Investigative report reveals the inner works of death squads in Balochistan

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An investigative report by Taha Siddiqui of the South Asia Press has revealed the minutest details of how the state-sponsored death squads operate in Balochistan. The reports details how Pakistan’s army outsourced the targeting and killing of Baloch activists and “pro-independence” leader and workers to these private militias. These militias have been frequently accused of carrying out human rights abuses in Balochistan at the behest of the mighty Pakistani military which then gives them a free hand to carry out burglaries and other crimes with impunity.

The reports are the result of three months of exhaustive investigation and reporting throughout Balochistan. It is written by Taha Siddiqui, a Pakistani journalist living in exile in France, in cooperation with a local Baloch reporter. Siddiqui escaped a kidnapping and possible assassination attempt at the hands of the Pakistani military in Islamabad in 2018. Concerned for the safety of himself and his family, Siddiqui fled Pakistan and sought asylum in France. He now lives in Paris from where he operates the South Asia Press, an online newspaper focusing primarily on South Asia.

The so-called ‘death squads’ militias of local goons and convicted felons who allegedly operate on the behest of the Pakistani military to counter the ongoing Baloch insurgency. These groups often accompany the Pakistani army in carrying out raids on the houses of political activists, dissidents and “pro-independence” leaders.

Siddiqui’s report says that the Pakistani military has been death squads for decades to carry out its bidding in Balochistan. But since 2010, the practice has been intensified and institutionalized, especially in the south-western parts of Balochistan where a full-fledged insurgency has been going on since the killing of Baloch leader Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti in 2006. To counter this new uprising, the Pakistani military created local militias consisting of convicted criminals, drug kingpins and pro-Pakistan Baloch political activists.

The report says that the military also employed another strategy to quell the new wave of insurgency – Islamizing the youth through religious seminaries aligned with the military. Many of these pro-Pakistan religious groups maintain links with the death squads operating in the south.

Shafiq Mengal formed the first mainstream death squad in Balochistan in 2008 – the Musallah Difah Tanzeem (MDT) with the mission of defending the public from “pro-independence” groups. Mengal had the support of the Pakistani army, and his powerful connections helped him acquire his militia. Mengal initiated a reign of terror in Balochistan, killing not only suspected nationalists but also political, non-political and tribal rivals. Shafiq is also credited for the mass graves discovered in 2014 in Tootak – a rural area 55 kilometres to the north of Khuzdar, where Shafiq Mengal is headquartered – where 169 dead bodies were found.

The report says that following Mengal, other local militias sprouted across Balochistan, mainly in Khuzdar, Mastung, Kech, Panjgur and Awaran. Other than Mastung, the rest of the said area lie to the extreme south of Balochistan where the insurgency is the strongest. The report also names several of the leaders of these death squads – Shafiq Mengal and Zakaria M. Hasni in Khuzdar, Deen Muhammad Deenu in Awaran, Samir Sabzal, Rashid Pathan and Sardar Aziz in Kech, Maqbool SHambezi in Panjgur and late Siraj Raisani in Mastung.

Zakaria M. Hasni – in his thirties – is known for his connections not only with the Pakistani military but hardline religious groups as well, as the Islamic State of Khorasan. His career in crime began in 2012 when he started levying heavy taxes on the mining business and collecting ransoms for the Pakistani military from the families of Baloch missing persons. The report says that M. Hasni was also believed to be involved in attacks on activists and journalists sympathizing with the Baloch cause outside of Balochistan. He reportedly boasts of killing Sabeen Mahmud, an activist who was murdered in Karachi after holding a talk on Balochistan, and Hamid Mir, a renowned Pakistani journalist attacked after hosting Mama Qadeer and other Baloch activists to his show Capital Talk. The report cautions that these allegations are unverified.

The report goes on to say that the death squad in Awaran – the most volatile region of Balochistan where the Balochistan Liberation Front is headquartered – is run by Deen Muhammad Deenu. Deenu was a former “pro-independence” commander who surrendered to Pakistani authorities in 2017. Since then, he has been commanding a death squad aligned with the Pakistani forces and has been involved in various military operations in Awaran.

District Kech has the highest number of death squads than anywhere else in Balochistan. One death squad leader is Rashid Pathan, an illiterate young man with a criminal past. Pathan, who at one time commanded more than 100 loyalists, was involved in the arrest and killing of his brother-in-law, a commander of the BLF. He has been in attacks against members of BSO-Azad, BLF and BNM – organizations advocating for the independence of Balochistan from Pakistan. Due to his close ties with the Military Intelligence (MI) of Pakistan, Rashid Pathan enjoys a significantly free hand in Kech. He harasses local politicians, businessmen and government officers in Kech with no repercussions. Pathan moved to Gwadar in 2018 where he maintains a low profile and is setting up a terror base.

Pathan’s departure left a vacuum in Kech and another hardcore criminal rushed to fill it. Samir Sabzal gained the affection of the Pakistani military by organizing rallies on Pakistani national holidays. Samir’s criminal career came to an almost abrupt end, but his powerful military companions came to the rescue. Samir’s men broke into a house in Dannuk, Turbat, to carry out a burglary. The woman of the house – Malik Naz – put up a fight and was slain, whereas her five-year-old daughter Bramsh was wounded in the attack. One of the intruders was caught by the family and admitted to being a member of Sabzal’s death squad. Samir Sabzal was arrested and charged with robbery and murder, but he was soon acquitted due to the “lack of evidence.” Videos on social media show Sabzal driving around the city in expensive SUVs and flaunting weapons before the FC personnel.

The report then says that the third death squad in Kech is run by Sardar Aziz and his two sons. Aziz hails from an impoverished family from the Pidark area of Turbat. He also runs a religious seminary which gained him significant clout in the region. He is a strong ally of the Pakistani military due to his two-pronged activities: Islamizing the youth and carrying out the military’s bidding in the region. He has been involved in attacks on the Zikri community which maintain a heavy presence in Turbat.

The report also details the rise and fall of Siraj Raisani – brother of former Balochistan Chief Minister Aslam Raisani and a politician of the army-backed BAP – who ran a death squad in Mastung until his recent killing in an explosion. Siraj launched a group called Balochistan Muttahida Mahaz (BMM) which was centred in Mastung but had influence in Quetta and Kalat as well. His anti-India stance bought him the affection of the Pakistani military and he gradually rose to the status of a politician. He was killed in an explosion in Mastung in July of 2018, allegedly by the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant in retaliation to the killing of Saifullah Kurd, a Lashkar-i-Jhangvi leader, organized by Raisani. Pakistan’s Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa attended Raisani’s funeral, calling him a “soldier of Pakistan.”

Siddiqui’s report claims that the Pakistani military is now gradually shifting its policy towards these death squads. The military in the past trained notorious criminals to fight the “pro-independence” groups, but now there are converting them into political parties to occlude ethno-nationalist political parties – like the BNP-Mengal – from winning the polls. Shafiq Mengal is once again at the centre of this new policy – he contested in the last polls in 2018 but did not succeed. He announced the launch of his own party in January this year, and there are rumours that he may join the Pakistan-backed BAP, which is currently ruling Balochistan.

But despite all the its shenanigans, the state seems to fail in Balochistan. “The state’s policy to run death squads, introduce Islamization and engineer political manipulations – all of it has failed in Balochistan”, the report quotes Muhammad Ali Talpur, a veteran of the Baloch insurgency and a columnist. “Despite these crackdowns, the resistance of the Baloch continues and the alienation of the Baloch people vis-a-vis the state is only increasing.”

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