Human rights activist Sabeen Mahmud, 40, was heading home with her mother on Saturday when she was fatally shot by gunmen on the streets of Karachi, Pakistan’s major southern port city.
Days later, the killing remains unsolved. But her supporters wonder: Did she take on a topic that’s just too taboo in Pakistan?
Earlier that fateful Saturday, Mahmud had hosted an event, “Take 2 of Unsilencing Balochistan,” at a cafe she had co-founded. The forum aimed to highlight the human rights abuses in the western Pakistani province, a subject that gets little attention in the country’s mainstream media.
The state has been fighting separatists in Baluchistan, Pakistan’s largest and poorest province, over several decades and often accuses India and Russia of supporting the insurrections with weapons and money.
Thousands of people have gone missing in the province during the turbulence, and many say the state has had a hand in the disappearances. Mahmud’s seminar focused on that and other human rights issues in Baluchistan.
Fellow activists accused Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, of a role in her killing.
“She was killed by those who felt threatened by her. They saw that she could not be contained, so they decided to eliminate her. She is on record saying that people from the intelligence agency visited and questioned her,” said Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur, a veteran of Baluch struggle and human rights activist.
Amid the accusations, Maj. Gen. Asim Bajwa, a spokesman for the Pakistani army, condemned Mahmud’s killing and tweeted, “Intelligence agencies been tasked to render all possible assistance to investigating agencies for apprehension of perpetrators & bring them to justice.”
Mahmud co-founded T2F, a cafe and community space. According to its Web site, T2F “provides citizens with a platform for social change through rich cultural activities, public discourse, and advocacy using progressive ideas and the new media.” Dawn, Pakistan’s leading newspaper, described Mahmud as a “woman of many talents that mostly revolved around creating digital platforms for arts and culture.”
Little headway appears to have been made in an investigation into her death. Protests were held in major Pakistani cities on Tuesday, with demonstrators condemning the killing and demanding a thorough investigation.
Pakistan is one of the most dangerous places for journalists in the world, and Baluchistan is a virtual no-go area. In the recent past, many who have dared to talk or write about the human rights issues in that province have either fled the country or kept a low public profile.
Here’s why: There is a general perception that talking about Baluchistan can get one killed. Local journalists say they are unable to report because they fear for their lives. Many have quit the profession. Some say they are trapped between the state and the separatists — they get a bullet from either side no matter what they report.
“The army reacts violently to open discussions on Baluchistan as they have committed serious human rights abuses in the past 11 years. They arrest young Baluch political activists, torture them in custody, and later on kill and dump most of them. The Supreme Court has reprimanded the army, but they have never been accountable to anyone,” said Malik Siraj Akbar, an exiled Baluch journalist.
The army did not respond to calls and e-mails seeking a reaction to the accusations. In the past, however, the military and other security agencies have consistently denied any role in the killings and disappearances in Baluchistan.