Author: Zaarain Baloch
In a dark corner of Pakistan’s justice system, a young Baloch woman named Mahal Baloch has been detained and accused of being a suicide attacker for the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF), a pro-independence group. Her family, the BLF, and human rights groups have vehemently denied these charges and called for a fair trial.
Mahal’s detention has been shrouded in secrecy, and reports of torture and physical abuse have emerged from behind the prison walls. Recently, a video confession was released that purports to show Mahal admitting her role as a facilitator for the BLF. But the reliability, legality, and admissibility of the confession are highly questionable, and human rights groups are outraged at the treatment Mahal has received in custody.
This report attempts to take you behind the veil of secrecy surrounding Mahal’s case and explore the charges against her, the treatment she has received while in custody, and the reliability of her confession. We will also delve into the response of human rights groups and the broader context of coerced confessions and human rights abuses in Pakistan.
The Case Against Mahal Baloch
Mahal Baloch, the 28-year-old widowed mother of two, was illegally detained by the Counter-Terrorism Department of Pakistan (CTD) from Quetta on February 17. The CTD initially claimed they had received an intelligence tip-off that the BLF, an ethno-nationalist, pro-independence group, was planning attacks on a “sensitive” location in Quetta. The CTD said it had acted promptly and arrested Mahal Baloch outside a public park in the Satellite Town, carrying a bag containing a suicide vest.
The CTD’s official account of the arrest is shaky. National and international human rights groups and Mahal’s family members have repudiated this account of her arrest and called it an “outright lie.” They say that the security forces raided Mahal’s home in the Satellite Town, beat her, and then forcefully detained her and her family members, including her elderly mother-in-law, her sister-in-law, her two daughters (aged 8 and 6 years), and her niece (aged 12 years).
The CTD did not provide any legal documentation or an arrest warrant for the raid – they just barged in, detained the victims, packed them into two cars, and took them to the CTD office. Photos shared on social media show the chaotic scene in the house following Mahal’s arrest – upturned furniture, clothes scattered on the floor, drawers thrown open, blankets and toys scattered around. The CTD went in like a bull let loose in a china shop.
According to the Human Rights Council of Balochistan, Mahal was kept in confinement while the other detainees were dropped off on February 18 in an isolated area, from where they had to walk for an hour to find transportation back to their homes. Mahal was presented in front of the Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) without her family being informed, which permitted her to be kept in remand custody for a week. Subsequently, the ATC extended the period of her detention twice on February 24 and March 4. Ten days later, on March 14, Mahal was brought before the Sessions Court which then extended her detention by another 10 days. Despite being produced before the court four times, the CTD has failed to charge Mahal with a crime.
The Charges Against Mahal Baloch
In the initial days after her arrest, the CTD accused Mahal Baloch of being a suicide attacker for the Balochistan Liberation Front. In the First Information Report registered against her, the CTD said she was caught carrying a bag containing a suicide vest and was allegedly on her way to the place she intended to attack.
After a month into her detention, the Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) shifted its position on Mahal Baloch’s case. According to new claims by the CTD, Mahal was not an attacker herself but rather a facilitator for the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF). The CTD alleges that Mahal was on her way to hand over the suicide vest to another individual who was the intended attacker.
It is pertinent to mention that despite bringing Mahal to court four times, the CTD has failed to produce any significant evidence implicating her in the alleged crime.
The Treatment of Mahal Baloch in Detention
Mahal Baloch’s treatment in detention has been a source of concern for her family and supporters. Reports suggest that she has suffered physical and mental abuse while in custody, causing her to become weak and malnourished. During one of her court appearances, she fainted, highlighting the severity of her condition. Human rights groups and her family members have spoken out against her mistreatment and called for a fair and just resolution to her case.
The Reliability of the Confession
The Counter-Terrorism Department recently released a video confession that shows Mahal Baloch purportedly admitting her role as a BLF facilitator. The CTD officials held a press conference in Quetta alongside Babar Yousafzai, the spokesperson for the Chief Minister of Balochistan, where they reiterated the points Mahal makes in her video confession.
The officials said Mahal was part of a larger plan to carry out an unprecedented attack in Balochistan, which the CTD had thwarted. They alleged that Mahal’s late husband was a member of the BLF and had “brainwashed” her into joining the group’s cause. They said that BLF had recruited Mahal by threatening to harm her kids and her family.
The officials also accused Bibi Gul Baloch, an activist and the chairperson of the Balochistan Human Rights Council, of being a conduit for the transfer of funds and information between BLF and Mahal. They said that Bibi Gul had fled to Iran, and her younger sister, Pari Gul, had taken over the role.
Mahal’s video confession has stirred up contention and controversy: Baloch activists, rights groups, and her family members have dismissed the confession as CTD’s attempt to frame her for the crimes she has not committed. They say the CTD could not find a shred of evidence against Mahal, so they prepared a statement and forced her to read it out loud in front of a video camera. Her confession does not appeal to logic, reason, or common sense, they argue.
Related: The Bloody Trail of Fake Encounters – TBP Feature Report
The Balochistan Liberation Front has denied having any connections to Mahal Baloch, saying that her illegal arrest is a ploy to coerce her family into quitting their activism.
The Voice for Baloch Missing Persons, a rights group campaigning for the safe release of Baloch missing persons, rejected Mahal’s confession, saying it was scripted and made under duress. Mama Qadeer Baloch, the Vice-President of the group, said Mahal has been kept in illegal confinement for over a month where she has been mentally and physically tortured. The CTD took her on remand four times, but could not find a scintilla of evidence against her. Resultantly, they had no choice but to force her to confess. He said the security forces are also trying to pressure Mahal’s family into silence.
The Baloch National Movement (BNM), a pro-independence political movement, condemned Mahal’s confession in a media statement, saying that exposes the weakness of the forces’ narrative. The BNM said Mahal comes from a political family – her father-in-law, the late Muhammad Hussain, was an eminent nationalist; and her sister-in-law, Bibi Gul Baloch, is the chairperson of the Human Rights Council of Balochistan, a rights group that has been at the forefront of the struggle for the rights of the Baloch people. The BNM said that the security forces deliberately targeted Mahal to force her family – Bibi Gul specifically – into silence. By framing her as a facilitator of the BLF, the security forces are trying to undermine the credibility of HRCB as a peaceful and non-violent human rights group.
The Baloch Yakjehti Committee (BYC) has joined the chorus of voices denouncing Mahal Baloch’s alleged confession video, highlighting that such confessions hold no legal weight in court. This is just the latest in a string of cases where security forces have unlawfully detained and charged innocent individuals, such as Hafeez Baloch, an MPhil student at QAU who was framed as a militant. The BYC warns that this pattern of targeting innocent people and fabricating charges must be addressed before it becomes the norm in Balochistan.
Paris-based Amnesty International also raised concerns over Mahal’s Baloch illegal detention. In a letter to the Interior Minister of Pakistan, Rana Sanaullah, the group demanded an immediate end to Mahal’s arbitrary detention. The group urged that if there is credible, admissible evidence against her, the authorities must ensure her rights to a fair trial are guaranteed and that she has the right to challenge the lawfulness of her detention and conviction.
Detained for Terrorism or Targeted for Activism? The Case of Mahal Baloch
The Legality of the Confession
After Mahal’s video confession was released, The Balochistan Post reached out to legal experts to hear their opinion on the legality of the confession. According to the experts, confessions are generally viewed as unreliable and are inadmissible in evidence in Pakistan if they are obtained through coercion. Moreover, security forces are prohibited from publicizing such confessions, especially if they have not been presented before a court or if the detainee has not been convicted.
Confessions are admissible under Section 21H of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997 in Pakistan’s Code of Criminal Procedure but under certain strict conditions. For a confession to be admissible, it must not be made before an officer below the rank of a District Superintendent of Police (DSP). The DSP is also obliged to ascertain that the detainee is confessing voluntarily and make it clear to her that she is not bound to make any confession, and that the confession can and will be used against her in court. Furthermore, confessions like these require that the advocate of the accused be present at the time of the recording.
Were these requirements met before recording Mahal’s video confession? It does not appear so. Even if all the requirements are met, confessions make for poor evidence in court. There are dozens of instances of courts in Pakistan dismissing confessions in high-profile cases.
Mahal’s confession has given rise to a litany of other questions: Why was this confession released a month after her detention? Why was this confession made public before being presented before the court? What is the guarantee that the confession was not coerced? Was Mahal given the right to a lawyer before the confession? If not, why? If yes, where is their statement?
In Mahal’s case, the video confession was made public and she is yet to be proven guilty. Acts like this not only contravene the law but also affect the proceedings of the case. Even if the charges against Mahal are scrapped and she is freed, would she live a normal life in society, considering that there is a video of her confessing to being a militant? And how would this impact her children – how would they feel growing up knowing their mother had confessed, if not voluntarily, to being a criminal? The outcome of this case might be uncertain, but one thing is certain – Mahal and her family’s lives would never be the same.
The illegal confinement, torture, and ostensibly forced confession of Mahal Baloch have raised concerns in Balochistan. Rights groups are concerned that this might become the new norm in Balochistan – abducting family members of rights activists to shut them down. The state of human rights in Balochistan is appalling as it is, and incidents like this only exacerbate the dread. Rights groups must take concrete steps to pressure the authorities into recognizing the rights of Mahal Baloch. If the charges against her bear any credence, she should be produced before the court per due procedure and convicted with credible, admissible, and damning evidence. And if there is no evidence against her, she must be released and allowed to go back to her family. Trust in Balochistan’s justice system has already eroded – Mahal’s false imprisonment would be the final nail in the coffin.