Major cities across Pakistan’s restive southwestern province of Balochistan have been shut down as part of a protest strike against the alleged killing of a senior leader of a Pashtun civil rights movement by police.
Most businesses in the region remained closed on February 4 as several political parties, traders, and lawyers backed a call to protest the February 2 death of Arman Luni, a senior member of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM).
Authorities in the province have ordered a probe into Luni’s death. But PTM leaders say he died after a targeted attack by police at a protest sit-in Balochistan’s Loralai city. A major hospital in the provincial capital, Quetta, has yet to issue a final autopsy report.
The police have yet to register a First Information Report (FIR), an initial police complaint that is a prerequisite for launching a criminal probe.
“This entire region is seething with anger,” Senator Usman Kakar, a lawmaker and leader of the Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PMAP), told mourners on February 4. “This is why everywhere from Quetta [in the south] to Sherani in the north is voluntarily observing a complete shutdown.”
Most businesses remained closed in Quetta, Pishin, Loralai, Zhob, Killa Saifullah, Chaman, Harnai, and other major towns of Balochistan’s northern districts along the Afghan border. Pashtuns make up a majority of residents in these regions.
The strike was initially called by the region’s secular PMAP. Later, the Islamist Jamiat Ulma-e Islam, secular Awami National Party, Balochistan National Party, Pakistan Peoples Party, Pakhtunkhwa Qaumi Party, and traders and lawyers’ associations backed the protest.
“We want an FIR registered against the accused police officer,” Munir Kakar, a leader of the lawyers’ association in Balochistan, told Radio Mashaal on February 4. “We want the government to immediately form an independent and autonomous parliamentary commission to thoroughly investigate this issue.”
Earlier on February 3, lawmaker Mohsin Dawar, a senior PTM leader, blamed the police for killing Luni.
"It was a targeted attack on him by police. I think his neck was broken, and this was confirmed in the postmortem," he told Reuters, adding that Luni was killed for his "association with the PTM.”
Arman Luni was a pen name for Mohammad Ibrahim. The 35-year-old poet taught Pashto literature at a college in Qilla Saifullah and was considered a supporter of PMAP, a Pashtun nationalist party with a sizeable following among Balochistan’s Pashtuns.
He joined the PTM after its emergence in February last year. Together with his younger outspoken sister Waranga Luni, he regularly participated in the movement’s protests against forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings and to demand peace for Pakistan’s more than 30 million Pashtuns.
Tens of thousands of Pashtuns were killed and millions displaced during after the emergence of a Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgency in their western homeland along Afghanistan’s border in 2003.
Luni was a key leader of a four-day sit-in protest in Loralai that began after at least eight people were killed in a militant attack on a police recruitment exam in the dusty city on January 29.
Sadiq Khan, a lawyer in Loralai, says Luni was killed on February 2 after a police officer hit him with the butt of an Ak-47.
“Immediately after the incident, we wanted to register an FIR, but the police are so far resisting to register one,” he claimed.
Officials in Balochistan, however, say they are probing the incident. According to Pakistani media reports, Jam Kamal Khan, Balochistan’s chief minister or senior elected civilian official, has asked officials to file an initial report about the incident until February 5.
But Balochistan Home and Tribal Affairs Minister Mir Ziaullah Langau maintains that Luni died of a heart attack.
“Local police have submitted their initial report to me, and it says that he died of a heart attack,” he told Radio Mashaal. “The initial postmortem examination in Loralai also says that there were no signs of torture on his corpse. Still, we are going to investigate this issue in detail and will punish everyone involved.”
The results of a more detailed autopsy in Balochistan’s capital, Quetta, on February 3 are not known yet. In a February 4 statement, the Civil Hospital Quetta said the postmortem report could take some time.
Late on February 3, Luni’s funeral in Qilla Saifullah attracted thousands of mourners. Supporters also offered his “absentia” funeral prayers in many towns and cities of Pakistan and Afghanistan on February 3 and 4.
PTM leader Mansoor Pashteen has called on Pashtuns to protest Luni’s killing across Pakistan and in diaspora communities across the globe on February 5.
Radio Mashaal Correspondent Majeed Babar contributed reporting from Prague.