The authorities investigating the current spate of execution-style sectarian killings in Quetta say it is part of a systematic campaign launched by the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi to persecute half a million members of the Persian speaking Hazara community into leaving Pakistan, the way the Taliban regime of Mullah Omar forced thousands of them to abandon Afghanistan between 1995 and 2001.
In its latest attack on October 4, the LeJ killed 14 more Hazaras traveling on a bus to work in Quetta. The attackers forced them off the bus, made them stand in a line and then opened fire. The massacre was literally an action replay of the September 20 cold-blooded execution-style killing of 29 pilgrims of Hazara community in the Mastung area of Quetta who were on their way to Iran from Quetta. Armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers, the attackers stopped the bus and forced the pilgrims to get off. While women and children were spared, they were made to witness the execution of their dear ones who were lined up and sprayed with bullets.
The LeJ had claimed responsibility for the massacre. The LeJ, which has strong ties with the al-Qaeda and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, is a sworn enemy of a particular sect and has a declared agenda of ridding Pakistan of it.
Available figures show that a total of 422 Hazaras have been killed in Balochistan alone since 1999. Well-informed sources in the intelligence establishment say the killing spree in Quetta is being spearheaded by one of the most wanted LeJ activist, Usman Saifullah Kurd. Interestingly, Kurd had been arrested in 2006 but he finally escaped from a Quetta jail in January 2008.
Those investigating the ongoing killings of Hazaras say the campaign has intensified in the aftermath of the May 2, 2011 killing of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in an American military raid in Pakistan. Immediately after the Abbottabad episode, a spokesman of the LeJ, who identified himself as Ali Sher Haidri, threatened to avenge the killing of Sheikh Osama bin Laden by targeting not only government ministers and Pakistani security forces personnel but also the Hazaras.
Shortly afterwards, threatening letters were circulated in Hazara areas of Quetta, warning residents either to leave Balochistan by 2012 or to get prepared for more violence because the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi will be intensifying the holy war against the Hazaras, similar to the one waged by the Afghan Taliban against the Hazaras in Bamiyan and Ghazni provinces of Afghanistan .
Mostly settled in central Afghanistan, the Hazaras comprise the third-largest ethnic group of Afghanistan. The Hazara Mongols of Afghanistan represent one of the last surviving Mongol remnants in western Asia of the vast empire, which was conquered by the armies of Chinggis Khan in the early 13th century and consolidated by his descendants. The Mongol origin of the Hazaras is attested by their high cheekbones and sparse beards.
Over half a million Hazaras living in Pakistan, especially in the Quetta district, are Afghan refugees who settled in the city following the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent outbreak of the Afghan civil war. They are the frequent target of attacks in Afghanistan as well as in Pakistan by sectarian-cum-militant groups.
Those investigating the upsurge in sectarian attacks in Quetta believe the dreadful tendency has something to do with the recent release of Malik Mohammad Ishaq, the operational chief of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi who had been charged with involvement in 100-plus sectarian murders but released by the Supreme Court on bail due to lack of evidence . Malik Ishaq s release instantly caused sectarian tensions that were prompted by the sectarian sermons he began delivering while touring Punjab, coupled with the release of an open letter addressed to the Hazara community living in Quetta.
Therefore, on September 21, 2011 hardly 24 hours after the bloodbath in Mastung, Malik Ishaq was placed under temporary house arrest in Rahim Yar Khan, with district police officer Sohail Chattha saying: Ishaq s conduct has endangered sectarian harmony and caused a sudden rise in the sectarian temperature in the country.
According to Punjab police records, after being arrested by Punjab police in 1997 on charges of involvement in 102 murders, Ishaq confessed to committing 11 and abetting 57 other killings. But according to Ishaq s lawyer, Misbahul Haq, who pleaded his bail case in the Supreme Court, his client was acquitted in 35 cases because of lack of evidence , and granted bail in eight cases and discharged in one case. The last charge leveled against him was masterminding from his jail cell the March 2009 terrorist attack targeting a bus carrying the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. During subsequent investigations, it transpired that the LeJ attackers wanted to take hostage the cricket team to get Ishaq released. He was bailed out anyway by the Supreme Court due to lack of evidence and the weak case of the prosecution , as observed by two apex court judges while bailing him out against a surety bond of a million rupees.
While giving its verdict, a division bench of the apex court comprising Justice Shahid Siddiqui and Justice Asif Khosa expressed dissatisfaction over the poor performance of the prosecution in establishing its case against the accused. The court observed that the prosecution produced only two witnesses who stated that they had heard conversations between some people planning to take the Sri Lankan cricket team hostage to get Ishaq released. The bench censured the prosecutor general of Punjab, saying: The judiciary has to face the wrath of the public when it releases such accused due to lack of evidence and weak case of the prosecution.
On the other hand, Malik Ishaq said in a brief media talk after being set free: We were never terrorists and killers and the apex court has also proven that. He was cheered by hundreds of LeJ activists and showered with rose petals as he walked from a high-security prison in Lahore to a waiting land cruiser that was surrounded by dozens of his arms-wielding supporters. The million-dollar questions remains: are the Pakistani authorities incapable or unwilling to stop the march of al-Qaeda-linked LeJ as it goes about its goal of radicalizing Pakistan.