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‘Heartbreaking and scary’: Shock, suspicion greet death of human rights activist Karima Mehrab in Toronto


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‘Heartbreaking and scary’: Shock, suspicion greet death of human rights activist Karima Mehrab in Toronto

On Sunday, Karima Mehrab told her husband she needed a break from her studies and left their North York home on a walk.

Mehrab never returned to her family.

The 37-year-old activist for the Balochistan separatist movement against the Pakistan government, who was granted political asylum in Canada two years ago, was supposed to take an online exam Monday for a course she’d been taking at the University of Toronto.

Instead, the body of the woman the BBC four years ago named as one of the 100 most inspirational and influential women, was pulled from the lake near the downtown waterfront.

Toronto police have said the case is not suspicious.

Her death, however, has sent chills through the dissident community here and around the world.

In May, exiled Baloch journalist Sajid Hussain was pulled from a river in Sweden, weeks after he disappeared. Police at the time were reported as saying his death could have been an accident or suicide, though they could not definitively rule out foul play.

“It can’t be a coincidence that two activists meet the same fate. It’s quite strange,” said former journalist Hina Baloch, who met Mehrab in Pakistan about 15 years ago at a press club event in Pakistan and became a close friend.

“It’s hard to believe it’s a random death. We need to get her justice. This is heartbreaking and scary for everyone in the community.”

Mehrab was born and raised in Tump, a town in Balochistan, an area that had been under the British rule until 1947 and was later ceded to Pakistan as one of the country’s four provinces.

In 2006, she joined the Baloch Students Organization, one of the groups behind the Balochistan separatist movement banned by Islamabad. The student group accuses Pakistani authorities of human rights atrocities in the region, where armed Baloch groups have been fighting a years-long separatist war against Pakistani security forces.

She came to Canada in 2015 seeking political asylum after facing terrorism charges and death threats.

Even after she fled Pakistan, Mehrab continued advocating for the Balochistan people and would attend rallies and international conferences to speak out against human rights violations by the Pakistani government, said her colleague and close friend, Lateef Johar, who fled to Canada for asylum the same year Mehrab had.

In January, said Johar, Mehrab enrolled in a bridging program at the U of T and this fall started taking first-year courses for an undergraduate degree in political science.

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Johar said he didn’t notice any signs of depression or anxiety when he saw her most recently in the university library last Thursday. The two chatted again the following day by phone.

He said Mehrab always informed her family of her whereabouts and they were concerned after she lost contact Sunday. They reported her disappearance to police.

The following day, her husband, her brother and his family, along with friends, started looking for her near the Harbourfront and the Toronto Islands, an area she was known to frequent. During the search, they got a call from the police that her body was found.

“She was a happy person. It was a shock,” said Johar, who studies at U of T student. “We respect the police, but we will not believe or accept her death was an accident or a suicide.”

Friends said Mehrab had been receiving threatening messages on social media and that her husband, Hammal Haider, had been followed, as recently as this fall.

“She was really worried about that. There was this other dissident killed in Sweden. Knowing all of that, she was stressed,” said journalist Kiran Nazish, who met Mehrab in Pakistan a decade ago and now resides in Canada.

Toronto police declined to comment on whether Mehrab had filed any complaint about alleged threats or whether there is a public safety concern for members of the Baloch community in Canada. Mehrab’s husband also did not respond to the Star’s request for comment.

Nazish said Mehrab was one of the few Baloch exiles who remained vocal against human rights violations in Pakistan.

“Karima was one of the few top leaders in terms of releasing information from the ground as a voice for Balochistan. The internet right now is flooded with anger and trauma,” said Nazish.

“She had overcome a lot and seen deaths up close. She fought hard for people’s lives. I know as a friend, as a mentor, she wanted to live and keep doing her work as an activist.”

Pakistani officials in Canada did not respond to the Star’s repeated requests for comments about Mehrab’s death.

But in a previous story in response to her political asylum in Canada, an official told the Star that Pakistan had a democratic government and dismissed Mehrab’s allegations about the military crackdown against dissent.

With a file from The Canadian Press

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung

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