands of Baloch people have been disappeared by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in the last 20-25 years. They also claim to have killed at least 35 personnel of Pakistan Security Forces since January 2022.

According to Baloch political activist Dr Mahrang Baloch, given the amount of evidence available in the above six cases, civilian and military officials should not get away with this mass execution. “Since the local remedies failed to address these grave violations, we request UNHRC to take notice of unlawful killings of civilians.” A protest against such fake encounters was also organised on Thursday.

Enforced disappearances have been happening in Pakistan, especially in Balochistan, since the last 25 years. Some human rights groups claim thousands of people are still missing.

In 2011, a Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances was formed, but there was little progress in the investigation.

In January 2021, the Islamabad High Court, after hearing a petition on a disappearance case from 2015, ruled that the prime minister of Pakistan and his cabinet were responsible for the state’s failure to protect its citizens “because the buck stops at the top”. The court also termed enforced disappearances as “the most heinous crime and intolerable” and the case & inquiry is still pending.

According to Amnesty International, the commission has so far received more than 3,200 cases of such disappearances. The commission reports that it has received 7,000 cases of forced disappearance since its inception.

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