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Remarks by Wendy Johnson

Delivered at the Baluchistan International Conference, Washington, D.C., Nov. 21, 2009

Until I traveled to Balochistan, I had never made friends with people who were later arrested, disappeared or killed, so getting to know the Baloch has been both a joyful and painful experience.

Baloch hospitality is legendary. Annie Nocenti, Daisann McLane and I experienced this graciousness first-hand when we traveled to Pakistan to make a short documentary about falconry. Like journalists who try to travel to Pakistan’s tribal areas, the falcons were delayed by passport troubles, so my longtime friend Khan Suleiman Daud, learning that we were in Karachi with nothing to film, invited us to Balochistan province.

There, one afternoon on the outskirts of the town of Kalat, we met political activist Prince Musa. Prince Musa was planning to participate in what was called ‘The Long March,’ a peaceful protest that would take Baloch marchers from Gwadar to a final political rally in Quetta. Prince Musa never completed this march. He was arrested soon after it began and spent several months in a Pakistani jail. He never was able to defend himself in a trial. When he fell gravely ill in prison, his family was able to lobby the right people to secure his release. Prince Musa was one of the lucky ones. His son, Agha Nauroz, the soft-spoken young man who escorted us around Kalat the day we met his father, was shot dead on July 15, 2008, the day the Baloch observe as Balochistan Martyrs Day.

Through the website my husband and I built following our trip, I receive a steady drumbeat of news that reflects what has been described by South Asia expert Selig Harrison as a slow-motion genocide. This drumbeat is so relentless that I can’t begin to fully document on the site all those Baloch who are arrested, disappeared or killed.

When Balach Marri was reported killed somewhere in the no man’s land between Afghanistan and Pakistan, I started to scour the Baloch websites for news, as the circumstances surrounding his death were unclear.

The first site I went to for an inside angle on the story was balochvoice.com, a site that seemed to have its finger on military actions in Balochistan. It had posted no updates, however. There were no updates that day, or the following day, or the day after that. In fact, after Nov 20, this site remained inexplicably frozen in time.

On my daily visits, I started to look at the site a little more closely. In addition to news items, there was a section devoted to the art of warfare, law and ethics. It included links to texts and quotes by an incredible variety of thinkers: Che Guevara, Leon Trotsky, Sun Tzu, Karl Marx, T.E. Lawrence, Clausewitz, Einstein, Shakespeare, Lao-Tsu, Machiavelli, St Thomas Aquinas, the African National Congress, and George Patton. Clearly, this webmaster was thinking long and hard about war, politics and ethics. There were also photos of of Balochistan. Accompanying these photos was the following text: “These pictures speak for themselves…These are the living conditions of a Baloch family -- a very common sight throughout Balochistan. The Government is doing nothing to bring them any relief from this suffering and hardship.”

Finally, I did what is called a ‘who is’ search to find the owner of the website. Balach Marri. The site was registered to Balach Marri. Address: London. Balach had not even bothered to cloak his name. This young man had given up what no doubt was a good life in London to return to Balochistan to lead a campaign for the rights of his people. The content of this website made it clear that his motivations were not personal glory, but rather the wellbeing of the Baloch people.
For some days I checked the site, hoping that perhaps Balach had actually escaped this attack and that one day the site would suddenly reflect his updates, Balach having found a data signal on his laptop somewhere out in the mountains, but this was not to be. Eventually someone was able to resume managing the site, but Balach and his musings, his posts, his recommended reading list--it all came to a far too early and abrupt end.

While I never met Balach, I did, however, correspond with another webmaster. When we built thebaluch.com, I received a friend request on Orkut from a young man named Imran. Imran’s first email read: “I'm really glad to know that you've recently visited my motherland (Balochistan), and even launched a site www.thebaluch.com Just wanted to say thanks for what you're doing to help our people. You can find many other documentaries on balochwarna.org and you're more then welcome to download any of those documentaries. Meantime, if I can be of any help, please do not hesitate to contact me.”

One day in late 2007 Imran’s emails stopped arriving. At the time, many of us were keeping a low profile and didn’t publish our real names, so I didn’t know Imran’s friends. I wasn’t overly concerned—I thought perhaps he had become busy with a job or travel. And then I became preoccupied with the shocking news of the arrest of Baloch activists Hairbyar Marri and Faiz Baluch in London on terrorism charges in Dec 2007.

8 months after Imran stopped writing, I received a call from a defense lawyer in London named Sajida Malik. Sajida said ‘I am representing someone you know on terrorism charges.’ Pardon me? Terrorism charges? ‘Yes, you know him as Imran.’ Imran, my email buddy, was Faiz Baluch. Only this time a Baloch had not disappeared into the Pakistani security system, but rather the British prison system, at the behest of the Pakistani govt.

My young friend, who had never done anything but express his concern for the welfare of his people, had never advocated violence, only protested it, had been held in an English prison for 8 months. Faiz spent a total of 10 months in Belmarsh Prison. Faiz and Hiarbyar were two of the lucky ones.

My new friend has not been so fortunate, thus far. In late July of this year, I received a friend request on facebook from a Norwegian Baloch, Ehsan Arjemandi. On Aug. 8, while checking Baloch websites for news, I found a photo of Ehsan staring back at me. Plucked from a bus in Balochistan and blindfolded, Ehsan was whisked away by Pakistani security forces. Today, over 3 months later, Ehsan remains disappeared. Despite all the efforts of the Norwegian govt., the lawyer they retained, family and friends around the world, the Pak government and its military will not acknowledge his whereabouts, or news of his wellbeing.

In 2009 Pakistani security agencies are still above the law. They are free to disappear and torture people at will and they do so with impunity. It is imperative for those governments, like the US, who come to the aid of Pakistan, to demand that the Pakistani government and its military to stop the arrests, disappearances, and the torture--the human rights abuses--of its citizens.

On April 17, 2008, Pakistan finally became a signatory to the United Nations Convention Against Torture. It has not, however, ratified the convention.
The Asian Human Rights Commission writes this: “Torture in custody is a serious problem affecting the rule of law in Pakistan. It is used as the most common means to obtain confession statements. As yet, there has been no serious effort by the government to make torture a crime in the country. It provides impunity to the perpetrators who are mostly either policemen or members of the armed forces. Furthermore, there is no means for the protection of witnesses. This discourages victims from making complaints. While the international jurisprudence on the issue has evolved into very high standards, the situation in Pakistan resembles the stone ages.”*

In closing, I want to borrow the words of a British juror. Following his not-guilty verdict, Faiz Baluch was standing outside the courthouse. Perhaps he was reveling in how blue the sky was, how great it was to be alive. I’m not sure. But as he stood there, no doubt elated to be free, one of the jurors walked up to him, a big smile on his face, and exclaimed, ‘Long Live Balochistan.’

Long Live Balochistan.