From small groups in downtown Toronto, and outside the Canadian Embassy in Washington DC, to huge marches in the streets of Karachi, Pakistan, there are growing calls for an investigation into the death of Karima Mehrab Baloch, a 37-year-old Pakistani national living in Canada.
On Dec. 21, Karima Mehrab went for a walk alone along Toronto’s lakefront and never returned. Her husband reported her missing, and a day later, police found her body in the water. Less than 24 hours later, they concluded it was a “non-criminal death” with no foul play suspected. The Toronto Police Service declined to explain more.
“We never imagined something could happen here like this,” said Karima Mehrab’s close friend Lateef Johar Baloch, deputy coordinator of the Human Rights Council of Balochistan. “Police is [sic] saying she hurt herself, but I can't believe this. How you can conclude a case within hours after someone's death? Like, a high-profile person?”
Karima Mehrab was a leader in the independence movement for Balochistan, Pakistan’s southern province and home to the Baloch ethnic group. Many of its people use the last name Baloch. Ayesha Jalal, a Tufts University history professor who studies Pakistan, said Balochistan never wanted to be part of Pakistan. But its people didn’t get a say in 1947, when the British negotiated a deal to split its former colony into India and Pakistan.
“Balochistan has been a troubled part of Pakistan, but this is a country that has had a troubled relationship with democracy. ... The problem has been more concentrated in Balochistan, largely because it has been denied basic democratic rights.”
“Balochistan has been a troubled part of Pakistan, but this is a country that has had a troubled relationship with democracy,” she said. “The problem has been more concentrated in Balochistan, largely because it has been denied basic democratic rights.”
The situation has grown even more fraught over the last few years because of a deal Pakistan has with China. Balochistan’s Gwadar Port is a crucial final link in a new network of highways and railways that would connect China to the Arabian Sea through Pakistan. Pakistan recently said it would erect a barbed wire fence around the 10-square-mile area that makes up Gwadar Port because there have been so many attacks by members of the independence movement.
“When they started building up the Gwadar Port, it was clear that there were lots of resources — there’s a huge copper mine, lots of other untapped natural resources of Balochistan,” Jalal said. “These people [the Baloch] felt that they were really being sidelined. And that actually has been a major factor that has fueled the anger.”
Human rights activists say Pakistan’s military government has responded to critics, including people calling for Baloch independence, with brutal efficiency. Faiz Baluch, the UK coordinator for the group International Voice for Baloch Missing Persons, said thousands of people have gone missing from Pakistan in recent years. Often, they’re forced into unmarked cars by men in plain clothes with guns. In 2012, Baluch’s group appealed to the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, and it sent staffers to Pakistan to investigate.
“But the problem is they were not free to go and meet people everywhere in Balochistan,” he said. “They were confined in a hotel, guarded by the army. So few people came and met them, but mostly, people stayed away.”
One of those who disappeared in 2014 was Zahid Baloch, the chair of a prominent activist group called the Baloch Student Organization. Karima Mehrab took his place, becoming the first woman to lead the organization. Her stature grew as she toured the country giving speeches and appearing on TV. In 2017, the BBC named her in its annual list of 100 inspirational and influential women. But soon, the Pakistani government charged her with terrorism and she fled to Canada.
“It might seem my people are fighting for the independence of Balochistan, but in faith, we are fighting for an idea, that all men and women have the right to be free."
“It might seem my people are fighting for the independence of Balochistan, but in faith, we are fighting for an idea, that all men and women have the right to be free,” Karima Mehrab told an audience in Toronto in August 2017, on Balochistan Independence Day. “Today, 70 years earlier, we achieved our independence from the British. We will achieve it again from Pakistan.”
Karima Mehrab's friend Lateef Johar said Pakistani officials threatened to kill her friends and family if she didn’t come back. And one of her uncles was killed. Then, in May, Karima Mehrab's friend Sajid Hussain, a Baloch journalist, was found dead in a river in Sweden, where he had been granted asylum. Lateef Johar said Karima Mehrab told Canadian authorities about the threats she had received — but instead of helping, they questioned her like she was a potential terrorist.
“This is unfortunate. They should be protecting us. Instead, they are trying to know if maybe we are involved in something,” he said.
Lateef Johar and others are urging Canadian authorities to investigate Pakistan’s possible involvement in Karima Mehrab’s death. He said it will be difficult to carry on — Karima Mehrab was the one who always convinced them that the fight for Baloch independence was worth it, despite the danger.
“She was very courageous, she was very strong. She was like a bridge between us and our friends and families and everywhere."
“She was very courageous, she was very strong. She was like a bridge between us and our friends and families and everywhere,” Lateef Johar said. “Now, myself or some other friends we have to build that bridge. But we cannot replace her. So it will be a big responsibility.”
Lateef Johar said the fight for Balochistan will continue: Even though his family in Pakistan has already been threatened and attacked, he’s preparing to lead the movement in Karima Mehrab’s absence.