In latest blow to civil society, Sabeen Mahmud shot shortly after hosting event on Balochistan’s “disappear
Karachi, PAKISTAN – Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has ordered a high-level investigation into the killing of prominent rights activist Sabeen Mahmud, who was killed shortly after hosting a talk on Balochistan’s “disappeared people” in the southern port city of Karachi.
Mahmud, 40, was buried on Saturday evening, after a memorial attended by hundreds of friends, family and well-wishers, and marked by scenes of intense grief and anger.
The director of T2F (The Second Floor), a cafe and arts space that has been a mainstay of Karachi’s activists since it opened its doors in 2007, Mahmud was one of the country’s most outspoken human rights advocates.
She was shot four times at close range, with bullets going through her shoulder, chest, and abdomen, police told Al Jazeera, and was pronounced dead on arrival at the National Medical Centre hospital at 9:40pm local time on Friday.
Also present at the funeral was Mehnaz Mahmud, Sabeen’s mother, who was also shot and wounded in the attack on Friday. Doctors told Al Jazeera she was expected to make a full recovery, after suffering injuries to her arm and abdomen.
On Friday, Mahmud had been present at a discussion titled ‘Unsilencing Balochistan’, hosted at T2F and organised by her, where Mama Qadeer, Farzana Majeed and Muhammad Ali Talpur, all prominent Baloch rights activists, had been speaking.
She was shot, along with her mother, as she left the venue in her car.
Rare military statement
Following a tirade of accusations from social activists alleging that the killing had been carried out by Pakistan’s powerful Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) Agency, which is also alleged to be carrying out the campaign of disappearances in Balochistan, the Pakistani military’s spokesperson issued a rare statement on the killing of a social activist.
Condemning the “tragic and unfortunate” killing, Major General Asim Saleem Bajwa promised on Saturday that the country’s intelligence agencies had been ordered to aid police investigators in tracing the perpetrators of the crime.
We condemn the tragic & unfortunate killing of Ms Sabeen Mahmud.Our heart goes out to bereaved family at this sad moment-1/2
— Gen(R) Asim Saleem Bajwa (@AsimBajwaISPR) April 25, 2015
Karachi’s police chief on Friday ruled out the possibility of Mahmud having been killed in anything but a “targeted attack”.
Qadeer and Majeed have long championed the cause of Balochistan’s “disappeared”, a term used to describe people who have been abducted in Balochistan, with their bodies often found years later.
The Voice of Baloch Missing Persons organisation, which both activists belong to, says that more than 2,825 people have “disappeared” in this way since 2005.
They allege the disappearances, which are mostly of Baloch rights activists and students, have been carried out by the Pakistani government and ISI, a charge the agency denies.
Just over a fortnight ago, a similar talk with the same speakers at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) was cancelled at the last minute “on orders from the government”, according to a LUMS statement.
“Sabeen was a voice of reason, pluralism and secularism: the kind of creed that endangers the insidious side of constructed Pakistani nationalism,” Raza Rumi, a rights activist who escaped an assassination attempt in March 2014 and now lives in the US out of fear for his life, told Al Jazeera.
“In her work, she was neither a political partisan nor a power seeker, but Pakistan’s state and non-state actors are averse to any form of dissent. This is why she had to be killed.
“Her death has simply reopened my wounds. She gave me support when I escaped death and now I feel even more scared to return to Pakistan. Her death is a huge blow to Pakistan’s civil society and social change movements.”
A friend of Mahmud’s in Karachi, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity due to safety fears, said she had contacted him on Tuesday to ask for advice about whether she should go ahead with the event.
“She was having doubts, and the person who had initially agreed to moderate the discussion had backed out,” he said.
“We discussed the possible blowback that she and T2F could potentially get in response to holding the event, but I never imagined it would be as brutal and blatant as this.”
Said Mahmud, during that exchange, three days before her murder: “Yes, I just don’t know what that blowback entails.”
‘She gave her life’
Another friend of Mahmud, who raced to the hospital minutes after she had been shot, said “at least a hundred people” had gathered outside the hospital for the activist, within moments of her arrival.
“I raced through the hospital corridors to get to the ER envisioning a defiant Sabeen who was going to laugh at her own plaster or dressing,” the second friend said.
“She stood up and hosted an event for a group of people who have no voice despite the threats she had gotten. She did not back down – gave her life.
“She’s been silenced to instil fear in the heart of the upper-middle class, the English-speaking folk who have become politically vocal for rights and equality.”
Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest, and least densely populated province, has been the site of multiple armed guerrilla campaigns against the state by separatist forces, the latest of which is ongoing since 2005.
The province is the least economically developed, and has the worst social indicators in areas such as health and education.
Pakistan’s armed forces have been battling the separatists through ground and air operations, and many parts of the province are cut off from the rest of Pakistan due to the conflict.
Baloch rights activists say intelligence agencies have also been carrying out a systematic campaign of silencing dissent through the disappearance of activists, even those who have not taken up arms.
Nasrullah Baloch, the chairman of the Voice of Missing Baloch rights organisation, said his group condemned the attack, adding that those responsible should be tried for their crimes.
“Whenever voices are raised against rights abuses in Balochistan,” he said, “the government tries to suppress them. Suppressing voices does not solve the issue, indeed it only makes the voices become louder.”
Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim