Quetta, Pakistan – Ramzan Mengal smiles broadly and often as he speaks about politics, seated on the floor in his mud-and-brick home in southern Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s Balochistan province.
He wears traditional dress – a white shalwar kurta, brown waistcoat, and a black turban that is indicative of his stature as a Muslim leader.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
He claims he has been allowed to campaign freely ahead of Pakistan’s general election on July 25.
“No restrictions at all,” he says. “I have police security during the election campaign. When I take out a rally in my area, I telephone the police and am given guards for it.”
Mengal is the provincial chief of the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jammat (ASWJ), a far-right religious group that declares members of Islam’s Shia sect to be heretics, and has been banned by Pakistan as a “terrorist” organisation.
Since 2013, more than 509 Shia Muslims – mainly ethnic Hazaras – have been killed in a campaign of targeted shootings and bombings in Balochistan province, according to government data.
Mengal says his party has no connection to the violence, but police have arrested him several times in recent years during investigations into the attacks.
He has often been seen leading crowds of hundreds in chants of “Kaafir, kaafir, Shia kaafir!”, “Apostates, apostates, Shias are apostates!”.
In 2016, the State Bank ordered banks to freeze his accounts under anti-terrorism laws.
“In the last two years, in Balochistan there has been a crackdown against us,” he says. “Including myself, all of my leaders were arrested. Thankfully, of those 100 who were arrested, now only five or six are still in custody.”
Having been cleared by the election commission, Mengal is among more than 150 ASWJ candidates running for seats in Pakistan’s National Assembly.
Earlier this month, authorities lifted restrictions on Ahmed Ludhianvi, the ASWJ chief, under an anti-terrorism law, allowing him to move freely for the first time in years, a spokesperson told Al Jazeera.
The party draws its support base mainly from Quetta, the southern city of Karachi and central Punjab province, where the movement was founded.
On Tuesday, the ASWJ tweeted a picture of outgoing Pakistani prime minister and PML-N leader Shahid Khaqan Abbasi meeting its leadership in Islamabad. Sadaqat Ali, the opposition PTI leader running against Abbasi, had also approached the party, ASWJ spokesperson Oneeb Farooqui said.
“All parties are coming to us to ask us for our support,” he told Al Jazeera. “We have not yet decided on a national level to support anyone. But our individual candidates do have the power to decide to support other candidates in their areas.”
Farooqui argued that the ASWJ was distinct from the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), an armed group it split from in 1996 which has claimed several attacks against Shia Muslims.
Doubt and despair among Hazaras
It is eerie, walking down the dusty “lane of martyrs” in Quetta’s Marriabad graveyard, stepping past dozens of portraits of those killed in the campaign against the city’s roughly 600,000 Hazaras.
The dead include young and old, some killed in targeted shootings, others by planted bombs or suicide attackers.
In their portraits, some are smiling, while others bear a grim expression. As the lane winds on, the number of photographs seems scarcely believable.
Then, the graves. Row upon row of low white marble or concrete structures, the Shia “alam”, a religious flag, flying above many of them.
Members of the Hazara community are not convinced that the ASWJ is disconnected from those who killed their family members.
“It is very disappointing – for some it was shocking, but for me it was like despair, when I heard [Ramzan Mengal] was running,” says Hameeda Hazara, also a candidate in the elections.
For Agha Raza Hassan, a Hazara community leader, the ASWJ – and Mengal in particular – provide political and ideological cover for the LeJ to carry out the killings.
“The political wing attempts to get into the parliament and protect those doing the killing,” he says. “And then they have the ideological wing, in the form of seminaries, which gives them raw materials [for LeJ].”
Mengal’s own seminary remains sealed under provincial anti-terrorism laws, but he insists he is following the rules.
“This code of conduct that we have from the Election Commission,” he says, pulling out a copy from his desk. “This is applicable to everyone, and we are following it as well.”
Provincial home minister Agha Umar Bangulzai told Al Jazeera that authorities would monitor Mengal’s political activities for violations of hate speech laws and the election commission’s code, as they do for all candidates.
Some have welcomed the ASWJ’s involvement in politics, under what has been described by officials as a “mainstreaming” effort by the Pakistani state.
The ASWJ is not the only group accused of links to armed groups in these elections.
The Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), a humanitarian aid organisation designated by the United Nations as a front for the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), is also taking part, under the banner of the Milli Muslim League (MML).
While the election commission has refused to officially register the MML as a party, an MML spokesperson told Al Jazeera it was putting up more than 300 candidates for national and provincial seats.
Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the JuD chief and LeT founder accused of plotting the 2008 Mumbai attacks, has also been leading MML campaign rallies across the country.
In June, Pakistan was placed on the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)’s grey list, for failing to adequately crack down on the funding of armed groups such as the LeJ and JuD.
Back at Mengal’s home in Quetta, the ASWJ leader is careful not to mention sectarian politics.
“We have decided not to use that slogan, for politics,” he says, referring to the chant – “Apostates, apostates, Shia are apostates!”
Above him, a green, red, black and white ASWJ party flag flies in the summer breeze.
Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @asadhashim