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Op-ed: Canada — and U of T — must advocate for Karima Mehrab

In remembrance of a Baloch human rights activist and U of T student
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Karima Mehrab. COURTESY OF SAMEER MEHRAB
Karima Mehrab. COURTESY OF SAMEER MEHRAB

The Government of Canada must investigate the mysterious death of Karima Mehrab. Also known as Karima Baloch, Mehrab was a human rights and political activist from Balochistan, a region under Pakistan’s control. Mehrab advocated for Balochistan’s independence from Pakistan. 

While in asylum in Canada, where she has been a graduate of the University of Toronto’s academic bridging program and was taking first year courses, Mehrab went missing on December 20 and her dead body was found in the water in Toronto Island the next day. 

In understanding Mehrab’s life in advocacy, it is important that the U of T administration and community members come together to advocate for her and her family.

Mehrab’s life

She started her activism at the Baloch Students Organization (BSO) in 2006. She defied patriarchal norms and became the first woman activist in Balochistan. Soon, through her courage and hard work, she gained a prominent position in BSO leadership, influencing women and girls in political activities in Balochistan. 

During the period of 2008–2009, when the Pakistani army started abducting and killing political human rights and social activists and leaders, Mehrab took the reins of the party and became an even louder voice in politics and social and community activism in Balochistan.

In order to silence her growing voice, the Pakistani government booked her with false charges, attacked her house multiple times, and abducted and killed many teachers, including her uncle, Noor Ahmed, a teacher in the Tump area. Pakistan used its proxies and apparatus to disgrace women and discourage them from going to school and participating in social and political activities. 

These tactics are well documented. However, Mehrab never stopped challenging inequities and violence by putting her life at risk and encouraging and inspiring women and girls to get education and to be empowered.

In November 2015, she was forced to leave Balochistan in order to escape death threats and prosecution, and she sought asylum in Canada, continuing her activism after her arrival. She spoke at and attended multiple peaceful demonstrations and events explaining the situation in Balochistan, and she created awareness in the international community about Pakistan’s brutalities in Balochistan. 

In recognition of her extraordinary work and courage, she was listed in the 100 influential and inspirational women of 2006 by the BBC.

She endured many hurdles in her asylum application process, and unfortunately, the Canada Border Services Agency filed an inadmissibility order against her and suspended her application for asylum claim

The Canadian government and the Canada Border Services Agency couldn’t prove any of the allegations, but I personally witnessed her go through a lengthy and tiring process of reviews and interrogations. 

Finally, her application was accepted in January 2018 after two years. However, she then went through another lengthy process of obtaining her permanent resident status. It took her around three years to get permanent resident status. She struggled against all these hurdles and barricades until her mysterious death, but never compromised on her principles and struggle for humanity and women’s empowerment.

It’s unfortunate that, rather than recognizing her work or honouring Mehrab for her resilience and continuous struggle as a renowned political and human right activist, the Canadian government chose to refuse comment on the nature of her mysterious death in Toronto and treated the incident as an isolated event involving no foul play.

Calls for justice 

Her death caused worldwide demonstrations and media campaigns asking the Canadian government to conduct a thorough investigation into the issue that considers all facts and case realities in the past and present, including anonymous threats that she received leading up to her death. 

Currently, as Mehrab’s family and I wait for answers, the government has given us no response to these demands. It is extremely hurtful to see a democratic country like Canada, a leader in promoting human rights, ignoring a high profile and internationally well-known and celebrated human rights activist’s death on Canadian soil.

Therefore, speaking on behalf of the Human Rights Council of Balochistan and as a close friend and colleague of Mehrab, I am humbly requesting all respected human rights organizations and social activists to be part of our campaign asking the Canadian government to start a thorough investigation into Mehrab’s mysterious death, which would be the best tribute and posthumous recognition for an activist of her stature. 

The University of Toronto administration and community members must also recognize its celebrated human rights activist student’s work for humanity and women’s empowerment. Steps you can take to pay tribute to Mehrab and her sacrifices for humanity and women’s empowerment include signing the coming petition, writing to your MP and asking them to take the issue to parliament, speaking and writing about her using social media platforms, and working to support and preserve her great legacy.

Lateef Johar Baloch is a second-year political science and equity studies student at Woodsworth College. He is also the deputy coordinator of the Human Rights Council of Balochistan.