Margaret Jenkins is a Canadian researcher. She holds a PhD from the University of Toronto and has held fellowships at Georgetown, Harvard and Central European universities. She has worked for more than 20 years on women’s rights and gender-based violence in Canada and abroad.
Earlier this week, Ontario MPP Jessica Bell stood in the provincial legislature and called for a full and independent investigation into the death of Karima Mehrab, also known as Karima Baloch, a human-rights activist who had been living as a refugee in Toronto. She was just 37 when she was found dead in Lake Ontario in late December. But just one day after her body was recovered, Toronto police quickly declared on Twitter that “circumstances have been investigated and officers have determined this to be a non-criminal death and no foul play is suspected.”
It is clear this is no ordinary case, however, and it requires more than an ordinary investigation. The Canadian government should have immediately made a public statement supporting a thorough investigation to demonstrate Canada’s resolve to protect all who live within its borders. It is not too late for the government to show that it takes this case seriously.
Ms. Mehrab came to Toronto from Balochistan, a Pakistani province where, according to an Amnesty International report released in November, “enforced disappearances targeting students, activists, journalists and human rights defenders continue relentlessly” among the country’s Baloch minority. She was internationally known for fighting for the rights of Baloch people, and was the first female leader of the Baloch Student Organization (BSO). In 2016, she was named one of the BBC’s 100 inspirational and influential women. She continued her work while starting a new life in Canada, enrolling at the University of Toronto, where she met with friends to study for an exam just days before her death. Six weeks after the release of the Amnesty International report, on Dec. 20, Ms. Mehrab disappeared when she went for a walk. Her body was found the next day.
Family and friends told reporters that, in the weeks leading up to her disappearance, Ms. Mehrab had received threatening phone calls and messages. One even warned that if she did not quit her activism, she would receive “a Christmas gift … she [would] never forget.” Ms. Mehrab and her husband felt they were being followed and watched. According to the BBC, one threatening caller told her to return to Pakistan; when she refused, the caller described, in detail, a visit Ms. Mehrab had made to a Toronto park earlier that day. The message was clear: We know exactly where you are – you cannot hide.
This is, unfortunately, all too common. Ms. Mehrab’s predecessor as BSO leader, Zahid Baloch, was abducted in Pakistan in 2014; his whereabouts remain unknown, but he is presumed dead. Ms. Mehrab’s friend Sajid Hussain, who was himself a prominent Baloch activist and the editor-in-chief of the Balochistan Times, was found dead in Sweden’s Fyris River in April last year after going missing for two months. An autopsy found no evidence of foul play, but police said they could not definitively rule out the possibility of a crime having taken place.
Here, there has been no such transparency, and so many questions remain. Have Public Safety, Global Affairs, CSIS or the RCMP supported the Toronto police investigation? Is a thorough probe under way? Have the threatening messages to Ms. Mehrab been investigated? Have Toronto police tried to find video footage of the people who had followed her? What did the autopsy and toxicology reports say (if they exist)? Have links between Ms. Mehrab’s and Mr. Hussain’s deaths been investigated? Have Toronto police contacted the Swedish police? How can the police be sure Ms. Mehrab wasn’t murdered?
Canada has a feminist approach to foreign policy, which includes clear guidelines for protecting female human-rights defenders such as Ms. Mehrab. If she had been pulled from a lake in another country, Canada would likely have called for a thorough inquiry into her death. But unfortunately she died in Toronto, and Canada has been silent; the Toronto police have said nothing on the matter since tweeting their determination of a “non-criminal death” the day after her body was found. In Toronto, Paris and Pakistani cities such as Karachi, Lahore and Quetta, protesters have demanded answers from Canadian authorities.
Canada’s continuing silence sends a chilling message to activists and journalists around the world – and emboldens those who want to silence dissidents regardless of where they live. Canada should instead emulate countries such as Australia, which has defended its activists, journalists and academics from harassment, intimidation and threats, as well as Germany and the U.K., which have launched serious investigations of cases involving political dissidents.
Two weeks after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate in Turkey, Canada reportedly intercepted a Saudi Arabian “hit squad” at Toronto Pearson International Airport allegedly sent to kill a former top Saudi official living in exile in Toronto. At the time, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said, “We will never tolerate foreign actors threatening Canada’s national security or the safety of our citizens and residents.” The Canadian government now has an opportunity to prove that – by investigating exactly what happened to Karima Mehrab.
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