Mahal Baloch: Suicide bomber or a scapegoat ?

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Pak Army using Mahal Baloch as a scapegoat
Mahal Baloch with her daughters (Photo:Social Media)

Background

In March 2017, Chinese Communist Party’s flagship newspaper Global Times reported that the then Pakistani Ambassador to China Masood Khalid had during a news conference stated that Pakistan has deployed more than 15,000 troops to protect the CPEC, and the country’s navy has raised a contingent for the protection of Gwadar Port.”

However, despite creating a ‘Special Security Division’ [SSD] comprising 9,000 Pakistan Army soldiers and 6,000 paramilitary forces personnel exclusively for the security of the CPEC project and Chinese nationals working on it, the Pakistan Army hasn’t been able to prevent armed Baloch groups from attacking Chinese nationals working on this ambitious project.

Nor has the Pakistan Army’s perverse stratagem of using enforced disappearances and its notorious ‘kill and dump’ policy helped in preventing Baloch nationalists from targeting Chinese workers engaged in exploiting Balochistan’s natural resources.  Just two years and two months after SSD was created, a small group of Baloch separatists carried out a suicide attack on Zaver Pearl-Continental Hotel in the strategic port city of Gwadar.

Luckily, no Chinese nationals were killed or injured in this attack. However, this incident became a cause of grave concern for Beijing since it had developed this five star hotel as part of the CPEC project which is extensively used by Chinese nationals. So, it justifiably demanded Islamabad to do more for ensuring safety of Chinese citizens, and Rawalpindi immediately obliged.

Within days of the Pearl Continental Hotel attack, Director General [DG] of Pakistan Army’s media wing Inter Services Public Relations [ISPR] announced that in addition to SSD, an additional force of an equal size would be created to protect the CPEC project. Unfortunately, despite massive troop deployment and barbaric retribution practices, the Pakistan Army has failed to curb attacks by determined Baloch nationalists.

Worsening Security Situation

It was on April 26 last year, when for the first time in Balochistan’s long history of resisting Pakistani occupation and brazen exploitation of this region’s natural resources,  a female turned herself into a human bomb and targeted a bus in Karachi, killing three Chinese nationals. While security of its citizens rightly became a matter of serious concern for Beijing after this attack, Rawalpindi’s abysmal failure to ensure the same caused great embarrassment to Islamabad.

So, there was much jubilation within the security community when in just two weeks after the Pearl Continental Hotel attack, Pakistan police claimed to have arrested a ‘would-be’ female suicide bomber from the South Balochistan. Alleging that she was a member of Baloch Liberation Army [BLA], the police alleged that she had admitted planning to blow herself up near a convoy of Chinese nationals along the CPEC route.

While this was surely a reassuring development, three issues put a big question mark on the credibility of the police claims.

Firstly, the police stated that the apprehended woman had confessed that she “wanted to target a convoy of Chinese nationals” and this may be true. However, considering that Chinese nationals working on CPEC projects are being protected by the 30,000 strong SSD, chances of a successful suicide attack and that too on a “convoy of Chinese nationals,” [Emphasis added] are extremely remote, especially when it’s a female suicide bomber who’s acting alone.

Secondly, though the police have claimed recovering explosives and detonators from this potential suicide bomber, it has failed to produce any other evidence to support its accusation. Thirdly [and most importantly], it’s the timing of this apprehension that raises serious doubts regarding authenticity of police claims.

In its news report, Al Jazeera mentions that the so called suicide bombers arrest “came hours before Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, in a telephone conversation with his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang, conveyed his condolences over the April killings and promised maximum security for thousands of Chinese working in Pakistan.” So, either this woman suicide bomber’s arrest is an incredible coincidence, or just a ploy to humour Beijing!

Lastly, since nothing more has been heard about this woman thereafter, there are all the reasons to take the CTD’s claim of this woman being a suicide bomber with a fistful of salt!

Dancing to ‘Big Brother’s’ Tune

While China and Pakistan may glibly boast about being ‘Iron-clad brothers’, but there can be no two views that the former is certainly the proverbial ‘big’ brother who calls the shots- an inference validated by the 2021 Dasu Dam incident. Readers would recall that on July 14, 2021, a bus carrying Chinese technicians working at the Dasu Dam Project met with an accident in the Upper Kohistan district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in which 12 Chinese workers died while several others were injured.

Speaking on this incident in Pakistan’s National Assembly, Adviser to the Prime Minister on Parliamentary Affairs invoked the terrorist angle by referring to it as a “cowardly attack”. However, just hours later, the Foreign Office [FO] contradicted his assessment by saying that the bus “plunged into a ravine after a mechanical failure resulting in leakage of gas that caused a blast.” [Emphasis added]. However, Beijing refused to accept the FO’s view and insisted that it was a terrorist attack and the reason for the same isn’t hard to find.

Had it been an accident due to human error or mechanical failure, Beijing would be required to pay compensation to families of the deceased and those injured. However, if it was a terrorist attack, then the onus of compensating the dead and injured falls on Islamabad since the Pakistan Army is responsible for ensuring safety of Chinese nationals. No wonder ‘Big Brother’ Beijing insisted that the Dasu incident be classified as a terrorist attack and Islamabad had no other choice but to oblige.

So, when Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi contradicted the assessment of his own FO by declaring that the Dasu incident was an act of terrorism, it was obvious that Beijing had prevailed. To give his ludicrous assertion a semblance of authenticity, Qureshi claimed that this incident was executed by Tehreek-e-Taliban [TTP] with active support of Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies. But with no evidence to substantiate his assertion, his claim found no takers.

With Islamabad finally agreeing to pay a whopping USD 11.6 million to China as compensation for death and injuries suffered by its citizens in the Dasu incident, Islamabad must have realised that ‘iron-clad’ friendship is an expensive proposition!

Scapegoating Continues

In January this year, China’s new Foreign Minister Qin Gang made the first phone call to his Pakistani counterpart and explicitly told Bilawal Bhutto Zardari that “the Chinese side is highly concerned about the safety of Chinese citizens in Pakistan and hopes that the Pakistani side will continue to take strong security measures.” It doesn’t rocket science to discern that this polite sounding request was actually a stern warning.

Once again, Islamabad suddenly struck gold within a matter of just nine days when it supposedly apprehended another 27-year-old female suicide bomber named Mahal Baloch, a single mother of two, belonging to Gumazi area in Kech district of Balochistan. The police maintain that she’s “a suicide bomber and affiliated with the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF) and was arrested near Satellite Town Ladies Park in Quetta”, and claim to have recovered a suicide vest packed with four kilograms of explosive from her.

However, several dependable witnesses have confirmed that Mahal was whisked away from her home after a late night raid by members of the Counter Terrorism Department [CTD] and the police claim of her being arrested in Quetta is a fabrication.  Based on reliable inputs from multiple sources, Amnesty International [AI] has determined that “On 17 February at 11pm, the home of Mahal Baloch was raided by 12 security agents. The agents had not provided a warrant or any sort of legal documentation ahead of or during the raid” [emphasis added].

What makes Mahal’s arrest all the more suspicious is that she’s been produced before courts four times and on each occasion, the police have asked for a custody extension. While failure of CTD to provide clinching evidence to substantiate its claim of Mahal being a suicide bomber even after having kept her in custody for more than two-and a half months is inexplicable, the decision to telecast her purported confessional videos raises serious doubts regarding the genuineness of CTD’s claim.

Mainstreaming Human Rights Violations in Balochistan

Mahal represents one of the thousands of Balochis being brutalised by Pakistani security forces in the garb of counter-terrorism operations. Surprisingly, the international community doesn’t seem to have either time or the inclination to speak up for the tormented people of Balochistan, and this is what has emboldened the Pakistan Army to let loose a reign of terror in this region.

Perhaps this is why in 2019, while replying to a question regarding enforced disappearances in Balochistan, DGISPR had the gall to say, We don’t want anyone to be missing, but war is ruthless. Everything is fair in love and war” [emphasis added]. That Pakistan Army’s barefaced attempt to mainstream human rights violations in Balochistan hasn’t irked the international community and rights groups is regrettable.

Postscript: What makes this case all the more intriguing is that while the authorities have allowed extensive televising of Mahal Baloch’s purported confessional statement and thereby encouraged her ‘media trial’, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan [HRCP] despite being the country’s apex independent human rights body, has inexplicably denied access to her.

Something is surely amiss!

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