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This Baloch Student Has Been on Hunger Strike For 45 Days in Pakistan

Members of civil society visits the hunger strike camp of Lateef Johar protesting for the missing student leader Zahid Baluch from Quetta. Image by Ayub Mohammad. Copyright Demotix (31/5/2014)

Members of civil society visit the hunger strike camp of Lateef Johar (1st from left) who is demanding the release of his friend and missing student leader Zahid Baloch. Image by Ayub Mohammad. Copyright Demotix (31/5/2014)

Lateef Johar, a student activist and writer in Pakistan's south-western province Balochistan, has been on hunger strike for 45 consecutive days. He is determined to keep his words, “strike till death”, until his friend and mentor Zahid Baloch, the chairperson of the largest ethnic Baloch student body Baloch Student Organisation Azad (BSO-Azad), is released.

Zahid's BSO-Azad colleagues claim he was abducted on 18 March 2014 in Quetta, Balochistan's capital. They say he was first held at gunpoint by soldiers from Pakistan's paramilitary force, the Frontier Corps (FC), then blind-folded and pushed into a vehicle. In an interview with the BBC six months before his abduction, Zahid claimed that BSO-Azad was only involved in the non-violent struggle for Balochistan's self-determination. He also said he feared for his life because of his activism.

Lateef Johar's hunger strike highlights Zahid's case and the plight of Pakistan's largest and poorest province Balochistan. Since 2006, a renewed battle for independence has been waging here, between Baloch separatists and the government of Pakistan. In this complicated and ugly war, disappearances like Zahid's, are not uncommon, and often have tragic endings. 

According to the Human Rights Commision of Pakistan (HRCP), since 2010,  the bodies of hundreds of Balochistan’s “missing people” have turned up bearing torture marks. In 2013 alone, 116 bodies were found across the province, 87 of which were identified by families who accused Pakistan’s security agencies of abducting their loved ones. Recently, the human rights group Voice for Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP) claimed that as many as 373 bodies of missing people were recovered, since last year.

Protesters at hunger strike camp demanding release of Zahid Baluch Chairman of Baluch Students Organization, Quetta, Pakistan. Image by Ayub Mohammad. Copyright Demotix (31/5/2014)

Protesters demand release of Zahid Baluch. Image Ayub Mohammad. Copyright Demotix (31/5/2014)

 Lateef Johar's protest

Even though Johar is determined to continue strike, his medical condition is deteriorating. Doctors have warned that if he continues the strike he will die soon. His protest had received little media coverage, till last week when the Chief Minister of Balochistan, Dr.Abdul Malik Baloch came to visit him. Johar refused the Minister's request to end his hunger strike, demanding Zahid's release first.

In an interview to Bolan Voice, a blog that reports on Baloch issues, Johar gives a clear perspective of the conditions of Balochistan. He appealed to the world:

We strongly appeal to the world that ours is a peaceful struggle and ours is a peaceful student’s organization and they must know deeply with the regards to the problems of Baloch nation, any problem related should be figured out and then resolved whether it comes to the Baloch geography or their educational or social and national problems.

Fatimah Insan wrote in an open letter to Johar on her blog:

If you die, they will be happy. Please do not make them happy.

As Voice of Balochistan tweeted:

Protests  have been held in Seattle, USA, Vancouver, Canada, and in Berlin Germany in solidarity with Lateef Johar and Zahid Baloch.

The lack of coverage did not matter for the activists who carried out the hastag campaigns on Twitter using #SaveBSOAzadLeader and #StrikeTillDeath. A petition addressing the UN asking for the release of BSO-Azad chairman was also started on Change.org.

Yet negative reactions also followed. Pakistani officials accused them of spreading anti-Pakistan literature on college and university campuses. Balochistan's home minister Sarfaraz Bugti told BBC that the missing persons are faking “self-disappearances” to explain what is going on in his province. He said, “Sometimes, these activists ‘self-disappear'. They go away to militant training camps in Afghanistan and India, while their groups stage campaigns to wrongly accuse Pakistani forces of abductions.”

Ain Haider Zaider seems to agree with the state's version on the Pak Tea House blog:

You know most of them are involved in anti-state activities, and what is happening with them is what they deserve. Our agencies know better about the issue and we should not create any hurdle in their work due to our own naivety.

However, hope remains for a better tomorrow. Blogger Sayalif writes about Johar's cause:

His noble cause is to draw attention of Human right organization to stop Pakistan from committing serious human right violations in Balochistan. He deserves to live so are other Baloch who are in the illegal custody of law enforcement agencies.

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