Asylum-seeking rebels - Rahimullah Yusufzai - Wednesday, February 23, 2011

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The decision by Bramdagh Bugti, the grandson of the late Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, to seek political asylum in Switzerland is a significant development, considering the fact that he was among the leading guerrilla commanders of the low-level insurgency in Balochistan. His departure could have a demoralising effect on his fighters. But on the other hand, his presence in a Western country would enable him to highlight his cause internationally.

Bramdagh, stated to be 29 years old, had been trying for some years to move to the West. In an interview he had argued that he saw nothing wrong in escaping to another country to plead the cause of the Baloch people abroad. Though he and his supporters have been insisting that he was present in Balochistan since the August 2006 assassination of Akbar Bugti in a military action and had not moved to Afghanistan, no evidence was made available to prove this claim. Instead, there was growing evidence that he was in Afghanistan where President Hamid Karzai’s government hosted him and many other Pakistani Baloch separatists mostly belonging to the Bugti and Marri tribes.

Quoting US embassy cables, Wikileaks threw some light on Bramdagh’s presence in Afghanistan. According to the cables, Karzai finally admitted to a senior UN official in February 2009 that Bramdagh was in Kabul. Until then Afghan officials had been denying that Afghanistan was sheltering him. The admission came after the kidnapping in Quetta of senior UN official John Solecki, an American, and in the wake of allegations by Pakistani authorities that Bramdagh Bugti was involved in it.

Karzai defended Bramdagh and expressed doubt about his involvement in the kidnapping. But US officials on the occasion complained that Karzai was blocking their attempts to contact Bramdagh to discuss Solecki’s kidnapping. Solecki was later freed, but the incident established that Bramdagh was hiding in Afghanistan.

Again, thanks to Wikileaks, it was revealed that in January 2007 Karzai told US assistant secretary of state Richard Boucher that more than 200 Bugtis had fled to Afghanistan from Pakistan and were frightened to seek asylum with the UN, despite his advice. He was also quoted as saying that Bramdagh was not a terrorist because “fomenting an uprising does not make one a terrorist.” Describing the issue as too sensitive, he requested during the meeting with Boucher that note-taking be stopped.

That the Pakistani government had been convinced all along that Bramdagh was hiding in Afghanistan became evident because of Wikileaks. President Asif Ali Zardari was quoted as saying in January 2009 that he would ask Karzai to keep Bramdagh in Afghanistan pending his government’s move to draft legislation aimed at granting greater autonomy to Balochistan and removing Baloch grievances. Military officials and Interior Minister Rahman Malik had also repeatedly alleged that Bramdagh was in Afghanistan.

It wasn’t the first time that the Afghan government was hosting and protecting Pakistani political dissidents and rebels. Apart from Pakhtun and Baloch politicians from Pakistan such as Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Ajmal Khattak, Afrasiab Khattak, Azam Hoti, Juma Khan Sufi, Nadir Khan Zakhakhel, Mahmood Khan Achakzai and his relation Ayub Khan Achakzai, Shahzada Abdul Karim, Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri, Sher Mohammad Marri, Mir Hazar Bijarani and two brothers of Sardar Attaullah Mengal, others to receive refuge and welcome refuge in Afghanistan included Murtaza Bhutto and his brother Shahnawaz and many Sindhis and Punjabis. In a tit-for-tat reaction, Pakistan gave refuge to Afghan dissidents and rebels ranging from the Mujahideen to the Taliban. In fact, both countries continue to practice the same policy despite promising non-interference in each other’s affairs.

Bramdagh could not have travelled to Switzerland without a passport. It isn’t known who issued him the travel document. Obviously, he would have flown to Switzerland with the consent of the Swiss government. It is also possible that another Western country, possibly the US, or some UN and human rights organisation, facilitated his journey and stay in Switzerland.

Sher Mohammad Bugti, a spokesman for the Baloch Republication Party (BRP) headed by Bramdagh, has confirmed that his party chief had reached Switzerland and applied for political asylum. Presently he is staying away from the media and cannot travel outside Switzerland until he is granted asylum.

Before him, the Khan of Kalat Mir Suleman Dawood and Hyrbyair Marri, the son of Khair Bakhsh Marri, had to go through the same procedure while seeking political asylum in the United Kingdom. The latter even had to undergo imprisonment for a while. Both have now been granted political asylum and are busy campaigning for Balochistan’s independence; from their homes in Cardiff, in the case of Suleman Dawood, and London, where Hyrbyair Marri is based. However, it is a matter of opinion how effective they are and now Bramdagh would be, sitting thousands of miles away from Balochistan and living in relative comfort while marshalling their distant fighters.

This isn’t the first time that efforts were made to move Bramdagh to a safer place. According to media reports, there was once a US-backed move to move him from Afghanistan as it could have removed an irritant in the often uneasy Afghanistan-Pakistan relations. Ireland was mentioned as a likely destination. However, nothing was heard about such moves later.

There was also loud talk about exchanging Bramdagh Bugti with the Afghan Taliban’s deputy leader, Mulla Abdul Ghani Biradar, following the latter’s capture in Pakistan. This was unrealistic as the Afghan government had never publicly admitted that it was hosting Bramdagh. Besides, no Afghan government to-date has been willing to extradite any wanted person seeking refuge in Afghanistan. The Taliban regime sacrificed everything, including their rule and their lives, but refused to deliver Osama bin Laden to his enemies. The Pakistani government also was in no mood to deliver Mulla Biradar to Afghanistan, or to the US.

In Bramdagh’s case, Pakistani authorities have been alleging that he carried an Indian passport. His supporters issued denials, although Bramdagh in his interviews has been arguing that the Baloch as an oppressed nation had every right to seek help from India and other countries, just like Pakistan was using American weapons to crush the Baloch people. Former prime minister Shaukat Aziz once alleged that Bramdagh had travelled to New Delhi on a fake Afghan passport. Gen Pervez Musharraf claimed in 2007 said he had ample proof of Indian and Afghan support for Bramdagh.

The Baloch nationalists are now clearly divided into rival camps. Most of them still want Balochistan to remain part of federal Pakistan and are hoping that Islamabad would make amends and give the Baloch their rights and enough incentives for them not to opt for independence. Some of them may have contacts with the insurgents, but they realise that an independent Balochistan in the prevailing international situation is unlikely to materialise.

Those seeking independence and fuelling the insurgency believe they have exhausted all options due to repeated military operations by the Pakistani establishment. However, it isn’t easy to provide fighters and procure resources to continue the battle in Balochistan. Those still in the battlefield would surely be disheartened now that, one after the other, their leaders and commanders are escaping and seeking asylum in countries in the West, the Gulf and elsewhere.

The proverbial disunity in Baloch ranks is also visible among the insurgents. At least five armed separatist groups linked to Bramdagh, including the Baloch Republication Army (BRA), are presently operating in Balochistan. Tribal disputes, the rift between certain Baloch sardars and commoners and the class divide have also been reported in the ranks of the armed separatists. Akbar Bugti’s death may have bridged some of the gaps as here was a top Sardar offering the supreme sacrifice of his life for the Baloch cause.

However, winning independence is surely a distant dream for the Baloch. It would be in the interest of both the proud Baloch people and the powers that be in Islamabad and Rawalpindi to stop shedding blood and find a way out to overcome the mistrust, and ensure that the Baloch are made masters of their resources with iron-clad guarantees for an autonomous Balochistan within the federation of Pakistan.


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