Canadian police rule out ‘foul play’ in Pakistani activist death

Karima Mehtab Baloch received several death threats before she went missing on Monday and was found dead a day later.

Courtesy: Karima Baloch's Twitter handle
Baloch was known for her work on enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings allegedly carried out by Pakistan’s military [Courtesy: Karima Baloch's Twitter handle]

Canadian police have ruled the death of a prominent Pakistani rights activist in the city of Toronto to be “non-criminal”, even as rights groups have called for a more thorough investigation into the incident.

The body of Karima Mehtab Baloch, 37, was found by police on Monday after she had been reported missing a day earlier, police said.

“The circumstances have been investigated and officers have determined this to be a non-criminal death and no foul play is suspected,” said Toronto’s police department in a short statement.

Police said Baloch’s family had been informed of the determination.

While the family was not immediately available for comment, Baloch’s husband Hamal Haider had earlier told Al Jazeera Baloch had been facing numerous and specific threats to her life due to her work in the recent past.

Screenshots of one of the threats, demanding some of Baloch’s statements regarding her rights work be taken down from a website, were shared with Al Jazeera.

She was a prominent and vocal activist for the rights of Pakistan’s ethnic Baloch.

A native of Balochistan province, the country’s largest but least populated and least developed region, Baloch was known for her work on enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings allegedly carried out by Pakistan’s military in the area.

She fled Pakistan due to threats to her life in late 2015 and was granted political asylum by Canada in 2017.

In 2016, the BBC named Baloch as one of its 100 “inspirational and influential women for that year”, citing her activism.

Baloch’s activism

Baloch rose to prominence as the head of the Baloch Students Organisation’s Azad faction (BSO-A), a student political organisation that calls for greater rights and independence for Pakistan’s ethnic Baloch minority.

She took over the position after the previous head, Zahid Baloch, disappeared in mysterious circumstances in 2014. Baloch activists claim he was abducted by the Pakistani military, which has been fighting against armed separatist groups in Balochistan for more than a decade.

Rights groups have documented a sustained campaign of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings targeting pro-independence Baloch activists in the region.

Pakistan’s security forces deny any wrongdoing, claiming those who are counted as “disappeared” are members of armed groups.

Critics of Baloch’s work say it was instigated by Pakistan’s regional rival India, who has been known to support dissident voices against Pakistan’s government.

Karima Baloch was named in a recent in-depth research report into a vast network of fake news websites and questionable NGOs that appeared to be operated by India-based actors to propagate messages critical of the Pakistani government and military.

Her role as a speaker at a UN Human Rights Council meeting in March 2019 on behalf of NGO African Regional Agricultural Credit Association (AFRACA) was mentioned in the report by the EU Disinfo Lab, an independent rights group based in Brussels.

The EU Disinfo Lab identified AFRACA as a legitimate NGO whose name may have been misused by the Indian network to gain access to UN Human Rights Council events.

Pakistani officials have treated the EU Disinfo Lab report as a vindication of longstanding denials of any wrongdoing in its war against separatists in Balochistan and elsewhere.

Independent rights groups, however, have consistently documented the rights abuse allegations, and Baloch’s own BSO-A has been at the forefront of both documenting the abuses and on the receiving end of enforced disappearances of its members.

The UN Human Right’s Council’s Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) in an August 2020 report said there were 813 outstanding or unresolved cases of enforced disappearances on record from Pakistan.

Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.

Source: Al Jazeera