TORONTO — The apparent drowning death of an internationally prominent Pakistani dissident whose body was pulled from the water near downtown Toronto sparked anger, grief and suspicion on Tuesday.
Police said they had found Karima Mehrab, 37, dead on Monday. Mehrab, widely known as Karima Baloch, had been reported missing a day earlier.
"It is currently being investigated as a non-criminal death," Toronto police said in a statement. "There are not believed to be any suspicious circumstances."
However, a close friend and fellow activist told The Canadian Press that Mehrab had recently received death threats, and he and her family were deeply suspicious about what had happened to her.
"Her husband got messages from unknown people saying they would give a Christmas gift to Karima she will never forget," Lateef Johar said in an interview.
While police offered no details about the death, Johar said officers had told her family she was found drowned in the water.
"We respect whatever the police says but we will never believe and accept that it was an accident," Johar said. "She was a brave woman."
Mehrab's husband, who Johar said had arrived in Canada for a visit two weeks ago from the United Kingdom, could not immediately be reached for comment on Tuesday.
Mehrab was a leader with the Baloch Student Organization, which advocates for the independence of Pakistan’s ethnic Baloch areas in the country's southwest. The group accuses Pakistani authorities of human rights atrocities in the region, where armed Baloch groups have been fighting a years-long separatist war against Pakistani security forces.
Pakistan’s military and government have steadfastly denied any rights abuses.
Mehrab fled Pakistan in 2015 amid terrorism charges and death threats, arriving in November that year in Canada, where she successfully applied for refugee status. On a day of her asylum hearing, Johar said, the body of her uncle — believed abducted by the military 18 months earlier — was found in Pakistan.
Johar, who spent time with Mehrab last week in a library at the University of Toronto, where she was taking first-year courses, said she came here to keep herself safe.
Mehrab continued her activism in Canada. In a social media post last week, she tweeted a link to a newspaper story on the plight of Pakistan's "disappeared."
The Canadian government expressed its condolences Tuesday but refused further comment.
"An investigation is currently underway in this case, led by the Toronto Police Service," Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said in a statement. "As the investigation continues, they will be able to provide additional information as it becomes available."
Canada's ambassador to the United Nations, Bob Rae, said he had talked to Mehrab about the "human rights situation affecting many of her friends and family.
"I am deeply saddened to learn of her death," Rae said on social media.
Amnesty International South Asia called Mehrab's death "deeply shocking."
"(It) must be immediately and effectively investigated," it said on Twitter.
Part of the suspicion over Mehrab's death arose because she was the second Baloch activist found dead this year. In May, journalist and refugee Sajid Hussain was pulled from a river in Sweden, weeks after he disappeared.
Police at the time were reported as saying his death could have been an accident or suicide, though they could not definitely rule out foul play.
The BBC named Mehrab to its annual list of 100 inspirational and influential women in 2016.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 22, 2020.
Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press