They braved great risks to flee danger in their Balochistan homeland in southwestern Pakistan, where thousands have been killed and disappeared amid a separatist rebellion that began two decades ago.
But hundreds of exiled Baluch activists are again facing anxiety after the mysterious disappearance and death of an exiled journalist from Balochistan in Sweden.
Baluch activists in Europe, many of them still striving to highlight the plight of their homeland, say Sajid Hussain’s case has revived their fears of being killed or forcefully disappeared. Such fears prompted many, particularly those associated with nationalist organizations, to flee the region after violence engulfed Balochistan Province following the 2006 killing of a nationalist leader.
Malik Baloch, an exiled Baluch activist in Sweden, was a close friend of Hussain, whose body was discovered in the Swedish city of Uppsala late last month.
“Since they found Sajid’s dead body, I am are very careful and always watchful,” he told Radio Mashaal. “I check my surroundings and look for anything unusual.”
In a statement earlier this month, Swedish police said they were conducting investigations after identifying Hussain’s body. "The autopsy has led to the conclusion that suspicion of a crime has decreased, but still some police investigation actions will be taken,” the statement said. Hussain was reported missing in early March.
But the possible links between Hussain’s death, his years of reporting on the unrest in Balochistan, and his ties to nationalist factions have now frightened exiled Baluch activists in Europe. Many say they no longer feel safe years after fleeing Balochistan.
Since 2000, international and Pakistani rights watchdogs have documented hundreds of cases of illegal killings and forced disappearances in Balochistan. The region has seen thousands of civilians, soldiers, and guerillas killed in attacks by Baluch separatists, Pakistani forces, and Islamist militants.
Young men associated with Baluch separatist militant groups or political factions supporting their insurgency make up a large part of those killed and disappeared. While the Pakistani authorities deny any involvement, they have not solved any cases of illegal killings or disappearances.
The current fears among Baluch exiles in Europe follow a Pakistani government campaign to reach out to European authorities in an attempt to discredit exiled separatist leaders by accusing them of violence. Peaking in 2017, the campaign resulted in travel bans and other restrictions for some leaders.
Hammal Baloch, 31, another exiled activist in Germany, says Hussain’s mysterious death has dented their confidence about feeling safe in Europe.
“Before Sajid’s death, I used to go out and roam around with no fear,” he told Radio Mashaal. “But I now feel as if I have returned to Balochistan because like when I lived there, I now feel that I might not return home safely,” he added. “I fear being killed or picked up.”
Baloch spent a month in prison after protesting the August 2006 killing of Nawab Akbar Bugti, a senior Baluch nationalist leader, by Pakistani security forces. He eventually fled Pakistan after he was implicated in numerous court cases.
Many Baluch activists first fled to Arab Gulf countries, where a large Baluch diaspora offered some support. But most eventually fled to Europe after realizing that tough laws in the monarchic nations impeded their campaigning and freedom of speech. Some realized that exile in the Gulf didn’t guarantee they were beyond the reach of the Pakistani authorities.
In February 2019, global rights watchdog Amnesty International criticized the reported detention of an exiled Baluch activist in the United Arab Emirates. “On 26 December 2018, Emirati security forces detained Pakistani national Rashid Hussain Brohi without an arrest warrant,” the organization said. “He has been held incommunicado since then. Emirati authorities have not disclosed his location, any cause for arrest, or any charges being raised against him.”
The organization expressed concern over his fate. “There are strong indications that Emirati officials are preparing to deport or extrajudicially render Rashid Hussain to Pakistan, where he was involved in Baloch activism prior to moving to the Emirates,” the statement said. “There is reason to fear his life would be in danger if he were forcibly returned to Pakistan.”
Brohi’s whereabouts are still unknown.
Abdullah Abbas fled Pakistan in 2011 after unidentified men beat him near the university in the southwestern city of Karachi where he was studying. He was a member of the Azad faction of Baloch Students Organization, a separatist group. Security forces later raided his family’s house and the apartment he was living in. Surveillance and intimidation of nationalist activists is still a common compliant in Pakistan.
Now living in Germany, he says the fear he feels is like when he lived in Balochistan. “I am being told that my activities are being monitored whenever I leave my house,” he told Radio Mashaal, without elaborating on who he believes is shadowing him.
Abbas, 32, now works for the Human Rights Council of Balochsitan, a nongovernmental organization working in France, Sweden, and Britain. He says their estimates suggest that currently more than 600 Baluch activists are seeking asylum in Europe. Out of these, some 400 are seeking protection in Germany, which has attracted hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants since 2015.