For years, Baluch separatist leaders have launched media campaigns, organized protests, and lobbied international organizations and governments across Europe to bring attention to what they describe as Pakistani atrocities in their beleaguered homeland.
But Islamabad is now retaliating by reaching out to European authorities about the separatists’ alleged involvement in violence.
The development reflects an uneasy stalemate in Pakistan’s southwestern province of Balochistan. Years of government crackdowns and political maneuvering have prevented a fragmented Baluch nationalist insurgency from taking hold. But Islamabad's tough handling has added to the grievances in a region reeling from underdevelopment, poverty, and neglect.
Mehran Baluch is a one of the latest victims of Islamabad's efforts to stop Baluch separatists from campaigning in Europe. Last month, authorities in Switzerland prevented the young Baluch leader from entering the country at Zurich airport.
After a 12-hour detention, Mehran Baluch was forced to leave. He is now debating legally challenging a lifetime ban on entering Switzerland.
Mehran Baluch, now in his mid-40s, travels between European cities to lobby officials, diplomats, and lawmakers. He has addressed open sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council and held demonstrations outside the global body's offices in Geneva.
While denying any involvement in violence or connection with the numerous militant groups active in Balochistan, Mehran Baluch thinks his activism has prompted Islamabad to try to clip his wings in Europe.
"Obviously I am doing something right for my cause that I am a thorn in their side," he told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website. “Now everyone [among exiled Baluch leaders] is facing harassment at a certain level -- some far more intense and some less.”
As a British passport holder, Mehran Baluch doesn’t need a visa to travel to most European countries, but for more than a decade he has been at the receiving end of Pakistani efforts to stop him from campaigning. His ordeal began in 2007 when Pakistan’s former military dictator Pervez Musharraf wanted to swap him with British-Pakistani terrorism suspect Rashid Rauf.
But over the years, he has faced lengthy questioning at airports and suspicion over his activities. “I was the first target of this international campaign that Pakistan began to target the Baluch leadership,” he said.
Mehran Baluch highlights what he says are contradictions within Islamabad's effort to go after him.
“Three days after they imposed a ban to prevent me from entering Switzerland, Hafiz Saeed, an internationally proscribed terrorist, was released from house arrest in Pakistan,” he said.
Acting on a court order, Pakistani authorities freed Saeed, the leader of Jamaat-ud-Dawa and its militant offshoot Lashkar-e Taiba, on November 24. The U.S. Justice Department has designated him a terrorist for allegedly masterminding numerous terrorist attacks including the 2008 attack in Mumbai, in which 166 people were killed.
Mehran Baluch is the youngest son of the late Khair Baksh Marri. The Marxist politician and tribal leader is widely seen as a pioneering figure of the Baluch nationalist movement, which has repeatedly clashed with Islamabad in armed insurrections over demands for autonomy. Marri’s opposition to Islamabad’s exploration of oil and gas in his native Kohlu region is seen to have first prompted the ongoing nationalist rebellion in 2000.
Multi-ethnic Balochistan’s more than 12 million people make up a small part of Pakistan’s 200 million population, but their resource-rich region makes up nearly half of Pakistan’s territory. Straddling the Iranian plateau, Balochistan extends into Afghanistan and Iran and boasts a 1,000-kilometer coast on the Arabian Sea.
“Pakistan is a state of paranoia and a state of denial. They never take responsibility for what they have done. They have carried out five military operations and killed our prominent leaders,” Mehran Baluch said of Balochistan’s 70-year history with Pakistan.
Nawab Akbar Bugti was perhaps the most prominent Baluch leader killed by Pakistani forces. In an interview with Gandhara, his grandson Brahumdagh Bugti explained why he sought shelter outside Pakistan after his grandfather was killed by shelling in August 2006.
“I am [a] political activist, so after consultations with friends and tribespeople I deemed that it was pointless to live in the mountains,” he said. In late 2006, Bugti led thousands of Bugti tribespeople into exile in neighboring Afghanistan.
But after Bugti faced repeated assassination attempts, Kabul helped him to seek shelter in Switzerland in October 2010. But nearly seven years later, Swiss authorities rejected his asylum application last month.
“I have been told that I do not qualify for asylum because there are allegations that my political organization, the Baloch Republican Party, has links with militant organizations in Balochistan,” he said.
Bugti, now in his 30s, says he is not in danger of being sent back to Pakistan and vows to continue his activism in alliance with Mehran Baluch and other exiled leaders.
“Our struggle continues under the shadow of gunship helicopters in Pakistan. These bans and hardships in Europe are nothing compared to what we have endured,” he said.
In an apparent reconciliation bid, Bugti met with senior Pakistani officials two years ago. But he now sees little chance of a political resolution. “We have never given up on a political course, but it’s the Pakistani military that has always adopted the violent path,” he said.
Bugti now sees no option but to soldier on. “If someone thinks that they can achieve their ultimate goal [of independence] then it is impossible. It is something people on the ground have to do themselves,” he noted. “The only thing we can do here is to tell the world about the reality of Balochistan and the problems there.”
Officials in Pakistan, however, are adamant that Bugti and other exiled Baluch leaders are involved in violence.
Anwarul Haq Kakar, a spokesman for the Balochistan provincial government, says Islamabad wants to notify European authorities -- especially the Swiss and UK governments -- that “their land is being used, which indirectly is helping in the gory activities against the people of Balochistan.”
Kakar says Bugti is responsible for running the Baloch Republican Army (BRA) while Mehran Baluch looks after the United Baloch Army. He says a third exiled leader, Javed Mengal, runs Lashkar-e Balochistan. (Mengal denies being involved in violence).
“Their duplicity needs to be exposed. While they are sitting in the West they are talking of human rights, and back home these individuals are running militant outfits,” he said.
On the ground in Pakistan, the Baluch separatist movement is a patchwork of militant outfits, student unions, and political and protest organizations. The Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) was the biggest guerrilla faction in the early years of the uprising until the killing of its leader Balach Marri in 2007. He was Mehran Baluch’s elder brother. While Islamabad now accuses another of his brothers, Hyrbyair Marri, of running BLA from exile in London, Marri denies any links with the organization.
Today the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF) led by former physician Allah Nazar is among one of the most active separatist militias. It is active in Balochistan’s southern Makran region. In recent years, Nazar has become Islamabad’s enemy number one for threatening and targeting Chinese investments geared toward turning Balochistan’s Gwadar Port into a regional trade and transportation hub.
While accurate statistics are difficult to obtain, thousands of civilians, soldiers, activists, and guerrillas have been killed in more than 15 years of simmering violence. Both sides accuse each other of grave rights abuses and indiscriminate violent acts such as enforced disappearances, assassinations and kidnappings.
International and Pakistani rights watchdogs, however, have noted enforced disappearances, torture and detentions by Pakistani security forces.
While Baluch communities such as members of the Bugti and Marri tribes have endured exile and displacement, the nationalists have targeted Punjabi settlers and workers, some of whom had lived in Balochistan for decades.
Despite repeated pledges, Islamabad has generally avoided reconciliation with the separatists. Instead, it has focused on their elimination and blaming India in particular, and Afghanistan and other powers in general, for fomenting and bankrolling their insurrection. New Delhi, Kabul, and Baluch separatists deny Pakistan’s allegations.
Islamabad remains highly sensitive to the Baluch campaign in Europe. In recent months, it officially lodged complaints and lobbied hard to remove #FreeBalochistan posters from public transport and billboards in Geneva and London.
Kakar says the posters violated Pakistani sovereignty. “We feel it is an interference in our internal affairs, whether it is an attempt -- in imaginary terms even -- to undo our territorial integrity,” he said.
At home, Islamabad has encouraged pro-Pakistan Baluch political parties and embraced figures associated with the families of separatist leaders once they express their willingness to live in the country peacefully.
Gazain Marri, another elder brother of Mehran Baluch’s, is the latest such figure. In September, he returned to Balochistan from 18 years of self-exile in the United Arab Emirates.
Late last month, a Pakistani court released him on bail in a nearly two-decade-old murder case. He now urges caution and dialogue.
“These people [Baluch separatists] who have gone to the mountains, they must have some concerns and were disappointed over their inability to obtain their rights [through peaceful politics],” he told Radio Mashaal in Balochistan’s provincial capital, Quetta. “If their concerns are removed, they will come back.”
Marri blames both the government and separatists for making mistakes. “I want to engage in consultation to work out a middle path toward compromise,” he said before setting off for his ancestral homeland in Kohlu district.
In London, Mehran Baluch is determined to continue his campaigning.
“It really takes a toll on your body and your mind when you are constantly under pressure for living just a normal life, especially when governments are after you,” he said.
Radio Mashaal correspondents Abdul Hai Kakar and Ayub Tareen contributed reporting to this story.