Well-known Baloch activist Karima Mehrab (also known as Karima Baloch) was found dead by the police in Toronto on December 21. According to media reports, Mehrab, a former chairperson of Baloch Students Organization-Azad (BSO), a separatist group proscribed in Pakistan, was found dead a day after she was reported missing. At the time of filing this report, no further details around the circumstances of her death – including the result of the autopsy – is known. However, as many media outlets have already noted, the case’s similarity with that of Sajid Hussain Baloch’s – another activist who was found dead in a river outside Uppsala, Sweden in April this year – raises the distinct possibility of foul play.
Baloch activists such as the 37-year-old Mehrab have long been at the loggerheads with Pakistan’s powerful army and intelligence service, as they have demanded justice for human rights violations in Balochistan and the right to self-determination towards an independent “Azad” Balochistan. Pakistan, for its part, accuses them of being terrorists engaged in anti-state activities, and of working at the behest of archrival India and its security services. Most key Baloch activists are in exile.
Resource-rich Balochistan, the largest of the five provinces of Pakistan, has acquired additional salience for Pakistan in the recent years after China’s investments there toward the construction of the Gwadar port as well as other projects under the banner of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Pakistan has also maintained that India seeks to destabilize CPEC through the deployment of Baloch separatists.
Named as one the 100 most “inspirational and influential” women by the BBC in 2016, Mehrab’s asylum claim proceedings in Canada were suspended that year by the Canada Border Services Agency pending review in 2017 due to its determination that the BSO was engaged in subversive activities against Pakistan, the Toronto Sun reported in December 2016.
While India has traditionally eschewed expressing overt support for Baloch activists, Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke new ground in 2016 when he referred to the province in his Indian Independence Day address on August 15. In his speech, Modi had thanked the people of Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan for the “goodwill” they had shown him. Three days after Modi’s speech, Mehrab appealed to him to diplomatically intervene on behalf of the Baloch people. “We appeal to you that as our brother, you speak about the genocide and war crimes in Baloch on international forums and become the voice of the sisters of Baloch,” she said at that time.
However, there is little public evidence that India has provided material support to Baloch rebels despite periodic accusations by Islamabad to that effect, the latest installment of which was a “dossier” Pakistan apparently sent to the United Nations and key countries in November. According to Pakistani officials, the dossier included concrete evidence of India’s involvement in anti-Pakistan terrorist activities.
While it is too early to determine who or what may have caused Mehrab’s death, pending further investigation by Canadian authorities, civilian experts of South Asian security and intelligence issues point to the distinct possibility that she was assassinated by, or at the behest of, Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI).
When asked about the motivations that the Pakistani state may have had when it comes to the alleged assassination, School of Oriental and Asian Studies (SOAS), London professor Avinash Paliwal told The Diplomat: “The main message is to dissidents of the Pakistani security establishment the world over … that exile is not escape, and that they’ll have to cull criticism of, and activism, against the fauj [Pakistan’s Army].”
“It comes at a moment when the threshold for dissent within Rawalpindi [the headquarters of Pakistan Army] is at an all-time low given the domestic situation,” he added.
Pakistan is currently in the throes of major political agitation organized by a coalition of 11 opposition parties, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), against the military-backed Imran Khan government. One of the parties, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), has, in one instance during the protests, gone as far as to demand the resignation of not only Khan, but also that of army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and ISI chief Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed. While Khan supporters are putting up a defiant face and point to many cracks within the PDM that are already visible, there is no denying that the Pakistan military is under considerable pressure because of it.
Additionally, Balochistan has seen a spate of violence over the past year. A Baloch separatist group – the Baloch Liberation Army – took responsibility for an unsuccessful attack on the Karachi Stock Exchange in June this year that killed two guards and a policeman.
Paliwal suggests that all of the above-mentioned factors – Pakistan’s need to secure CPEC, the rising level of violence in Balochistan and elsewhere, as well as pressure on and within the Pakistan army – may explain the timing, should it indeed be established that Mehrab was assassinated by Pakistan-linked entities. “Pakistan’s recent dossier against India offers another contextualizing element that a momentum has been built according to the ISI which enables it to credibly counter India or those individuals and groups it perceives to be connected to India,” he added by way of an additional hypothesis.
Another SOAS scholar Ayesha Siddiqa, an expert on Pakistan’s military establishment, told The Diplomat: “This is the second mysterious death of a Baluch dissident in exile in a year that is being applauded by Twitter accounts acclaimed to be close to Pakistan’s agencies.”
“If the ISI is involved it would indicate the agency downgrading Western states in its estimation as places where crime can be committed without retribution or getting caught,” Siddiqa noted, echoing something Paliwal had also told The Diplomat.
“The question is will the COVID-19 environment be used as creating bigger space to attack the dissidents?” Siddiqa wondered.