On 23rd October 2022, Pakistani journalist Arshad Sharif was killed in Kenya. While the investigation is going on, there are apprehensions that the Pakistani Establishment was behind this. He is not the first journalist to have been killed or attacked. Baloch journalist Sajid Baloch was found dead on 23 April 2020 in Uppsala and Baloch activist Karima Baloch was found dead on 22 December 2020 in Toronto.
Pakistani activist Ahmed Waqass Goraya was attacked in his Rotterdam home and survived. There have been several cases like this and all fingers point towards the Pakistani Establishment in some way or the other.
In an exclusive interview, I meet Pakistani journalist-in-exile Taha Siddiqui at his Dissident Club in Paris. While he continued to serve his customers some nice French wine and English whisky, we discuss his exile from Pakistan and threats to his life in France, corruption in Pakistan, Balochistan death squads, decay of the Pakistani State etc.
Excerpts from the interview:
IN: What were the circumstances in which you had to flee Pakistan?
TS: On 10th January 2018, I survived a kidnapping and assassination attempt carried out by armed men that I believe were from the Pakistani military. This case has been well documented and you can read more about it. I was receiving threats from the Pakistani military for the last five years preceding the attack. In 2017, a year before the attack, I was charged with cybercrime and terrorism for maligning the military. I was reporting for several international publications including some Indian news organizations and have been writing about military affairs, human rights abuses of the Pakistani military especially in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, connections between the military and the militancy, businesses of the military etc., and these topics are taboo in Pakistan.
The military told me to stop doing my work and they tried to arrest me. And eventually, they tried to attack and kill me. Shortly after the attack, I was invited by the then Interior Minister of Pakistan, Ahsan Iqbal who privately told me that the government has no problem with me but the military does and that it was better if I write an apology letter and stop my work if I want to stay alive. It was then that I realized that it would not be safe in Pakistan anymore so I decided that I should relocate at least for some time so that things calm down and then I will reassess my situation.
After a few months of landing in France, I was contacted by French intelligence and they told me that my name is on a kill list and I would be assassinated if I ever return to Pakistan. Even the US intelligence reiterated the same while I was in Washington D.C. for a conference. And this applies to Pakistan-friendly countries as well, so they told me to stay away from China, Turkey and Middle Eastern countries and that I should also be careful in Paris because anything can happen anywhere. And this was a time when Jamal Khashoggi had been killed in Istanbul.
So, they thought, other States like Pakistan might be emboldened to carry out certain things. Now, living in Paris for four-and-a-half years, my parents continue to be harassed, get regular visits from Pakistani military officials telling them that I should stop writing and speaking up otherwise they will be harmed. As of now, nothing has happened and there have been verbal threats, but as I was verbally harassed and threatened earlier, so I have fears. I chose to go abroad and go into exile so that I could continue to write and speak up so I don’t want to compromise on that, it’s a tough situation.
IN: Several Pakistani journalists-dissidents in various western countries have been targeted and killed. In your Washington Post article, you said you don’t feel safe in France. Don’t you believe in France’s mantra – Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite?
TS: When you go into exile and continue to do the work because of which you had to flee then threats follow you. No place in the world is safe for dissidents like me. There are many examples of other dissidents in exile who have been attacked.
In 2013, three Kurdish dissidents were killed by Turkish intelligence in Paris. Similarly, we’ve had attacks against Russian dissidents, Saudi dissidents, Chinese dissidents etc. I feel safer but I don’t feel safe. France is a country that is protecting me but at the same time diplomatic values and norms take over human rights values at times. There was surveillance by Pakistani embassy people in this bar. I had a Chinese embassy official coming here and trying to intimidate me in a friendly way. I reported these incidents and nothing happened.
I expected that governments in the West should question the foreign missions of countries like Pakistan and China which are carrying out espionage and hostile activities on foreign soil. A stern message should be given to these foreign missions however I don’t see anything yet.
IN: Dollars are pouring in for Pakistan for flood relief work other than Lashkar-e-Toiba, which you have mentioned, where Al-Khidmat Foundation and the Pakistan Army are also the beneficiaries. How much money do you think will reach the common people?
TS: Firstly, I think Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) is doing its own fundraising which is alarming because how much of that will be spent on flood relief and how much will go to fund their terror activities is questionable considering there is no transparency when it comes to organizations like these.
Secondly, Al-Khidmat organization, a charity of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) is globally launching appeals and getting money from Muslims around the world. JI was involved in jihad back in the day until they became mainstream but I don’t trust them as terrorists from LeT or Taliban at one point in time had connections with JI. It is like the first platform towards being radicalized as Islamist. I have reported on Al-Khidmat and JI, they help people who are vulnerable so that they can exploit them for their means.
I think we should focus on helping or giving aid to organizations which are secular and have much more credibility and transparency like the Edhi foundation and several others. But coming back to the last part of your question about the military, the military has gotten into the business of disaster management since 2005 under General Musharraf. Before that there was no National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). As a result of the 2005 earthquake, a lot of money came into Pakistan as aid and Gen. Musharraf realized that money can be siphoned by way of administrative expenses. Also, the military is huge and retired military officials need jobs, and military work as a mafia where they provide for their own people by placing them in positions of power. For example, the chief of NDMA has always been and is still a person from the military.
Then, there are military budgets. Given the fact that there’s so much censorship about military affairs in Pakistan you cannot question it or ask for transparency. So again, an organization which is not transparent and which cannot be held accountable in the country, I don’t think should be given money or be trusted with flood relief or rehabilitation work. I think international donors should come forward this time and make Pakistan’s aid conditional to make relief work more democratic.
Bringing democracy components within the relief work will ensure that this relief aid goes to civilian and secular organizations rather than to Islamists and the military.
IN: Pakistani intellectuals and politicians have called out countries and organizations to provide relaxation in their debt structure. What is your opinion?
TS: Pakistan was already going through an economic crisis before floods and they have been looking for bailouts from the IMF, friendly countries like Saudi Arabia and international partners like the US. We need to make Pakistan accountable and ask them why we have an economic crisis; the economic crisis exists not because Pakistan is not able to manage itself but because Pakistan mismanages itself by derailing democracy. And when you do that then systems don’t build and you have an economic crisis. So Pakistan is responsible for it.
Climate change is affecting Pakistan and its footprint is very low, I believe developed countries should be helping developing countries as the impact of developing countries is much lesser so that debate is justified. But at the same time if Pakistan gets any relief in its debts then this will be a good opportunity to make Pakistan hold accountable. Pakistan has sent out an appeal for over $3 billion and they’ve only managed to raise around $600 million. Foreign countries have realized that we can’t just keep on helping Pakistan without Pakistan trying to change itself, I hope there’s more such realization.
But the problem is even if the US or Europe makes this realization, China is standing behind Pakistan to give out money as geopolitical interests triumph over human rights values. Then the Western countries also pour in money to counter China’s influence. The West should always remember to press for human rights values that it so professes to the world.
IN: Your piece on Balochistan death squads has been a real eye-opener. Why do you think the Pakistan Army developed this strategy?
TD: Pakistan’s military created this strategy of Death Squads two decades ago, the idea was basically to militarize the people and give them weapons. They usually employ Baloch people for that so that it can create divisions within the Baloch movement.
Most of these death squad members are local drug lords, local criminals etc. and the Pakistan military has created these private militias and outsourced the work that the Pakistan military would do itself so it doesn’t dirty its own hands anymore. So it’s kind of outsourcing the conflict to criminals so that Baloch can be intimidated into silence or death.
IN: Do you think Baloch nationalists can counter Death Squads?
TS: The Baloch resistance is still strong in some parts, especially in southern Balochistan and they have recently created a new coalition etc. Recently Baloch armed struggle has gained some strength and momentum but the Baloch people have been subjugated and kept in such poverty that it’s very hard for people to struggle and fight back.
Sadly enough, a common Baloch whether he/she has separatist ideas or not but because of their ethnic identity they are stuck between the rebellion and death squads. Many times they get killed, and even personal scores are settled through that. I’m not sure how Baloch we’ll be able to counter these Death Squads but they are fighting back and they have all my support.
IN: With so much financial/political trouble in Pakistan mired with ethnic tensions. Do you foresee Pakistan breaking up again? The Baloch people seem to think that a Bangladesh repeat is likely to happen sooner rather than later with Balochistan breaking away.
TS: Pakistan is a post-colonial state which had no prior existence, because of which its foundation is weak. And that’s why Bangladesh happened, it was just illogical to create this country based on religion as religion doesn’t unite us, it divides us. I think further down the road if Pakistan continues the way it is, which we don’t see any signs of changing, which is basically the Pakistani military and Punjab, mainly which the military is comprised of, continues to oppress other nations which live within Pakistan like Sindhis, Baloch, Pashtuns, Kashmiris etc.
Slowly and gradually they will break off because there’s only so much of oppression you can do and eventually then people break away. And Pakistani State is not helping to erase those fault lines rather they are aggravating those fault lines by their attitude towards the people of these nations.