December 09, 2007

European Parliament protests arrest of Baloch nationalists

Sunday December 9, 01:12 PM

London, Dec 9 (IANS) British authorities have been criticised by the European Parliament as well as human rights activists and accused of plotting a 'prisoner swap' with Pakistan after the mysterious arrest this week of two London-based nationalists from the oil-rich province of Balochistan.

The two men, Faiz Mohammed Baluch and Nawabzada Hyrbiyar Marri, were held under the Terrorism Act following raids in London Tuesday morning, sparking condemnations by the high-profile British rights activist Peter Tatchell and the Strasbourg- and Brussels-based European Parliament.

And, according to Lakhumal Luhana, a Baloch human rights campaigner in London, the arrests were part of a plan to exchange the two men for Rashid Rauf, a suspected Islamic terrorist who is being held in Pakistan and is wanted by Britain.

Britain and Pakistan are claimed to be in secret talks for the extradition of 26-year-old Rauf, a suspect in an alleged plot to blow up US-bound passenger planes with liquid explosives in August last year.

Rauf, who is from the city of Birmingham and is a dual citizen of Britain and Pakistan, was arrested in Bahawalpur, Pakistan, in August 2006 - a month after Britain put an organisation known as the Baluchistan Liberation Army in its list of banned terrorist groups.

Although charges against him in Pakistan were dropped in December 2006, British newspapers reported in April this year that Pakistan was prepared to extradite Rauf in exchange for eight suspected members of the Baluchistan Liberation Army.

Islamabad says the eight men are involved in low-intensity insurgency in Balochistan, a remote and insurgency-prone Pakistani province that is said to be rich in oil and natural gas deposits.

The Daily Telegraph newspaper said Rauf is expected to be extradited in the next few weeks but that Britain has become increasingly frustrated by Pakistan's insistence on arresting Baloch nationalists.

It said Pakistan has held back intelligence vital to Britain's counter-terrorism effort and co-operation with the campaign in neighbouring Afghanistan on the grounds that Britain must first arrest Baloch activists suspected of being involved in insurgency.

The two men arrested in London are being detained on suspicion of the 'commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism,' according to the police.

But Luhana said: 'This is a prisoner swap. We have asked the British not to succumb to pressure and to support the Baloch, a secular force in Pakistan.'

Meanwhile, members of the European Parliament, an elected body that meets in Strasbourg and Brussels, criticised Pakistan at an urgent meeting held Wednesday for what they described as Islamabad's 'illegal and indirect ways to pressurise and curb Baloch human rights workers living outside Pakistan.'

MEPs claimed Pakistan was 'making forged police cases against Balochis living abroad', and urged British authorities not to hand over the two arrested men to the Pakistani Army.

British human rights activist Peter Tatchell said the pair was lawful campaigners for Baloch independence, and feared the two men could be sentenced to death if extradited to Pakistan.

'I urge the British government to not give in to pressure from the Pakistani dictator, President (Pervez) Musharraf,' he said. 'The extradition of these men would result in their arrest, torture, imprisonment and possible execution.

'The Pakistani authorities have repeatedly sought to frame peaceful nationalists and human rights campaigners, both inside Baluchistan and abroad. These arrests are likely to have been at the request of the Pakistan government, which has long been seeking the extradition of Baluch nationalists exiled in London,' Tatchell added.

The British High Commission in Islamabad has denied reports of a prisoner-swap. Reports said Britain will find it difficult to extradite Baloch nationalists as Pakistan regularly imposes the death penalty

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