In Balochistan and rural Sindh, it is the law of the tribal/feudal lords, by the lords for the lords that prevails
The dreadful discovery of the bullet-ridden bodies of a woman and two young boys from a well in the Barkhan district of Balochistan, and the subsequent recovery of a woman and five children from alleged private prisons, highlights for the umpteenth time the hapless situation of ordinary people in the Balochistan province. There is a long history of such atrocities and human rights excesses in Balochistan province, but there is still no letup in sight. The situation is not very different in many areas of rural Sindh, as has been documented in a recent fact-finding mission of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).
The grim, grisly details of the recent multiple murders in Balochistan point to the sadistic nature of the perpetrators of the crime. According to the autopsy report of the three bodies found from the well in the Sonmiani area, one of the deceased was a 17 to 18-year-old female who was raped and tortured before being shot dead. The woman was shot thrice in the head and her face and neck were defaced with acid to hide her identity.
Earlier, a woman’s video message had gone viral on social media. The woman, identified as 40-year old Giran Naz, held a copy of the Holy Quran and claimed that she was in Sardar Abdul Rehman Khetran’s private jail. Khetran is a member of the Balochistan Assembly, belonging to the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP), and holds the portfolio of provincial minister for communications. In the video, the woman beseeched the state to save the lives of her and her family members being held captive. Later, one Khan Muhammad Marri accused the provincial minister of detaining his wife — the woman who had somehow managed to post the video clip — and his five children in his alleged private camp for the last four years.
The horrible revelations by the woman in her video message triggered protests across Balochistan for the recovery of the family and of the many individuals who have gone missing in the province. The protesters, mostly Marri tribesmen, staged a sit-in with the victims’ coffins in Quetta for three consecutive days, calling for the arrest of the accused tribal chief. The protesters asked for swift action against the provincial minister, and called upon Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to visit them. Only when the pressure on the police mounted, with widespread agitation and media coverage, did they register a case against ‘unknown persons‘ under different sections of the heinous crime act (Sections 34, Section 202 and 302 of the Pakistan Penal Code.)
On Feb 22, the Levies Quick Response Force recovered a woman and her five children, including a girl. The extensive reach and power of the perpetrator/s of the crime, found guilty after a legal investigation, can be gauged from the fact that the Levies conducted operations in six different locations in East Balochistan and South Punjab to find the missing people. The Levies freed Marri’s wife, Giran Naz, who was earlier presumed dead, along with her five children. The officials said that they recovered Naz, Farzana and Imran from Kohlu, Chamalang and Dakki areas, one Majeed from Dakki, and Ghaffar and Sattar were freed from prisons in Kohlu and Dera Bugti. The Levies also claimed to have foiled an attempt to transfer the latter two kidnapped boys to the Punjab. The Barkhan district is adjacent to South Punjab.
The police also raided the minister’s residence and arrested him. He, however, denied culpability. Khetran narrated multiple stories to prove his innocence, claiming the accusations against him of owning a private prison and culpability in the murder of three people were a conspiracy to harm his political reputation. He claimed that his house was searched by the previous government as well. “Had there been a jail, it would have been discovered earlier,” he maintained. Ironically, he accused his own son for the conspiracy against him, blaming him for framing him to promote his political ambitions.
This is not the first time Sardar Khetran has been accused of running a private prison or committing a heinous crime. In July 2020, journalist Anwar Jan Khetran was murdered in the Barkhan district as he had annoyed the local tribal lords by continuously highlighting the problems of the common man in the region. A case was registered against Abdul Rehman Khetran — who incidentally, was a provincial minister at that time too — and his two bodyguards. No significant development took place in the prosecution of the case and Khetran went scot free. In January 2014, the police and Anti-Terrorism Force had raided his property in Barkhan and found a private illegal detention facility, following a complaint against him of torturing some police officers. Time and again, he has been summoned by the law to explain his position on assorted charges, including forcing women to contract marriages and keeping people in solitary confinement in his private prisons. In November 2006, the Supreme Court had summoned him on the charge of abducting minor girls and forcing them into wedlock. But Khetran escaped prosecution each time, and his alleged illegal activities continued unchecked. This because he is well connected with the powerful elements of the state.
In Balochistan, such inhuman crimes against common people are commonplace, but rarely thoroughly probed. The guilty go scot free most of the time, thanks to the perpetrators’ political connections and clout. In many cases, the tribal chiefs’ connections with state institutions or militant organisations embolden them to commit crimes with impunity. As a result, the menace of illegal private jails run by feudal lords and tribal chiefs, and in some cases so-called ‘religious’ parties, remains unchecked throughout the province. The province is in the clutches of tribal chiefs who are practically above the law, a virtual law unto themselves. In 2020, three men had shot a woman, Malik Naz, to death, and injured her four-year-old daughter Bramsh during an armed robbery allegedly committed by men sent by a local leader.
Balochistan’s tribal chiefs are so influential that they can thwart the legal procedure and get away with anything under the sun. In many cases, the police do not register cases against them and even if there is evidence of a crime, it is destroyed during the investigation. Well-known is the case of former member of the Balochistan Assembly, Majeed Khan Achakzai, belonging to the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PKMAP). In June 2017, he was accused of causing the death of a traffic warden, Haji Ataullah, in a hit-and-run incident in Quetta. The police registered a case against ‘unknown men,’ but the CCTV footage showing Majeed Khan‘s involvement went viral on social media, which forced the police to nab the accused. In talk shows on some television channels, Majeed had admitted to driving the vehicle that overran the warden, but said he would settle the case with the victim’s family as per tribal traditions. And eventually, he got what he wanted. In September 2020, a local court in Quetta acquitted Majeed Khan due to lack of evidence in the case.
Not different is the case of Sindh where big landlords use their overpowering influence to commit human rights excesses against the poor. In its recent fact-finding mission in Upper Sindh, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) said at least 300 cases of kidnapping for ransom were reported in Ghotki, with women and children the primary targets. Police reports suggested that military-grade weapons were used in such instances, allegedly sourced from Balochistan. This called into question the issue of provincial border security. The residents allege the complicity of security forces, given the hundreds of check-posts that line the border.
The HRCP also stated that numerous respondents belonging to the Hindu community in upper Sindh had raised the issue of forced conversions and said that they now feared sending their daughters to school in case they were abducted for this purpose. The mission also noted reports of extrajudicial killings, as well as the lament of law-enforcement agencies that the police themselves remained vulnerable, given the poor state of law and order. During their visit to Kandhkot and Jacobabad—which appeared to account for the highest rate of karo kari [honour killings] in the province — the mission learned that victims included underage girls, married women and even elderly women. Victims’ families also complained of needlessly long delays in investigations as well as in the courts. The HRCP report mentioned that journalists based in Ghotki, Kandhkot and Larkana found it difficult to report against influential persons, for fear of reprisals in the shape of death threats, kidnapping, assault and cooked-up criminal cases.
The bitter reality is that the ordinary people in Sindh and Balochistan provinces are the virtual subjects of local tribal chiefs or feudal lords, while the state continues to look the other way, unless mass agitation forces it to rescue the victims in the cases that somehow come into the spotlight. Sadly, the country’s mainstream media, constituting vernacular newspapers and television channels, gives little coverage to the endless human rights excesses. A little relief for the victims of human rights abuses has surfaced with the activism of civil society organisations such the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and the spread of social media reports, such as the viral video clip of the abducted woman in Barkhan, Giran Naz, which sparked protests and forced the law-enforcement agencies to recover the kidnapped detainees and arrest the influential accused.