The death of 37-year-old Baloch nationalist, Karima Mehrab Baloch, who was found dead due to “drowning” in Toronto, Canada, where she had taken political asylum in 2016, is being seen as the most high-profile “assassination” (as the Baloch groups are calling it) of a Baloch nationalist after the killing of Baloch leader Akbar Bugti in August 2006.

Though the Canadian police have stated that no foul play is suspected in her death, her family members, including her husband, say a high-level investigation is needed to reveal the cause of her untimely death, which came even as she was receiving death threats.

The Sunday Guardian spoke to multiple Baloch activists and locals in Balochistan to understand why her death has led to massive protests in Balochistan and on social media, with even locals—who out of fear of the Pakistan Army stay far from pro-Balochistan protests—taking out huge protest marches in various parts of Balochistan against the “state sanctioned killing” of Karima.

Karima, according to locals and Baloch nationalists, had a massive following, especially among young girls as she was the first Baloch woman to have come out of her home to join the struggle for a separate Balochistan, sometime in 2005-06 when she was just 22 years old.

She joined the Atta Shad Degree College in Turbat, situated 700 km from Karachi, in 2005-2006 to pursue a degree in psychology. It was the same college from where Dr Allah Nazar Baloch, the most prominent surviving Baloch leader, got his medical degree in 1989.

A prominent Baloch activist told The Sunday Guardian: “At the time, Sharia rules that were never a part of Baloch culture, had entered our society and women were being forced to wear burqa due to the focus on religious extremism that was started by General Zia ul Haq from 1978 to 1988 across Pakistan. Karima came out and said that Baloch women would not wear burqa and they would adorn the ‘Balochi chadir’ (sort of a dupatta) on their head. It was a big step that she took to break the shackles of Islamic fundamentalism that Pakistan state had been imposing on our women. She was the face of the bravery Baloch women are known for. Her death is not the end of an individual, but the elimination of a liberal brave thought process that she stood for and ensured that the women in the Balcoh society were exposed to.”

Karima made a name for herself for encouraging Baloch women to come out on the streets to protest against the Pakistan Army for kidnapping Baloch men.

Baloch activists told The Sunday Guardian about how the 5’3 feet Karima would travel across Balochistan on a bike, under a burning sun, with her face covered with a “dupatta” to convince parents to let their daughters come out and join the Baloch Students Organization (BSO)-Azad. The young girls would address her as “Lumma”, which means mother in Balochi.

She went on to become the first woman chairperson of BSO-Azad in 2014 after her predecessor, Zahid Kurd Baloch aka Baloch Khan, was “abducted” from Quetta on 18 March 2014. Karima, who at the time was the vice chairperson of the group, in a press conference had alleged that she along with three other members of BSO-Azad, had seen Zahid being abducted by Pakistani security forces. Zahid was never seen after that and is presumed to be dead.

BSO-Azad was founded by the iconic Dr Allah Nazar Baloch in 2002. Both BSO-Azad and Dr Baloch have been declared as terrorist groups and terrorists, respectively, by Pakistan, with Dr Baloch now being among the most wanted in the country. BSO Azad was banned in March 2013.

At the age of 26, Karima was forced to go underground as her “exploits” reached the ears of the Pakistan Army, which dispatched a team of soldiers led by a Punjabi captain, to arrest her. She left Pakistan permanently in 2015 after the army filed terrorism charges against her.

The Sunday Guardian wrote to the Toronto police seeking its response on the latest developments in the case and on the statements issued by Karima’s husband, Hamal Haidar, who is also a prominent Baloch leader, stating that his wife’s death needed more investigation. In its response, the Toronto police said, “The Toronto Police Service is aware of heightened community and media interest surrounding a missing person investigation. On Tuesday, 22 December, we confirmed a 37-year-old woman was sadly located deceased on Monday, 21 December 2020. The circumstances have been investigated and officers have determined this to be a non-criminal death and no foul play is suspected. We have updated the family.”

The BBC, while selecting Karima as one of the world’s 100 most “inspirational and influential” women of 2016, had defined her as, “Someone who campaigns for independence for Balochistan from Pakistan”, while adding her quote “a national liberation movement without the participation of women is incomplete” in her bio. She was among the 19 women selected from Asia and one among the two selected from Pakistan.

The Pakistan high commission in Canada, meanwhile, has approached the Canadian government to know the cause of Karina’s death.

Coming from a family of Baloch freedom fighters, Karima was among the few who joined the freedom struggle on her own will, rather than being forced to do so due to circumstances. “She came from a respectable family and could have taken the easy route of living out her life comfortably. However, she was a different woman and she was unable to bear in silence what the Pakistan state was doing to the Baloch, especially the women. Due to her bravery and not succumbing to state threat, she built a following around her and whatever she said, either on loudspeaker or on Twitter made an impact. She was a Pakistan Army target for a long time,” an old friend of hers, who studied in the same college, recalled.

Her tweets were mostly about the Baloch individuals who had gone “missing” and were widely shared, especially by human rights activists and individuals based in Western countries.

“Her image of being among the most vocal critics of Pakistan in Canada killed her. She was hurting Pakistan’s perception at the international arena as she was bringing out truths about state sanctioned killing of Balochis in Balochistan. The Pakistani diplomats in the region had told people back home that she had become a major ‘irritant’. And that’s why she had started getting threats, as her husband had stated. Pakistan Army has private agents on its payroll who carry out its orders in these Western countries where our supporters are taking asylum. Journalist Sajid Hussain, too, was eliminated in the same way in Sweden. The Pakistan Army wants to give a message that those who speak against them cannot be safe anywhere, even in countries like Canada and Sweden which were considered safe until now. With her death, Pakistan has been able to silence the coming generation of Baloch women,” said a prominent Baloch national, who is staying in a Western country.