Leaders of rebel groups in Balochistan are seeking asylum in their ongoing campaign against Pakistani sovereignty in the province. The government is offering to discuss the dispute if rebel leaders agree to Pakistan's overall authority in the country.Image: iStock/Rainer Lesniewski
Balochistan. Image: iStock/Rainer Lesniewski

Traditionally, political asylum allows refugees to seek protection in another country. Misuse of this option, however, gives offenders a loophole to elude justice in their home country.

Under international law, extradition can be initiated between states for the return of a person who can then be tried for breaking the laws of the requesting state. Such individuals do not qualify as refugees. And even if an extradition treaty is not in place, most countries willingly hand over fugitives.

For several years, a few tribal chieftains from the Pakistani province of Balochistan have managed to escape to Europe. These chiefs, having opposed the Pakistan government over royalties for gas or other resources from their region, rebelled against Pakistan’s sovereignty.

Unrest claimed to be fomented from abroad

Divided mainly into two groups — the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) and the Baloch Republican Army (BRA) both of which are designated by Pakistan as terrorist organizations — have continued a low-key insurgency since 2004. Fomenting unrest from sanctuaries abroad, these separatist movements continued for a decade until their local infrastructure was mostly broken by law enforcement agencies.

Described by the Pakistan government as “one of the most wanted, known Baloch separatists,” separatist Baloch Republican Party leader Brahamdagh Bugti entered Switzerland in 2010. Confirmed by the US embassy cables external link published by Wikileaks, he was no ordinary refugee.

Bugti had escaped at first to Afghanistan where he continued his separatist activities. Later he went to Switzerland, as connections emerged with the abduction of a UN official from Quetta, the capital of Balochistan, in 2009 as disclosed by UN Resident Representative Fikret Akcura.  Surprisingly, in August 2016 Bugti announced during a BBC interview his willingness to negotiate peace with the Pakistan government. Subsequently, federal minister Abdul Qadir Baloch and the then Balochistan chief minister, Dr. Abdul Malik Baloch, contacted him but he expressed the wish to meet even higher authorities. Staying on abroad, Bugti has held press conferences and mounted poster advertisement campaigns in Switzerland paid for by unknown sources.

Pakistan asks Swiss to remove rebel posters

Describing Bugti’s campaign as “a flagrant attack against the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Pakistan,” the country’s UN representative protested against the banner ads in Geneva and asked Swiss authorities on Sept. 6 to remove them.

Subsequently, Bugti’s  asylum request, pending for seven years, was rejected by Swiss authorities on Nov. 22.  After an earlier asylum request was rejected by Swiss immigration officials, Bugti asked India on Sept. 19, 2016 to grant him asylum. He said Swiss authorities were indulging in delay tactics, and not having a Swiss passport hampered his travel plans.

Bugti told a news conference in Geneva that his party had allowed him to pursue asylum in India for himself and his family

Bugti told a news conference in Geneva that his party had allowed him to pursue asylum in India for himself and his family, “We have decided to formally file asylum papers to the Indian government soon.”

Bugti’s brother-in-law, Mehran Marri, had been detained at Zurich airport and told there was an entry ban against him. “The Swiss government is not pushing me out but making me uncomfortable and frustrated so that I leave voluntarily,” Bugti said.

No bilateral extradition treaty exists between Pakistan and Switzerland, but  Swiss law still allows a wanted person to be handed over based on reciprocity, as confirmed by the Swiss justice ministry.

Dealing with the United Nations and other countries, the Pakistan government has for some time been attempting to bring the insurgents home, even mulling involving Interpol. Providing shelter to these wanted criminals is against Pakistan’s state interests and its sovereignty. Worse, activities like these are mainly focused on destabilizing a nuclear power.

Rebels respond to government reprieve

In recent years, most of the rebels at home have laid down their arms when offered a reprieve by the Pakistani government. The absconding chieftains had kept the locals backward and deprived of health and education for decades. They were being used as pawns against Pakistan’s national security interests.

“The insurgents willing to give up their arms and renounce violence will be brought back into the national mainstream in consultation with other stakeholders,” the government has announced. Hundreds of rebels renounced violence after the government offered a monetary package in a peace program. “Those who turn themselves in and give up violence are being dealt with in accordance with the law,” Balochistan government official Anwar ul Haq Kakar said, describing the success of the peace program.

Kakar credited Sanaullah Zehri, chief minister of the province, with the“fast improving security situation.” As for the absconding Baloch leaders, the Pakistan government is willing to begin a dialogue once they submit to the state’s overall lawful authority. Ending an 18-year exile, Ghazain Marri, brother of Baloch nationalist Hyrbyair Marri, recently returned home, and this reconciliation process continues through intermediaries so that their grievances are addressed and they can rejoin the national mainstream.

Foreign Affairs Journalist, Lawyer and geopolitical analyst. Writing about modern China, the Belt and Road Initiative, Middle East and South Asia. Bylines in Al-Monitor, The Diplomat, South China Morning Post and Asia Research Institute's Asia Dialogue Twitter @sabena_siddiqi

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