It was the homecoming they never wanted. Five years ago, Karima Baloch fled Pakistan after her work as a prominent human rights activist put her life in danger. On Sunday morning, on the tarmac of Karachi airport, she was returned to her family at last.
But though she lay lifeless in a wooden coffin, her body was confiscated by Pakistani security officials for hours. Then her home town in Balochistan was placed under the control of paramilitary forces, a curfew was imposed on the region and mobile services were suspended, all to prevent thousands turning out for her funeral on Monday. It was clear that, even in death, Pakistan viewed Baloch as a threat to national security.
News of 37-year-old Baloch’s death, whose body was found floating in Toronto’s Lake Ontario on 21 December, sent shockwaves through Pakistan and across the world.
Baloch was the most famous female human rights activist in Pakistan’s turbulent region of Balochistan. Her fight for the rights and freedoms of the Baloch people had cost her family, friends and eventually her freedom to live safely in Pakistan and she fled to Canada in 2015, where she was later granted political asylum.
“Karima was the epitome of women’s politics in Balochistan,” said Sadia Baloch, 21, a student activist. “Because of her we can leave our houses in a tribal and conservative society. We can protest in a male-dominated society. She was one of the first to challenge the brutal state, outdated norms and tribalism. Her legacy lives on in us.”
Even exiled from Pakistan, Baloch’s vocal activism continued from Canada and in 2016 she was listed by the BBC in its 100 most inspirational and influential women. But according to her family, the threats to her life never abated. Though the Toronto police have declared her death by drowning as not suspicious, her family and many back in Balochistan are adamant there could have been foul play, connected to Baloch’s high-profile activism.
The family say the circumstances of Baloch’s death do not add up and they are pushing the Toronto police to investigate further. There were no witnesses to her death, and though she could not swim, the place where she fell in the lake, Toronto’s central island pier, has waist-high railings the whole way round designed to make it hard to fall in accidentally.
Baloch was the second Pakistani dissident to die this year, following the death of Sajid Hussain, a journalist, also from Balochistan, who was forced to seek asylum in Sweden after facing death threats for his work exposing human rights abuses in Balochistan. In May, Hussain was found drowned in a river near his home. His family say they are unsatisfied with the police ruling of accidental death.
Sameer Mehrab, Baloch’s brother who also lives in Canada, described the death threats that she had continued to receive for her activism until recently. “The police chief asked us to accept that it is a non-criminal case, but we will not. The police aren’t ready to take into consideration the history or the threats Karima was facing in Pakistan and even in Canada. We demand that the case is investigated considering all the threats and the history,” he said.
In a statement, Toronto police said they were still treating the death as non-suspicious and could provide no further details.
Karima Baloch was born on 8 March 1983 in Tump, Balochistan, growing up in a province which has been riddled with decades of conflict due to a long-running nationalist insurgency. Here, thousands of people are kidnapped every year and “disappeared” by Pakistan security forces, with no justice or accountability.
It was during her years as a student that Baloch began to get involved in nationalist politics and activism. In defiance of conservative norms, she became the first female chair of the Baloch Students Organization (BSO-Azad), a political group advocating for the rights of Baloch people.
It was there that she met her husband, Hammal Haider, also at the forefront of the BSO movement. Haider said that Baloch had continually broken new ground for women in Balochistan and would travel to far-flung areas bordering Iran and Afghanistan to convince girls to study and join the political struggle, sometimes travelling to their homes to win over their parents.
“We could never have anticipated, until 2006 when Karima came along, that Baloch women would become a part of politics, let alone that one of them would become the chairperson of the organisation,” said Haider.
“In a society where women weren’t allowed to unveil or talk to men, Karima’s participation in BSO normalised the presence of women in public spaces in the tribal patriarchal society.”
However, around 2015 she began to receive death threats for her outspoken views, and fearing for her life, she fled to Canada where she sought political asylum. It was a long and arduous process that would take three years, and though she was thousands of miles away from Pakistan, the threats and tragedy still reached her.
In December 2017, while living in Toronto, Baloch received a message that unless she returned to Pakistan, her uncle, schoolteacher Noor Mohammed, would be killed. She refused to go back, and on 2 January 2018, hours before her asylum hearing, she received the terrible news; her uncle’s body had been found dumped in her home town of Tump.
“Karima was threatened that if she didn’t stop her activism in Canada, they would kill her uncle,” said Haider. “They, state authorities, eventually did as they said. But even these tactics never stopped Karima from raising her voice against human rights abuses in Balochistan.”
In the days after Baloch’s death in December, the streets of cities and towns in Balochistan, and the city of Karachi were filled with a groundswell of female protesters, chanting slogans against human rights abuses, calling themselves Karima and demanding a thorough investigation into her death. The protests were subjected to a blackout in Pakistan’s media, with barely any coverage at all.
It appeared that Pakistan security officials were fearful a similar crowd would fill the streets of Balochistan for her funeral. On Sunday, hundreds rallied in Karachi, denouncing the government for not allowing a funeral prayer to be held for her in the city. The military then closed all roads leading into Tump, where her funeral was held on Monday. Baloch was buried amid tight security, in the presence of immediate family members and hundreds of local mourners.
Video: Relatives & close family friends were allowed to participate in the last funeral prayers of #KarimaBaloch. The huge participation of local women can also be seen in this video. People across the Balochistan were not allowed to farewell their leader.@Gulalai_Ismail pic.twitter.com/mTw6iP3rJG
— Niaz Baloch (@Niaz_Zehri) January 25, 2021
“There is anger among women here which has been unseen in decades,” said a friend of Baloch’s, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.
Abid Mir, a political analyst and author in Balochistan, said Baloch had introduced a women’s resistance movement into a conservative tribal society which had always been wholly controlled by powerful male elites. Her death had only fuelled this newfound fire in Balochistan’s women, he said. “Karima was not merely a woman, but a symbol of change in a patriarchal society,” he said.
“Women used to be the backbenchers, invisible in our society, but now they are leading on roads, activism and taking the front seat in politics in Balochistan,” said Mir. “There are thousands of girls who aspire to become Karima – this is what Karima started.”