Pakistani exiles have started dying. They aren’t the only ones; the growing power of social media is pushing authoritarian governments to silence all critics, regardless of distance or cost.
For over a decade Karima Baloch organised protests against an escalating state-backed programme of abduction and torture, establishing herself as a recognised grassroots voice. This highly visible civil-society role led the Pakistani state to eventually file formal charges, which in turn led her to asylum in Canada in 2016.
Exile in the West has, until now, meant safety from the Pakistan Army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Karima’s unexplained death in Toronto two weeks ago triggered a wave of outright fear among Pakistani exiles that this is no longer the case, coming as it did after the equally mysterious death in Sweden of journalist Sajid Hussain Baloch this March/April.
Canadian and Swedish law enforcement have publicly treated both deaths as non-homicides, but the sheer volume and intensity of threats directed at the victims have made it impossible for families and friends to accept these verdicts at face value. Meanwhile, Pakistani nationalist troll armies on social media, widely believed to coordinate with the military’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), have openly gloated over the deaths and promised more, even while insisting that India’s R&AW (Research and Analysis Wing) is actually to blame.
Even if Karima and Sajid’s deaths were the result of accident or self-harm and this suspicious pattern were to end, there is no mistaking the intent of those waging the relentless campaigns of intimidation and gaslighting. The message to Pakistani exiles is that their lives are at risk no matter where they are, so long as they actively oppose the state. The question is what insecurities are driving this new level of harshness; the answers are both regional and global.
War on exiles
The Pakistan Army’s anxieties have steadily risen since the election of Narendra Modi in 2014. National Security Adviser Ajit Doval publicly stated that India would take a more offensive posture and exploit Pakistan’s internal fissures and vulnerabilities. The Afghan government, engaged in a life-and-death struggle against the Taliban, has made similar threats. Finding themselves caught between an aggressive New Delhi and Kabul has been Pakistani generals’ very worst fear since the 1971 war. Unable to change the external environment, they have instead turned the screws on everyone at home.
Balochistan has received special attention thanks to its long history of separatism, and the Pakistani establishment’s obsession with Gwadar Port, the imagined solution to their strategic woes. But the chokehold on the press, civil society and political parties across every province in Pakistan has tightened. Those who flee abroad are ‘loose ends’ that the deep state must tie up. Even Asad Durrani, a retired three-star general and former ISI Director-General, finds himself on the Exit Control List for speaking out too freely.
But the war on exiles is a worldwide phenomenon. Thai dissidents in Laos have turned up dead in the Mekong River, their insides filled with cement. Russian defectors have been poisoned with exotic weapons. Most grisly of all, noted journalist Jamal Khashoggi was dismembered by the Saudi government’s ‘Tiger Team’ in their Istanbul consulate. It’s tempting to put all of this down to the weakening of global norms and of Western will to enforce them. That may be true, but it also misses something far more profound, which is the death of distance itself.
The internet threat
Exile in the old-media era was often a win-win for repressive regimes. It rid them of trouble-makers without creating martyrs. Unless a dissident was already extraordinarily famous, most eventually sank to nuisance level and then irrelevance once they were no longer part of the societies they sought to change. Today, with smartphones in nearly every pocket, an ordinary exilee can not only stay in touch with the millions at home, but act as influencers who transform the conversation. Authoritarians understand this, and they’re taking action.
Jamal Khashoggi wasn’t killed for his criticisms of the Saudi government in the Washington Post and Al-Jazeera. As The Dissident, a documentary by Oscar-winning director Bryan Fogel explores in detail, the likely cause was his collaboration with Canada-based Saudi refugee Omar Abdulaziz in building a Twitter army that could break the government’s monopolisation of public discourse. This is a grave threat in an absolute monarchy where the citizenry is overwhelmingly online. Abdulaziz and others have meanwhile been informed by Canadian authorities that the threats to their lives remain extremely serious.
Over 35 per cent of Pakistan’s population is now on the Internet and that figure is growing rapidly. It seems unlikely that Pakistani intelligence wouldn’t consider taking a leaf out of their Saudi colleagues’ books, given their decades of intimate collaboration. Saudi Arabia paid a temporary diplomatic and economic price for killing Khashoggi, but now that sacrificial lambs within the government have been found, it seems fully rehabilitated.
Pakistan cannot muster the same level of international influence, so it’d have every reason to be more discreet. The bottom line is that there is every reason to think that as the power of the Internet grows, and the struggle for democracy intensifies, the threat to exiles will grow. Host nations, and all those who want to see a stable, democratic Pakistan, must take the threats seriously and find ways to deter such actions.
Johann Chacko writes on current affairs and is a doctoral researcher at SOAS, University of London. Views are personal.