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Taking on the state

Print edition : Mar 09, 2007 T+T-
Sardar Akhtar Mengal, who is being held on terrorism charges.-BANARAS KHAN

Sardar Akhtar Mengal, who is being held on terrorism charges.-BANARAS KHAN

The trial of former Baloch Chief Minister Sardar Akhtar Mengal signals another conflict between the province and the centre.

PAKISTAN'S battle in Balochistan continues unabated. Having killed a 79-year-old former Baloch Chief Minister, Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, in a devastating military operation in the volatile southwestern province on August 26, 2006, the Musharraf regime has turned against another former Chief Minister. The 40-year-old Sardar Akhtar Mengal, president of the Balochistan National Party (BNP), the largest Baloch political organisation, is being held on terrorism charges. With the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), the nation's foremost human rights organisation, reporting that he was produced in court in an "iron cage", Baloch disillusionment has increased.

Mengal, BNP secretary-general Habib Jalib and around 700 other political workers were arrested last November in a massive crackdown across Balochistan, where the Baloch are fighting for maximum autonomy and ownership of their natural resources. The arrests came as the BNP announced a "long march" across Balochistan, called Lashkar-e-Balochistan (the `Balochistan army'), to protest against Pakistan's military operations in the province and the disappearance of several hundred Baloch political activists who are allegedly being held by the country's secret services.

The long march was also intended to oppose government plans to construct military cantonments in Balochistan and was scheduled to start a few days ahead of a visit by President Pervez Musharraf to the province. "We don't want military development but better health and education facilities. Secondly, why should the Baloch allow the construction of cantonments on our land when we have no representation in the Pakistani Army?" said Mengal before his detention.

When Musharraf arrived in the security-sanitised provincial capital, Quetta, he made it clear that he was not going to take questions like that. "There is no Lashkar-e-Balochistan. The only Lashkar in Pakistan is the Pakistan Army," he said.

The charismatic Mengal was first put under house arrest on November 28 to prevent him from leading the march. The provincial authorities then handed him over to the Sindh police on December 26 in connection with an April 2006 case that charged him with abducting and beating up two Military Intelligence (MI) staff.

The whereabouts of 14 other persons, including former member of Pakistan's National Assembly Rauf Mengal, and some security guards and domestics who were with Sardar Mengal at the time of his arrest in November remain unknown. The BNP alleges that the MI kidnapped them.

The April 2006 case is being heard in the Karachi Anti-Terrorism Court-V (ATC-V). The chain of events that led to the registering of the case is illuminative of what can be interpreted as terrorism by the state. On April 5, Mengal, who had complained that he and his family were being relentlessly harassed and followed by intelligence agencies, asked his security guards to hold two men who were apparently shadowing his vehicle. The security guards caught them and took them to Mengal's home. The men were later identified as Havildar Qurban Hussain and Lance Naik Fayyaz Ahmed of the MI.

While being held in the Mengal home, one of the two men used a mobile phone to summon his colleagues for help. Within minutes, as many as 40 police patrol vehicles, two armoured personnel carriers and some two dozen vans laid siege to the Baloch leader's home. The police turned down Mengal's plea that the intelligence personnel should be taken to task for harassing his family. Later that day, Qurban Hussain filed a first information report (FIR) at the Darakshan police station in Karachi against Mengal and four of his guards. On the basis of this FIR, a case was registered in ATC-V, Karachi.

On December 9, the court sentenced four men, employed by Mengal as domestics and who had been arrested on that day in April, to life imprisonment. But, curiously enough, Mengal himself was not taken into custody until he announced the long march against the government. It has led observers to the inevitable conclusion that the case against him is politically motivated.

But the greater shock was the HRCP report of Mengal's maltreatment and humiliation inside the jail. His family members are not allowed to meet him, nor is he provided access to medical facilities. As Mengal's family was disallowed from witnessing the trial, they requested the HRCP to go in as an observer. The government reportedly agreed to allow one representative of the HRCP to attend, and Iqbal Haider, its secretary-general, witnessed the first hearing of the Mengal case in Karachi. When he came out, he related what he saw to a reporter of the Dawn newspaper. This is how the daily quoted him:

"In the courtroom, I was surprised to find that by installing iron bars from floor to ceiling and covering those iron bars with an iron net, a sort of cage had been created in a corner of the courtroom for the accused. This iron cage had a separate iron gate at its rear.

"Mr. Mengal was brought into this iron cage from a separate backdoor when the presiding officer started the proceedings. Mr. Mengal was not allowed to sit with his advocates, nor was any member of his family allowed to witness the proceedings. I requested the court to allow him to sit alongside his lawyers but the court merely ignored me."

However, a government spokesperson immediately rebutted the report and said it was not based on facts. "Akhtar Mengal's trial is being conducted in jail on the request of the police and the Home Department, Sindh, for the safety of his life as he has old enemies and simmering disputes in his home district of Khuzdar," the spokesman said.

As a result of his statement to the press, Haider was barred from entering the court and witnessing further proceedings of the trial.

In spite of a hue and cry in the media and by human rights organisations, the military regime is unwilling to conduct an open trial of the former Chief Minister. His lawyer, Aziz Sheikh, told the court that Mengal feared his trial was being entirely controlled and monitored by the MI rather than by an independent court.

Mengal's 75-year-old father, Attaullah Mengal, also a former Balochistan Chief Minister, said he feared for his son's life in jail and that he had no faith in the court proceedings.

The senior Mengal, the dismissal of whose democratic Balochistan government in 1973 led to the deadliest conflict between the Baloch and the Pakistan Army, was also not hopeful about the future of Islamabad-Balochistan relations. The ongoing military operations against the Baloch, the assassination of Akbar Bugti, the detention of hundreds of political workers and illegal detention of Baloch youth, he said, held a clear message for the Baloch: "The Punjab-dominated Pakistan wants to remind us that we are slaves in this country and will have to live like slaves. Otherwise, we will be pushed to a dead end."

Malik Siraj Akbar is the Balochistan correspondent ofDaily Times, Pakistan.