Brahumdagh Bugti entered Switzerland in 2010 but is no ordinary asylum seeker. The Pakistani government has named him “one of the most wanted, known Baloch separatists” according to the US embassy cables published by WikiLeaks.
Bugti is the leader of the Baloch Republican Party, a political organisation that is currently banned in Pakistan, as it campaigns for complete independence for the country’s Balochistan province.
Bordering Iran and Afghanistan, Balochistan has always been a strategic location for Pakistan. The province attracted global attention when the Chinese announced plans to invest $46 billion (CHF42 billion) by 2030 in an economic corridor between Balochistan’s Gwadar port and China’s Xinjiang region. This will involve creating a network of highways, railways and pipelines to transport oil and gas. Balochis are against the energy corridor, which they see as another attempt to enrich the government and divert wealth away from the province.
Pakistan’s interior ministry and its embassy in Switzerland declined to comment on points raised in this interview.
swissinfo.ch: Tell us about your journey to Switzerland.
Brahumdagh Bugti: Afghanistan was the first exit point for me. I couldn't go to Iran as they are completely against the Baloch. The government of Afghanistan was very helpful and gave me Afghan citizenship to enable me to stay as long as I wanted.
However, the situation in Afghanistan was not very good. Even the NATO troops and Americans were being targeted by the Taliban and al-Qaeda. So, it was impossible for me to remain there. I could survive and hide there but I did not leave Pakistan to stay underground somewhere else. Then I went to Dubai where I applied for a Schengen visa from the Swiss embassy which I used to enter Switzerland.
swissinfo.ch: Why did you choose Switzerland?
B.B.: I could have gone to any Schengen country but I chose Switzerland. I was told there is the UN, international NGOs, human rights groups and diplomats. I thought it would be better to be in Geneva than any other European city.
swissinfo.ch: What do you find most difficult about life in Switzerland?
B.B.: The most difficult thing is waiting for my political asylum request to be processed. I have not received any response from the immigration authorities for the last five years.
I cannot travel outside Switzerland. As a politically active person this is very hard for me, as I feel I am not able to do my best for my people by remaining in one country. Even my family cannot travel with me for a vacation.
(When contacted for information on Bugti’s asylum application a spokesperson for the State Secretariat for Migration SEM told swissinfo.ch: “For protection purposes, we do not comment on any of the personal data of immigrants,” and added that “in every case, the asylum seekers are informed about the procedures and their status”.)
swissinfo.ch: If you had the chance to do it all over again, would you still choose Switzerland?
B.B.: To be sincere, no. I think it was a big mistake to come to Switzerland. I am very thankful to the Swiss government as I am safe here but this is not what I really want. I want to raise awareness about the situation in Balochistan worldwide and discourage Americans from pumping billions of dollars into an unaccountable Pakistani government. I cannot do that effectively while stuck in one country.
swissinfo.ch: Can you describe your daily life in Switzerland?
B.B.: I live in Geneva with my wife, mother and three children. The children go to a local school in Geneva and speak French. I have a lot of Swiss friends and am learning French myself.
We stay in touch with the people in Balochistan to gather information. We also hold protests during sessions of the UN Human Rights Council, organise press conferences and try to raise awareness about what is happening in Balochistan.
swissinfo.ch: Are you afraid that you could be extradited to Pakistan some day?
B.B.: Of course. But I would be more shocked if Switzerland agreed to extradite me. Handing over someone like me instead of putting pressure on Pakistan would shock not just me but the whole world.
swissinfo.ch: You’ve been referred to as Pakistan’s most wanted man. Is this an overblown statement?
B.B.: Ask people in Balochistan what they think about me. If you ask Pakistan, they will say I am the most dangerous person since Osama Bin Laden.
For the past 50 years Pakistan has been looting our resources, violating our land and killing our people. Are these not terrorist activities when compared to defending yourself against a powerful army? We are not responsible for the situation in Balochistan. The Pakistan government is.
You have to first understand what is going on in Balochistan. Are NGOs or the international media allowed into Balochistan to find out what daily life is like there? No.
Look at what happened to a journalist like Hamid Mir, who tried his best to cover Balochistan. Look at what happened to human rights activist Sabeen Mahmud, who was killed an hour after participating in an event highlighting the situation in Balochistan.
swissinfo.ch: How did you get involved in politics?
B.B.: I was seven when my father passed away. I was brought up by my grandfather [former Balochistan Chief Minister Akbar Khan Bugti]. In the beginning I was not politically active but was more interested in tribal matters and interacting with people. I was always next to my grandfather in political meetings and he was sort of mentoring me at that time. When he was killed by the Pakistani army, the party gave me all the responsibilities. I am trying my best to fulfill them.
swissinfo.ch: Did you ever come close to being killed?
B.B.: When I was in Pakistan there were many attacks on me by gunship helicopters, as well as aerial bombardment. In Afghanistan, a house very close to mine was bombed and the-then Afghan intelligence chief, Amrullah Saleh, later informed me that I was the target of the attack. A journalist in Afghanistan also revealed that he had been offered money by Pakistani government to identify my location and a suicide bomber would be sent to kill me.
Perhaps there were other cases I was not aware of. I was always in danger and in fear for my life and that of my family.
swissinfo.ch: This is the fifth Balochi insurgency since 1947. How is it different from the ones in the past?
B.B.: This is the fifth military operation but the first struggle for independence. Before it was always a struggle for control over resources and provincial autonomy.
swissinfo.ch: Do you collaborate with other groups in Balochistan?
B.B.: We cooperate with other political parties like the Balochistan National Party and Balochistan National Movement but not militant groups.
swissinfo.ch: Is the militant Baloch Republican Army the military wing of your Baloch Republican Party?
B.B.: Of course not. The Pakistan government has accused me of being a leader of the Baloch Republican Army as well as other groups like the Baloch Liberation United Front. Every time they have the opportunity to blame me they use this tactic.
swissinfo.ch: What about the rise of religious extremism in Balochistan?
B.B.: The people of Balochistan are not very religious. These groups have been injected by the Pakistani spy agencies to camouflage the Baloch problem. Today, Balochistan is associated with problems like resources, land and Chinese invasion. But if you introduce other problems like religious extremism, killing of Hazaras, madrasas and the Taliban you can create a mess of issues.
The extremists groups are also used to counter the Baloch insurgency and Baloch nationalism.
swissinfo.ch: There have been accusations of India backing the Baloch separatist movement. What do you have to say about that?
B.B.: This is nonsense. If you cannot do your job the easiest thing is to blame someone else. India has been Pakistan's opponent for many years and the easiest thing is to say India is involved.
swissinfo.ch: Why is there no official position or statement from the Pakistani government on the accusations of human rights violations in Balochistan?
B.B.: Their position is not clear, that is why. They also don't want to expose what is going on there.
swissinfo.ch: Who is financing your party's activities and your living expenses in Switzerland?
B.B.: We are one of the richest families in Balochistan. We have real estate in Pakistan and in the Middle East. I am financing myself and some of the activities of my party. Some of the party activities in Balochistan, London and Germany are supported through fundraising drives by the members there.
swissinfo.ch: What can the West do about Balochistan?
B.B.: We want to make the West, especially the US, understand that funds provided to the Pakistani government are being used against us and not the Taliban. In fact, the funds are being used to support the Taliban.
We therefore consider the West also responsible for Pakistan's brutality against the Baloch people.
swissinfo.ch: Could Balochistan become the next Libya?
B.B.: In Libya insurgent groups came out of nowhere after the Arab Spring and western countries like France intervened, even though bringing stability to the region was hard because the political groups there were not strong enough. In Balochistan the situation is a 100 times worse than it was in Libya but the political organisations are very strong and yet the West has no interest in intervening.
swissinfo.ch: Are you happy to be referred to as Balochi separatists and is independence from Pakistan your main objective?
B.B.: I am a freedom-loving person and my people want freedom from Pakistani slavery. Based on what is going on now and past actions of the Pakistani government, especially in the last ten years, my people do not want to live with Pakistan anymore.
If the Pakistani government backs off, withdraws their forces and comes to us with 100% sincerity to really solve the problem through negotiations and peaceful means, then of course we're ready to talk.
The Pakistani government says that there are only a few groups who want independence. This is nonsense. There is a simple solution to this: I request for a peaceful referendum in Balochistan under the supervision of western countries and the UN and let people decide if they want to live with Pakistan or not. If they do, I will be the first to respect their decision.
swissinfo.ch: What do you miss most about Balochistan?
B.B.: My people and my land. Switzerland may be nicer with beautiful lakes and cool weather which Balochistan doesn't have - it is around 48 to 50°C there right now - but I like it. I was born there and I want to die there.
The Balochistan conflict
Balochistan is Pakistan's western most province and borders Iran and Afghanistan. It is also the largest province covering almost half the country but with only around 5% of the population. Rebel groups in Balochistan have been waging a conflict against the Pakistani government and army since 1948. Balochis have been demanding greater autonomy, a bigger share of the natural resource revenue from the province, as well as complete independence from Pakistan. The current conflict goes back to 2004 and is considered the fifth such insurgency. The army and Frontier Corps have been accused of abducting and killing a large number of Baloch activists.
A report by a UN working group on enforced or involuntary disappearances that visited Pakistan in 2012 states that “in Balochistan alone, some sources alleged that more than 14,000 people are still missing, while the provincial Government recognises less than 100”.
Pakistani authorities responded to these allegations of “missing persons” by stating that some of them faced criminal charges and had gone into hiding or had fled to another country to join illegal armed groups or were victims of abduction by non-state actors. They also added that abductions by state actors “were very few and were the result of misconduct and ultra vires behaviour by some agents of the State”.
The Baloch Republican Party (BRP) was created by Brahumdagh Bugti after splitting from the Jamhoori Wattan Party founded by his grandfather Akbar Khan Bugti. The BRP was banned in Pakistan in 2012.