Naveed Baloch was crossing a road in central Berlin on the evening of 19 December, having just left a friend’s house. He was halfway over it when, seeing a car heading towards him, he increased his speed. “I then realised it was a police car. I stopped when they beckoned to me, and showed them all the ID I had on me.”
They let him go but within seconds had called him back. Before he knew it he was in the back of the car, its lights flashing as it sped through Berlin. His hands were bound behind his back. Later that night, he said, he was blindfolded and taken from “one police station to another place” about 10 minutes away. He recalls two police officers “digging the heels of their shoes into my feet”, and one of the men “putting great pressure on my neck with his hand”.
They undressed him and took photographs. “When I resisted, they started slapping me.” They took three samples of his blood. A 24-year-old Pakistani identified only as Naveed B was named by German police and the interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, just hours after the deadly attack on a Christmas market on Berlin’s Breitscheidplatz, as their prime suspect.
Speaking exclusively to the Guardian just over a week after being wrongly arrested for the attack which killed 12 and injured 48 others, Baloch is now in hiding, fearful for his life and no longer feeling safe in the country in which he sought refuge as a member of a secular separatist movement in Balochistan, a province that is a frequent target of religious extremists in Pakistan.
Members of his family in Pakistan have been contacted by the security services and have been receiving threatening phone calls following the widespread distribution of his photograph and name. “My family and I agree we would be safer if we speak out, and the sooner the better,” he said.
On the night he was arrested police brought in a translator who did not speak his native Balochi, but Punjabi and Urdu (the latter he understands a bit though cannot speak it much). Baloch said he was asked whether he knew what had happened in Berlin earlier that evening. “I said I didn’t know, and they told me: ‘Someone took a vehicle and drove it into a crowd killing many people. And you were behind the wheel of that truck, weren’t you?’
“I calmly told them I cannot drive at all. Neither can I even start a vehicle. I told them there’s death and war in my country; that’s why I ran away to seek help. You in Germany are providing us with food, medicine and safety. You are like my mother. If you find I was doing these things to your country, you should not give me an easy death, you should cut me up slowly.”
He said he could only assume they understood his answers, though he could not be sure because communication was very awkward.
On being questioned further he told them he was a shepherd by profession, that he had arrived from his Balochistan in February this year, and that he was a devout Muslim who prayed five times a day. They balked at his concern over a looming deadline to pay a fine he owed for fare-dodging on Berlin’s transport network days before. “They said to me: ‘You’re worried about paying a fine, when many people have been murdered?’ I told them I just didn’t want to get into trouble.”
Over two days and one night, he said, they only gave him tea and biscuits. “But I could not eat. The biscuits were disgusting, and the tea was cold.” He slept on a wooden bed without a mattress, his hands bound behind his back on the first night. Having told him already on the night of the attack that they had doubts he was the man they were looking for – not least because there were no traces of blood or injuries on him, despite the bloody struggle that had evidently taken place between the driver and the Polish man from whom the truck had been hijacked – they told him he was free to go. “They explained to me that because I had run across the road when they picked me up, they had reason to believe I might be a criminal. I told them I understood.”
By the time Baloch had been told he was off the hook, the police were already looking for Anis Amri, a Tunisian whose documents had been found in the footwell of the Scania truck that had ploughed into the market and who was later shot dead by police officers in Milan. Like Baloch, Amri was 24 and dark-skinned, but there the similarities ended.
After his release Baloch was taken to a hotel and told he was not to leave unless he informed the police, not because he was still under suspicion, but because his life might be in danger, and that he should under no circumstances return to the refugee shelter at the disused airport in the south of Berlin he had been living in. It had been raided by special forces in the early hours of Tuesday 20 December in the search for evidence to link Baloch to the murderous attack on Breitscheidplatz. There his friends waited anxiously and in vain for him to return.
Baloch agreed to meet the Guardian this week, above all because he now fears greatly for his safety, and that of his family back in the village of Mand in the Mekran region of Balochistan. He hoped that by telling his story he would be better understood – and safer. He fled the area of arid plains and mountains, a coastal strip of the Arabian Sea in the very south-west of Pakistan, around a year ago because of death threats he said he had received for his political activism on behalf of the Baloch National Movement, which strives for the independence of Balochistan from Pakistan.
Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest, most mineral-rich but also poorest province. Located on the border with Afghanistan, it has been dogged by an incessant cycle of violence and underdevelopment since India and Pakistan’s partition on gaining independence in 1947. The Baloch people – numbering around 13 million in Balochistan province – are a unique ethnolinguistic group who have been marginalised throughout history and many of whom desire independence from Pakistan.
Baloch, whose application for asylum is currently with the German authorities, is still waiting for a translator of Balochi, the main provincial language, to whom he can give a detailed account of his reason for seeking the legal protection of Germany. “When I get my chance, I will tell them that I have threats to my life in Pakistan, that some of my cousins who also belong to the same political party were killed by the security agencies, who picked them up, murdered them and dumped their bodies. Most of the people I worked with have been arrested and killed. I knew it was a matter of time before they came for me. That’s the reason I came to Germany.”
The Guardian cannot verify his account, but it chimes with reports from groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch detailing the suppression of Balochistanis by Pakistan’s intelligence agency as well as prominent massacres of Balochistanis for which Islamic State – which has a strong foothold in the province – and other jihadi groups have claimed responsibility.
During the two years before he paid human traffickers to smuggle him into Germany, Baloch went on the run, leaving his house one morning at 4am and roaming from village to village across the Mekran district, staying at party workers’ houses for an average of three to five days before moving on to avoid detection by security forces and intelligence. Despite this, he said, he was arrested and tortured by Pakistani forces in Balochistan last year, after which he left for Germany. His three-month journey took him on foot to Iran, then on to Turkey and Greece, before he arrived by train at Munich’s main station in February.
It took him three days to realise he was in Germany, a country he knew nothing about, he said. Even now, 10 months on, he knows very little about where he has landed, only that he would like to find work and learn the language.
Asked why in particular he chose Germany, Baloch replied: “We found an agent. It was not my choice; it was the traffickers who chose. I paid the agent something upfront, then my family kept paying him in instalments, which we were advised was a better method because so many people had been abandoned on the way, or had lost their lives.” The money was raised, he said, from the proceeds of the sheep and goats of the flock he had tended, which his parents sold once he had fled the village, along with a plot of land. Even then they had to borrow 100,000 of the total fee of 600,000 Pakistani rupees (£4,680, or $5,724).
Following his arrest it did not take long for the news to reach his family, via Pakistani media, that the Balochistani in question was their son.
“When I was released the first thing I did was to contact them,” Baloch said. “It was my mum who answered, via WhatsApp. She asked me: ‘Did the police torture you?’ I told her no, that I had been caught up in an investigation but that it was over now. Never did she suspect I had done anything wrong, despite the Pakistani media saying – and continuing to say – the German authorities had caught a terrorist from Balochistan.”
Much of the reporting continues to say that Baloch has brought the reputation of Pakistan into disrepute, because of German authorities identifying him as a Pakistani and failing to mention Balochistan.
Baloch’s non-appearance since his name was cleared has only fuelled speculation – both in Germany and Pakistan – that he might have somehow been involved in the attack after all. He has already been accused of sexual assault, a charge he vehemently denies. He has been told by police in no uncertain terms that his life might be in danger if he returns to his refugee shelter, possibly from Pakistani nationals there who might view him as an enemy of the state, or possibly from German rightwing extremists. He must stay on his own in the secret location provided for him by the police for the next two months, living on meals-on-wheels and having to inform the police every time he steps outside. He is not as concerned for his own safety, he said, as for his family – his parents, four brothers and five sisters – who earn their living from farming.
“Before the attack for which I was arrested, no one in Balochistan knew I had disappeared,” he said, dressed in a navy blue hooded sweatshirt, drinking a coffee with a gaunt look in his eyes as he nervously twisted a rolled up cigarette in his hand. “Now they all know I fled to Germany, fearful of my life, and that I am claiming asylum here. It leaves my family very vulnerable and there’s nothing I can do to protect them.”
He has been suffering from insomnia since his arrest, and while he is visited by fellow Balochistanis, he said that at night in particular he felt very alone and intensely anxious. “There is no knowing what they might do to my family.”
He cited the names of three political activists from his village who had applied for asylum in Germany but returned to Balochistan in May because they feared for their families, who had been threatened in their absence.
“The mere fact they had left in the first place made them a focus of suspicion,” Baloch said. “They were picked up by intelligence agents and they are still missing.”
The only solace he and around 10 fellow Balochistanis – asylum seekers from around Europe who have joined him in Berlin to give him support – have, he said, is that the incident might help highlight their underreported plight.
“In the meantime I just hope that one day they will stop associating my name with that terrible attack,” he said. “Thank goodness they found the man who did it.”