Lawyers and others gather on Sept. 3, 2016, for special prayers for the victims of last month’s suicide bombing in the city of Mardan, in Peshawar, Pakistan. (Mohammad Sajjad/AP)

 Midmorning Thursday, a dozen lawyers were chatting over tea and pastries in the bar-association lounge inside the Supreme Court complex in Pakistan’s capital. Shortly before noon, a white-haired barrister called for silence. The talk stopped, teacups were lowered and palms were raised while he recited a prayer in Arabic for the dead.

It was a quiet commemoration of the bloody terrorist attack one month before that took the lives of at least 55 lawyers in the southern city of Quetta. The suicide bombing virtually wiped out the area’s small legal community and robbed remote, violence-ridden Baluchistan province of an important force for human rights and religious moderation.

“This is an irreparable loss. I fear it will set back the cause of justice in our country a hundred years,” said Munir Kakar, a lawyer in Quetta who survived the Aug. 8 bombing outside a hospital emergency room. Many lawyers and others had gathered there after a local bar-association leader was fatally shot on his way to court. The blast, claimed by two rival Islamist militant groups, killed 73 people and wounded 110.

Now, a second terrorist attack in another corner of Pakistan has sent another chill through the nation’s legal fraternity. On Sept. 2, a man wearing a suicide vest blew himself up outside a court complex in northwestern city of Mardan, leaving 13 dead. The two attacks have raised fears that Islamist extremists are zeroing in on one of the most highly educated groups in this increasingly conservative Muslim society, one that has long fought for modern democratic and constitutional values.

Pakistan has about 100,000 lawyers, who dress distinctively in black suits and ties and are organized in numerous bar associations. They came to international attention a decade ago when they challenged the military rule of then-President Pervez Musharraf, an army general. They held numerous street protests, braving tear gas and arrest, and their example intensified domestic and international pressure that led to Musharraf’s stepping down in 2008 after nearly a decade in power.

The country has had elected civilian rule since then, but the threats from violent Islamist groups have persisted, even as the armed forces have conducted repeated mass operations in militant strongholds. The Pakistani Taliban and other groups have attacked schools, mosques, markets and parks as well as military and government sites. In many ways, legal leaders said, the militants represent a graver threat to democracy than any military regime.

“Our legal community is more than 70 years old, and it has always spoken up much louder than other groups for the rule of law and an independent judiciary,” said Mohammed Ikram Chaudhry, a senior member of the Supreme Court bar who offered the prayer Thursday. “There are enemies who don’t want to see us grow to an unmanageable size. They want to create a vacuum. But we fought against a dictator, and we will fight terrorists as well.”

Baluchistan is a cauldron of tribal, religious and political conflict, including a militant separatist movement, which also could have played a role in the attack. It has a large population of Afghan refugees and is the longtime base for senior Afghan Taliban leaders known as the Quetta Shura. There are frequent claims of government-perpetrated human rights abuses, and lawyers have played a key role in raising that issue. 

Pakistan’s long enmity with neighboring India has further muddied the picture. The Hindu-dominated nuclear rival has fought three wars with Muslim-majority Pakistan, and senior Pakistani officials charged that India’s intelligence agency was behind the fatal shooting and bombing in Quetta, suggesting it was part of a campaign to sabotage a major planned project that would link Pakistan’s economy with China’s. 

India has always denied provoking trouble in Baluchistan, but just days after the blast, those suspicions were intensified when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a speech on India’s independence day, condemned what he called “atrocities” committed against people there. Pakistan’s top foreign policy official, Sartaj Aziz, said Modi’s comment “proves Pakistan’s contention that India . . . has been fomenting terrorism in Baluchistan.”

After the bombing, a political leader from Baluchistan, Mehmood Khan Achakzai, protested in Parliament that the government had been negligent or worse in not providing protection for lawyers and the hospital that was bombed. He suggested that state security agencies were to blame for allowing “non-state actors,” meaning militant groups, to operate out of control. He was reportedly attacked on TV talk shows as an enemy agent and traitor, and civilian officials leaped to defend the military establishment.

Some survivors of the carnage in Quetta said they doubted their personal or professional lives would ever return to normal. The isolated city’s legal community is small and tightknit, and includes families with a tradition of practicing law. Kakar, who reached the hospital moments after the bomb went off, said he and other survivors are still in shock. The explosion ripped through the crowd on the hospital patio, leaving mangled corpses in shreds of black cloth and wounded men struggling to help moaning colleagues.

“I was lucky that nothing happened to me, but I saw some of my closest friends lying on the ground, dead,” he recounted in a telephone interview from Quetta. A young cousin and recently minted lawyer, he said, was covered with blood. Then he spotted the body of a relative who had been his legal mentor. “I recognized him from his shoes,” Kakar said.

Regardless of whoever was behind the bombings in Quetta and Mardan, several leading lawyers this week insisted that they are determined not to let such attacks deter their community from its high-profile role in defending civil rights and promoting democratic freedoms, as well as performing more routine legal advocacy functions in places where courts are badly backlogged and defendants can wait in jail for months before being charged.

“We are the only community that dares to speak out on issues most people are scared to raise, including blasphemy and religious freedom,” said Syed Ali Zafar, president of the national Supreme Court Bar Association. “An attack on us is an attack on the people who are fighting the intellectual war for this country. We know we can always be the target of terrorists, but if we stop now, people would have no one to protect them. We are united, and we are not afraid.”