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Pakistan dispatch: violent crackdown on peaceful Baloch protesters in Islamabad highlights ongoing injustices in Balochistan region

Law students and law graduates in Pakistan are reporting for JURIST on events in that country impacting its legal system. Izhar Ahmed Khan is a 2022 LL.B. graduate of the Pakistan College of Law (University of London International Program). Abu Bakar Khan is a final year law student at University Law College, University of the Punjab. They file this dispatch from Lahore. 

Last Thursday, December 21, at midnight, law enforcement agencies used brutal force to disperse a peaceful Baloch march heading towards the Islamabad Press Club to protest against state crimes against the Baloch people. They employed water cannons and tear gas, detained hundreds of protesters and subjected them to torture. Women were dragged, their clothes torn apart, children injured, and elderly individuals physically abused. After 24 hours of humiliation and harassment, the protesters were finally released, but were deported back to Balochistan from where they came. It was all akin to wild beasts tearing apart their prey in a jungle, with no fear of accountability or any hint of civility. Perhaps if these scenes had been shown on social media without any description, they might have been mistaken for an active warzone.

It was the alleged extrajudicial killing of Balaach Mola Bakhsh (24), among three others, in Turbat, Balochistan last month that sparked the protestors’ nearly 1600 km long march towards Islamabad. The march, led by Baloch women and their families under the banner of ‘March against Baloch Genocide,’ aimed to draw attention to forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions, and torture in Balochistan.

Balochistan has grappled with a violent insurgency for the last two decades, resulting in numerous forced disappearances and bodies being dumped along roadsides. Caught between radical Baloch nationalist groups accusing the state of exploiting the province’s resources and the military combating these groups, Baloch families await news on their missing loved ones. As of January 2023, the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances has reported almost 9,000 cases across Pakistan since its establishment in 2011. While over 5,000 cases were traced, nearly 3,800 individuals returned home, leaving over 2,000 cases pending. Baloch national organizations, like Voice for Baloch Missing Persons, contest these figures, claiming the registered cases to be around 23,000, strongly challenging the commission’s data.

Responsibility for the heinous crimes of forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings has long been attributed to the country’s security agencies. Beyond the victims’ families, national and international human rights organizations, journalists, politicians, and even the honorable high courts of Pakistan have highlighted the security agencies’ involvement in these crimes. Recently, the Islamabad High Court, while addressing a petition on implementing recommendations of the Baloch student recovery commission, made significant remarks. Justice Mohsin Akhtar Kayani stated:

“The entire blame is falling on the agencies. Did the agency of some other country pick up the people?”

‘No agency has an exemption to pick up anyone they want. Do such things happen in a civilized society?”

The differential treatment of Baloch protesters in Islamabad serves as evidence of state complicity in these crimes. If the state were genuinely concerned about the issue and cared for the victims’ families, it would have respectfully facilitated the peaceful protesters’ demonstration and shown empathy. Instead, detaining, torturing, and forcibly removing them without reasonable grounds demonstrate the state’s hostility towards its people and its fear of the truth emerging. Also the irony is that when the oppressed demand their rights and protest, they’re given labels of “rebels” or “terrorists”. If anyone deserves such labels in the present circumstances, it would be the state functionaries, rebelling from their constitutional roles and terrorizing innocent people. Forcefully kidnapping and killing individuals without a fair trial undermines every conceivable human right. It infringes upon the right to recognition as a person before the law, liberty and security of the person, freedom from torture and ill-treatment, right to life, identity, fair trial, effective remedy, and truth about disappearances. These amount to a continuous violation of rights until the disappeared person’s whereabouts are determined.

Urgent action is imperative to address the grave issue of enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings. An immediate end to these horrific practices, disclosure of victims’ fates, fair judicial proceedings or release, and adherence to international human rights standards are paramount. Additionally, enabling victim families’ freedom of association and protest without fear of reprisal, and providing comprehensive reparation for all affected parties, are pivotal steps towards rectifying the immense harm caused by enforced disappearances. This multifaceted approach, if rigorously implemented, can foster accountability, justice, and healing for victims and their families while upholding fundamental human rights. However, if the same continues then no wonder that history may repeat itself, as only recently we have mourned over the ‘fall of Dhaka’ and if such a thing happens, the liability shall lie on the shoulders of the state once more.

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