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Pakistan Claims Mass Release of Baloch Activists; Activist Group Says Many Remain Jailed


Federal authorities in Pakistan claimed on Monday they had freed 290 activists arrested in Islamabad, while an activist group later said more than 100 remained jailed, with “some of them missing.”

“Peaceful protest is everyone's right, but no one can take the law into their own hands,” said a Pakistani interior ministry statement on X, formerly known as Twitter, while announcing the mass release of Baloch activists.

Later, the Baloch Solidarity Committee told VOA Urdu that more than 160 of the protesters had been released, but more than 100 were still in police custody “and some of them are missing,” and that the Islamabad police were “not providing correct information to us and the media.

The Baloch activists had traveled to the capital by convoy to protest alleged extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances in their native southwestern Baluchistan province.

The convoy of dozens of vehicles carrying women, men and children traveled 1,600 kilometers and reached Islamabad last Thursday from Turbat, a remote Baluchistan town, to draw attention to the death of a 24-year-old man, identified as Balaach Mola Bakhsh, in police custody last month.

Baloch students and activists in Islamabad also joined the rally.

Police in Islamabad used batons and water cannon to disperse and prevent the rally from moving toward the city’s high security “red zone,” housing key government buildings and embassies, and carried out arrests.

The crackdown triggered a nationwide outcry, with human rights groups and civil society activists demanding the government urgently release protesters and address their long-running complaints instead.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, or HRCP, an independent watchdog, said that it was “appalled” by the state’s response to subject women, children and elderly peaceful protesters to unwarranted force.

“This treatment of Baloch citizens exercising their constitutional right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression is inexcusable,” the HRCP said on Thursday.

While mainstream Pakistani media largely ignored the protest march and subsequent police action, social media platforms prominently highlighted them, prompting the government to form a delegation to engage with rally leaders and defuse the situation.

Mahrang Baloch, a central leader of the Baloch Yakjehti Committee, or Baloch Unity Committee, organizers of the protest march, denounced the police action and told reporters over the weekend she was assaulted by several female officers with batons.

Provincial counterterrorism authorities claimed they had arrested Bakhsh, a tailor, on November 20 with explosives in his possession. He appeared in court the next day, but on the 23rd, was killed in a shootout involving security officials and militants. Three other men whom authorities claim were insurgents also were killed in the incident.

Bakhsh’s family rejected the official claim, alleging he was in police custody since October and killed in a fake encounter.

Baluchistan, an oil-, gas- and minerals-rich province, has been in the grip of a low-level insurgency for the past two decades. Pakistani security forces have lately come under almost daily deadly attacks from ethnic Baloch insurgents.

Insurgents justify their actions, accusing the state of robbing the mineral-rich province of its precious resources. Pakistani security forces routinely conduct counterinsurgency operations in turbulent districts.

The violence has left a trail of forced disappearances, and bodies dumped on the sides of roads. Pakistani authorities say ethnic Baloch insurgents also staged deadly attacks on laborers and workers who come from other provinces.

“The state’s widespread use of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings also warrants a prompt and transparent investigation, as well as a commitment to hold the perpetrators accountable,” the HRCP said in statement and subsequent news conference at the National Press Club in Islamabad.

VOA Urdu service contributed to this report.