Private jails in Balochistan’s fiefdoms

Powerful sardars enjoy total impunity in their open defiance of the law.
Published July 5, 2023

WHEN Asghar* was locked up inside a sardar’s private jail in Haji Kot, he could not sleep for several days. “It took more than two months for me to get used to the darkness, the torture, and sleeping on the floor,” he tells Dawn at his home in Barkhan district.

“Despite my family repeatedly imploring the sardar to forgive me, it took years for me to be set free. I had started believing that living in the dark, existing on two small meals and a cup of tea per day would be my lot forever.”

He says he has not consulted a doctor, nor moved elsewhere after his release. “I don’t know anything about PTSD. I’m just glad I’m still alive.”

Asghar is one of many individuals who have experienced the horrors of being detained in the private jails of Balochistan’s powerful sardars. Though not acknowledged officially, the existence of such sites is an open secret, a festering sore on any notion of justice and a brazen challenge to the writ of the state.

MASTUNG: A small cemetery known as Lawaris Qabristan, or graveyard of the forgotten, on a rainy day. Most of the graves are in a decrepit state due to rain and neglect.—Photo by the writer
MASTUNG: A small cemetery known as Lawaris Qabristan, or graveyard of the forgotten, on a rainy day. Most of the graves are in a decrepit state due to rain and neglect.—Photo by the writer

The issue was in the spotlight earlier this year when the bodies of a woman and two young men were recovered from a well near the residence of the provincial minister for communication and works, Sardar Abdul Rehman Khetran. It was alleged that the three had been locked up in the sardar’s private jail in Barkhan district.

Dawn Investigations loca­t­­ed some individuals who claim to have been imprisoned in such private jails in various parts of Balochistan. Eastern Balochis­tan, where all-powerful sardars rule over a tribal culture frozen in time, is particularly notorious for such sites. What these former prisoners suffered, including sexual exploitation, at the hands of the private guards was inhuman — the worst experience of their lives, they say.

“On the first day, I was suspended from a girder in the courtyard, and I lost consciousness upon being beaten up by a guard,” reveals one of them. “After three consecutive nights, I finally stopped fainting from the physical violence.” It was the beginning of three years of hell.

“There were fetters on our legs and my hands were tied. One of my fellow prisoners would have to open the narra [drawstring] of my shalwar when I wanted to relieve myself, which I had to do in a cooler. That’s what the prisoners were given to use as a toilet,” he tells Dawn over the phone. “I went three years without taking a shower. I couldn’t even cut my hair and nails. I smelled of urine all the time as did the other prisoners.”

In the dead of night, the guards, many of whom had criminal backgrounds, would take them outside and taunt them over their disheveled appearance. “In winter, they would throw cold water on us in the courtyard, they would leave us there to die, hanging from the girder. I still suffer from trauma. My hands tremble so much, I can’t even hold a pen.”

One former prisoner said that during his two plus years in detention, he only saw sunlight after a mouse dug a little hole from outside into the room where he was kept.

Dawn Investigations tracked down another former prisoner, this one from Kachhi district. “There were 12 of us in custody, one of whom was suspended by his hands from a hook in the ceiling,” he told Dawn. “Among the prisoners was a Hindu man. He was reciting the Bhagavad Gita out of fear. I told him that the sardar and I are both Muslims, and if he didn’t forgive me over our own holy book, he won’t do it for your holy book either.”

Another former detainee, Fazal*, was kept in a room without any windows or air vents, he says while speaking to Dawn in his hometown of Barkhan. His hands and feet were constantly bound. “I even had to sleep like that,” he said, repeatedly putting his fingers to his face out of nervousness. “There was a water cooler in a corner of the room into which we would relieve ourselves. The smell and anxiety would not let us sleep.”

Powerful sardars enjoy total impunity in their open defiance of the law

If the guards overheard them speaking with one another, they would beat them up. “So mostly we would suffer in silence. There were half a dozen other prisoners in the same room. There were also female detainees in the adjacent room; we could sometimes hear their voices.”

Once detained in a private jail, the prisoners have no recourse to justice. If their families raise their voice, approach the courts or the media, they say they will turn up dead the very next day. Fazal’s family too had kept quiet over his incarceration.

One day, he was miraculously released. But the trauma continued to dog him. “For several days after I came home, I continued to sleep in the same position, as though my hands and feet were still tied.”

Rahim Baloch* is now in his 50s. It has been 19 years since his ordeal, but he has yet to recover from the psychological scars of his 19 days in detention. He still has vivid recollection of the six private guards with their faces covered, the red double-door pickup truck along with its number plate in which they abducted him.

After half an hour’s drive, they reached the hometown of the local sardar who, says Rahim, used to despise him because of his political activities. There, he was kept in a single, windowless room where pesticides were stored. “It was as if I was thrown into a grave,” he says.

Among his tormentors was the sardar’s teenaged son. “First his bodyguards would strip me, and then the young fellow would thrash me with the belt of a water pump motor until he got tired. Then the body guards would take turns to beat me with it every night.”

Pleas from the women in his family who would try to approach the sardar with a copy of the holy Quran fell on deaf ears. But his political activism brought pressure to bear from official authorities and from rights organisations, and he was released after 19 days. “I was like a dead man walking and had to be taken to Quetta for treatment,” he says. “I still live with the scars and the trauma.”

In 2006, the Supreme Court ordered Balochistan police to arrest and produce Sardar Khetran within a week for his alleged involvement in the forced marriages of two minor girls and abduction of their five relatives, as well as for running a private jail. Nothing came of it, and he remained free. It was a classic illustration of the carte blanche he enjoys that even an order by the highest court in the land was ignored.

Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, government officials categorically deny the existence of private jails in the province. In his press conference after being released on bail, Sardar Khetran also denied having a private jail.

Dawn tried several times to speak with Balochistan’s home minister, Ziaullah Longove on the subject, but he did not respond. He has, however, said on the floor of assembly: “There are no private jails in Balochistan.”

Babar Yousafzai, spokesman for the provincial chief minister also flatly denied to Dawn the existence of such sites.

 .The grave of a slain girl, whose body was found in a well in Barkhan district along with the two sons of Graanaz and Khan Mohammad Marri, who were killed along with the girl. The girl was buried in the Lawaris Qabristan, situated in Dasht, Mastung. —Photo by the writer
.The grave of a slain girl, whose body was found in a well in Barkhan district along with the two sons of Graanaz and Khan Mohammad Marri, who were killed along with the girl. The girl was buried in the Lawaris Qabristan, situated in Dasht, Mastung. —Photo by the writer

The all-powerful sardar

The Dawn correspondent had to go undercover to collect information in Barkhan district in March for this report, soon after Sardar Khetran obtained bail for the murders linked allegedly with his private jail. In the oppressive tribal culture, it would have been foolhardy and unproductive to seek information openly as a journalist. Many of those who speak to the correspondent believe him to be a Karachi-based researcher, looking into the district’s agricultural sector.

Situated almost seven hours by road from Quetta, Barkhan district is a green, partly mountainous area. Trees and shrubs even grow on the mountainsides here in the otherwise barren land of Balochistan.

Sardar Khetran was elected chief of the Khetran tribe in the early 1990s, after the mysterious murder of his paternal cousin Sardar Akbar Khetran, the only son and heir apparent of Sardar Anwar Jan, the head of the Khetran tribe at the time. He belongs to the Mazarani, a sub-tribe of the Khetran tribe — also known as the Sardarkhels because it is from this sub-tribe that the Khetran tribal sardars are drawn.

The son of Sardar Ahmad Shah Khetran and grandson of Ghazi Khan Khetran, Sardar Khetran even before becoming chief was embroiled in tribal enmity. The Mazarani Khetran of Chohar Kot are said to have lost 25 men of their family in the tribal feud with Sardar Khetran. One of the locals in Barkhan said that at one time there were no males left in Chohar Kot, which is situated next to Haji Kot, the ancestral seat of the Mazarani Khetran.

Sardar Khetran lives in Haji Kot, around a kilometre from the Barkhan tehsil in Barkhan district where the bodies of two young men and a young woman were recovered from a well in February this year.

In the 1990s, due to the tribal conflict, he sought refuge for two years in Dera Bugti with Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, who is also widely believed to have had a private jail. Nawab Bugti’s own mother was a Khetran, so the present sardar was his blood relative. The Bugti, Marri, and Khetran tribesmen are also neighbours in eastern Balochistan. Nevertheless, Sardar Khetran sided with the state following the killing of Nawab Akbar Bugti in 2006 by the military. Even though he was already a pro-establishment sardar, his significance in the corridors of power rose further after the Bugti episode.

In these eastern parts of Balochistan, there are no nationalist cadres, which suits the security establishment and the powerful sardars. And neither wants to change the status quo, in case it paves the way for Baloch nationalism. In other words, the brutal sardars are seen as a bulwark against nationalists finding any foothold in the area.

Like other tribal chiefs, Sardar Khetran too has capitalised on this situation. He has also tried to enhance his ‘indispensability’ to the security establishment by suggesting that, if he is sidelined, Khetran tribesmen can become unruly like the Marri and Bugti — some of whom are actively involved in the separatist movement.

One of the reasons he takes a very harsh line against the Baloch separatists is to demonstrate his loyalty to the security establishment. In fact, in order to make the cases against him go away, he has since his release on bail become even more combative, openly challenging the Baloch Liberation Army to dare strike Barkhan. As usual, his efforts have paid off.

A few months ago, an ISI officer who wanted to crack down against the sardar’s excesses in Barkhan district was transferred by his superiors. Such institutional support continues to enable the Baloch sardars’ impunity.

 Locals are busy shopping in the Rakhni bazaar, situated in Rakhni town, Barkhan district.—Photo by the writer
Locals are busy shopping in the Rakhni bazaar, situated in Rakhni town, Barkhan district.—Photo by the writer

Allegations of criminal behaviour by Sardar Khetran, including claims that he has private jails, have surfaced time and again. In 2006, the Supreme Court ordered Balochistan police to arrest and produce him within a week for his alleged involvement in the forced marriages of two minor girls and abduction of their five relatives, as well as for running a private jail. Nothing came of it, and he remained free. It was a classic illustration of the carte blanche he enjoys that even an order by the highest court in the land was ignored.

In 2014, while a member of provincial assembly on a JUI-F ticket, he was believed to have kidnapped some police constables from Barkhan district. As a result, he was put under house arrest; the police and the Anti-Terrorism Force conducted a raid on his ancestral home in Haji Kot, Barkhan and busted what was said to be his private jail. They recovered seven people, including three women and two children, from there.

This February, the sardar was arrested when it was suspected that he had kept the family of his former body guard, Khan Mohammad Marri, in his private jail. Several locals, during interviews by Dawn, alleged that Marri had once even killed a man in Barkhan’s Rakhni bazaar on Sardar Khetran’s orders.

At some later point, he refused to obey Sardar Khetran’s orders any longer and fled Barkhan district, and it was allegedly in retaliation that the the sardar jailed Marri’s wife Granaaz and his seven children. The two young men found in the well were reportedly his sons.

Speaking with Dawn in Quetta, Khan Mohammad accused Sardar Khetran of killing his two sons and imprisoning his family. No one, however, has ever come forward to claim the teenage girl’s body.

In the words of police surgeon Dr Ayesha Faiz, the three murder victims, as well as five other family members of Khan Mohammad who had been detained in the same jail, had been subjected to sexual abuse.

The fact is that local administrations and law enforcers are well aware that the sardars maintain private jails in their tribal territories, not to mention other criminal actions committed by these powerful feudals. But they turn a blind eye to their transgressions.

Consider that when police officer Najeeb Pandrani was posted as district police officer to Barkhan district after the three bodies were discovered, his transfer was reversed overnight because the authorities realised that he would not toe the sardar’s line.

Similarly, when the Dawn correspondent wanted to visit the district, the deputy commissioner did not want to accommodate him, telling the mutual contact that he feared the sardar would come off in a negative light in the newspaper report.

The phenomenon of private jails is especially entrenched in eastern and central Balochistan where the sardars wield power of life and death over their tribesmen.

Interestingly, a senator who has been very vocal in criticising Sardar Khetran and who has helped the Marri family appear before the Senate to present their case, is himself said to be guilty of detaining Bugti tribesmen in his own private jail. The irony does not stop there. This senator and his father were once themselves allegedly kept prisoner in Nawab Akbar Bugti’s private jail. Thus, with the state looking the other way, the pattern continues to perpetuate.

Similarly, local sources contend that Inam Shah Khetran, the son of Sardar Khetran who allegedly released the video of Khan Mohammad Marri’s family, is looking to replace his father and that his actions are not motivated by concern for his people’s rights.

However, Inam Shah rejects this view, and says that he has been opposing his father because he wants to become a voice for the voiceless. “I had each and everything, and I lived a comfortable life in Punjab,” he told Dawn confidently. “But as I started serving my people, it irked my father, Sardar Abdul Rehman Khetran. Since then, he has been against me.”

The remnants of Sandeman

About 10 hours’ drive from Quetta on the N-25 highway in central Balochistan, lies the tomb of Colonel Sir Robert Groves Sandeman in Bela, Lasbella district’s most populous town.

A former British army officer and colonial administrator, Sandeman was posted to Balochistan in 1874 by the then British Indian government. He served as the governor-general in Balochistan from 1877 till his death in 1892 and was buried in Sandeman Park Bela.

“During the pre-colonial period, before Sandeman’s arrival in Balochistan, there was a tribal confederacy under the then Khan of Kalat,” says Assistant Prof Jahanzeb Rind, who is working on his PhD thesis, titled: Tribal structure and state formation in colonial Balochistan: 1839-1947. “At the time, the sardar was not an economic class. Instead, he was a political class or entity. But Sandeman did the opposite.”

According to Prof Rind, Sandeman restructured tribalism from top to bottom by introducing a levy system.

“He provided three things to the sardars: first, he started giving them an extra income; second, he gave them lands; and third, he created for the sardars a force called the Levies. In this way, the sardar became an economic entity. No longer was he dependent on his tribe for social support. In return, the sardars became responsible for law and order in their respective territories. Basically, the British corrupted the entire sardari system by ensuring that the sardars stayed loyal to them.”

Partition saw the departure of the British, but their policies vis-à-vis the sardars in Balochistan continued as before.

When Sardar Attaullah became the first chief minister of Balochistan in May 1972, the first thing he attempted to do was to abolish the sardari system through legislation in the assembly, despite the fact that he himself was a sardar. But although the provincial assembly passed a resolution to the effect, it never became law, largely because Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government at the centre — under which the sardari system functioned since colonial times — consigned it to cold storage.

Dr Hafeez Jamali, a Quetta-based anthropologist, sat with Dawn for a detailed interview on the sardari system. According to him, Baloch society is very diverse. “Generally, eastern Balochistan, because of its internal Baloch hierarchy, is less egalitarian, and tribal chiefs here tend to be all-powerful, unlike in parts of the province like Makran or Rakshan,” he explained.

“Central Balochistan, which is dominated by Brahui Baloch tribesmen, falls in the middle: some tribes here have strong tribal chiefs, while others don’t.”

As for the Khetran tribe, Mr Hafeez says that historically the Khetrans did not have such strong and assertive leaders, unlike the neighbouring Bugti and Marri tribesmen. So, in this context, the emergence of Sardar Khetran as an all-powerful sardar was a slight deviation for the tribe.

However, he offers a surprising insight into the sardari culture. Contrary to nationalists who believe that Sandeman distorted the system for the vested interests of the British Raj and destroyed what was a more egalitarian tribal culture, he says: “The relationship between the sardar and the tribe was not that harmonious in the pre-Sandeman era either.”

Baloch historian Dr Shah Mohammad Marri edits an Urdu magazine called Sangat (Friend). Speaking to Dawn in his office, he described sardariat as an obsolete phenomenon. “However, the Baloch middle class and intelligentsia have not been able to fill the vacuum. As a result, there is anarchy and fascism.”

In search of the slain girl

Dasht in Mastung district, 54 km southeast of Quetta, is a verdant town with a scattered population. There is a small cemetery here known as the ’lawarisqabristan“ (graveyard of the forgotten), though its official name is Eidi Qabristan. The signboard is nowhere to be seen — perhaps swept away by the torrential rains and floods last year which wreaked havoc in Dasht too.

It is said that most of the graves here are of Baloch missing persons. The girl whose body was found in the well in Barkhan district along with the two sons of Granaaz and Khan Mohammad Marri, is also buried here.

Although no one claimed her body, it was said in Quetta and elsewhere in Barkhan that she was a 19-year-old called Ameera Bibi, also known as Ameero. Several locals and activists told Dawn that she was the daughter of a poor mochi (a lower caste clan in the Khetran tribal hierarchy) family in the area. Due to fear of Sardar Khetran, they said, her family did not utter a single word to own her as their daughter because they themselves had handed her over to him after she was declared ‘kari’ (a woman involved in a forbidden relationship).

Background interviews suggest that while she was mostly kept locked up in the private jail at night, during the day Ameero was put to work at the sardar’s various residences in Haji Kot, elsewhere in Barkhan and in Quetta.

According to Granaaz Bibi’s statement, Ameero was detained in another room. Her account of how they were picked up was recorded in court. The statement, a copy of which is available with Dawn, reads: “Around 12 o’clock, Ghafoor, the sardar’s nephew who was in charge of the jails, came to our place, saying that the sardar has summoned us. When we went to his house, there was a glass of alcohol and a lathi in the sardar’s hands. After Ghafoor brought Ameero, we were made to sit in a vehicle along with my daughter Farzana, and from there, he took us to Tomni, Bhagao [a town in a remote area of Barkhan, where Sardar Khetran has land].”

It is said that Ameero was murdered because — on the orders of one of the sardar’s own family members — she had made a video of Granaaz holding a copy of the Quran and imploring the sardar to free her and her family, which had later gone viral.

Not only was she raped and killed, but her face was burnt with acid — which is why she was beyond recognition and her body was initially mistaken as being that of Granaaz Bibi.

Such terrible happenings illustrate the sorry state of human rights, especially for marginalised women such as Ameero, in Barkhan district. While working on this story, the Dawn correspondent came across information of another woman, a 35-year-old, who was murdered by her husband in the name of ‘honour’. No one has been punished in that instance either.

Back at the lawaris cemetery in Dasht, Mastung, all one can do on this late evening with a steady rain falling, is to pay one’s respects to the slain young woman. Mostly there are numbers on the graves here, not names. But Ameero’s burial spot, number 23, carries her name as well.

Many graves are in a decrepit state, partly due to rain and partly due to neglect. Some have caved in entirely. Sooner or later, that too will likely be the fate of Ameero’s grave.

*Some names have been changed for reasons of privacy and security.

Header image: Illustration by Sarah Durrani

Published in Dawn, July 5th, 2023