The mysterious deaths this year of Karima Baloch and Sajid Hussain -- both exiled Pakistani dissidents -- were strikingly similar.
Both disappeared and were later found dead in or near a body of water. Baloch was discovered near a lake in Canada on December 22. Hussain was found in a river in Sweden in May.
Both were from Pakistan’s long-oppressed ethnic Baluch minority and had sought asylum in the West after threats were made to their lives.
Both had openly criticized Pakistan’s powerful military and its alleged abuses in the restive province of Balochistan, the scene of a separatist insurgency and a brutal state crackdown that has killed thousands of people since 2004.
And according to Pakistani dissidents, both were murdered on orders from officials within the Pakistani Army and its notorious intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), institutions that are often accused of attempting to crush dissent.
In each case, local authorities have said there was nothing to indicate foul play but have revealed few details about their deaths.
But Baloch and Hussain's friends and relatives have dismissed the possibility of suicide or an accident as the cause of their deaths, which follow a pattern of increased attacks and harassment of exiled Pakistani journalists and activists known for criticizing the authorities.
Criticizing Pakistan's military has long been taboo. For decades, the military and its intelligence services have been accused of silencing opposition through intimidation, censorship, enforced disappearances, and even assassinations.
The military maintains a chokehold on domestic and foreign affairs in the South Asian nation of about 220 million. It has directly or indirectly ruled for most of the country's 73-year history and has staged three coups.
Now, even high-profile Pakistani journalists and activists in self-imposed exile in the West appear to be facing retribution for speaking out.
‘Threats In Exile’
Prominent Pakistani journalist Taha Siddiqui left Pakistan in 2018, shortly after armed men beat, threatened, and attempted to kidnap him in broad daylight in the capital, Islamabad. He blamed the attack on the ISI.
Siddiqui, who lives in Europe, said there was “a strong possibility that the Pakistani military is behind” Baloch’s death.
“She was being threatened … even in exile,” said Siddiqui, who is known in his homeland for his critical reporting on the army.
Baloch, 37, had been living in Canada since 2015 after terrorism charges were filed against her in Pakistan.
She was the former head of the Baluch Students’ Organization, a political group that is banned in Pakistan for its campaigning.
Baloch had campaigned against the alleged abuses in Balochistan by the army, including enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings of political activists and suspected separatists, arbitrary arrests, and torture.
Baloch had warned that her life remained in danger even in Canada.
Police in the city of Toronto said Baloch’s death was “currently being investigated as a noncriminal death and there are not believed to be any suspicious circumstances.”
But more than 1,000 Pakistani journalists, activists, and politicians inside and outside Pakistan have signed a petition urging Canadian authorities to further investigate Baloch’s death.
Siddiqui, one of the organizers of the petition, said the Toronto police’s “current findings have been too quick and lack the context and the background in which Karima was found dead.”
“Her family back home was threatened, and her uncle was killed because of her activism in the West,” he said.
Siddiqui, who said he was in contact with Baloch’s family, said she was known as a “strong woman and wanted to live to fight the oppressors back home.”
“From what I know, she also had a whole week of activities planned before she disappeared and then reappeared dead in the lake,” he said.
Amnesty International described Baloch’s death as “deeply shocking” and “must be immediately and effectively investigated.”
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan condemned Baloch's disappearance and death in what it said were mysterious circumstances and demanded a thorough investigation.
Hundreds of people rallied in the streets of Quetta, the capital of Balochistan, following Baloch's death. Accusing the state of killing her, the protesters carried placards saying, "Stop the genocide of the Baluchis."
On social media, many pointed the finger at the army, with "StatekilledKarimaBaloch" among the top trending hashtags on Twitter in Pakistan following her death.
Ayesha Siddiqa, a Pakistani author and expert on the country's military, said Baloch’s death is an important test for dissidents from Balochistan.
“Whether they are able to convince the Canadian government to investigate the matter, and if it is concluded that there was indeed some foul play, then the signal is that they may not be safe even outside the country,” said Siddiqa.
Activists say Baloch’s death is also suspicious because it is not the first mysterious death of a Pakistani in exile.
It came just months after Hussain was found dead in a river in Sweden, six weeks after he went missing.
His disappearance was linked by a free-media watchdog to his reporting on human rights abuses committed by the Pakistani military.
Hussain, 39, had fled into exile in 2012 after reporting on human rights abuses in Balochistan. Pakistani police had raided his residence, questioned family members, and intelligence agents visited his associates.
He had continued to run an online newspaper, the Balochistan Times, from abroad.
Hussain was from a prominent political family in Balochistan. His uncle, Ghulam Mohammad Baloch, was killed in 2011 while leading a nationalist movement.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the Paris-based media-freedom watchdog, suspected that Hussain was abducted “at the behest” of the ISI.
Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, said that “everything indicates that this is an enforced disappearance.” He added: “and if you ask yourself who would have an interest in silencing a dissident journalist, the first response would have to be the Pakistani intelligence services.”
The Balochistan Times “often crossed the ‘red lines’ imposed by the military establishment in Islamabad,” according to RSF.
Swedish authorities also ruled out foul play in the death of Hussain, but an autopsy did not confirm an exact cause of death.
The family has requested to see more evidence from the Swedish authorities.
Pakistan is considered one of the world's most-dangerous countries for reporters.
The military, intelligence community, and political groups affiliated with the military have been suspected in the killings of 22 reporters in the past decade.
Since Prime Minister Imran Khan came to office in 2018, the military’s influence has become more overt, with former army officials taking over key government positions.
During Khan's tenure there also has been mounting censorship and crackdowns against dissent, critics, and opposition leaders, fueling growing discontent with Khan and his supporters in the military.
‘Abuses’ In Balochistan
Activists and observers say it is not a coincidence that Pakistani authorities have allegedly targeted two high-profile dissidents from Balochistan, a vast and resource-rich region that is of economic and strategic importance.
“The Pakistani regime led by the military is worried about the Baluch diaspora as it is increasingly exposing its human rights abuses back in Balochistan,” said Siddiqui.
Since 2005, the Pakistani military has been fighting to quash a separatist insurgency by ethnic Baluch groups, who are fighting for a greater share of the province's resources.
The province, which makes up about 44 percent of Pakistan, contains some of the country’s largest coal and natural-gas reserves. Yet Balochistan -- which borders Iran and Afghanistan -- is the country's poorest province. And many Baluchis have complained that their home province is being exploited by the state.
Activists have accused the Pakistan military of the enforced disappearances of thousands of people and a "kill-and-dump" policy against political activists and suspected armed separatists. Armed groups have been accused of killing non-Baluchis and targeting those suspected of collaborating with the state.
Semi-independent under British India, Balochistan was incorporated into Pakistan in 1948, a year after Islamabad’s own independence was established. But many Baluchis believe their homeland was forcibly annexed, fueling the first of five insurgencies in the region.
The current separatist insurgency is “proving to be a major challenge for the Pakistani military,” said Siddiqa.
Though Balochistan is a sparsely populated, mountainous, desert region, it has acquired greater significance in recent years.
It is the site of a new deep-water port in the city of Gwadar that is a flagship Chinese investment within the $65 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The project -- which includes the port, an airport, a highway, and a hospital -- is intended to link China's Xinjiang Province with the Arabian Sea.
Separatist militants have frequently targeted Chinese construction in Balochistan. The violence is a source of concern for China, which has appealed to Pakistan to improve security.
“With China's deepening interests in Balochistan, it may be possible that Pakistan is being pressured into doing something about its Baluch problem in the West and hence these mysterious deaths that send a powerful message to the Baluch community in exile to stay quiet,” said Siddiqui.