On 24 April 2015, I was having a lazy evening in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. We were having dinner—a group of friends, and me, the only journalist, all of us equally bored with the taciturnity that grips this seemingly serene city. Suddenly, the calm was broken. One of us, a private security official, got an alert, and we started hysterically checking with friends to verify the news. Sabeen Mahmud, an old friend, mentor and one of Pakistan’s bravest remaining rights activists had been shot in Karachi. She succumbed, almost instantaneously, to five bullets fired by unidentified assailants into her face, neck and chest. I do not know of anyone who knew her and was able to accept what had happened without initial disbelief. Coming to terms with it would incapacitate us in some ways—and it seems it has, despite all the protests against her murder around the world in the past few weeks.
In 2007, with her grandmother’s health fund, and her family’s blessings, Sabeen had opened The Second Floor, an art and culture café and bookstore in Karachi, which also functioned as a community space Also known as T2F, it was a platform for poets, musicians, writers and scientists alike, to display their work, and reach out to a city, so restless and so diverse. However, her murder was ominous in its timing, as it took place moments after a talk on Balochistan was conducted in T2F, a discussion the country’s military explicitly despises in public space.
The attack by the “unknown men on motorbikes” came after Sabeen had been subjected to several warnings and visits from the Inter Service Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s premier spy agency. She had received threats as she prepared to conduct the talk, called “Unsilencing Balochistan (Take 2).” Sabeen rescheduled the event due to the intimidation, before finally hosting it on the evening of her murder at The Second Floor. The same talk had earlier been cancelled, following threats at the Lahore University of Management and Sciences, where it was originally scheduled to take place on 9 April. This cancellation sparked outrage among the university’s students and faculty, all of whom accused the ISI of attacking civil liberties in the country.
The talk involved a panel of activists that included Mama Qadeer, the vice chairman of the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons, and Mir Mohammad Talpur, a writer who has been associated with the Baloch rights movement. Both Qadeer and Talpur have for a long time been trying to raise awareness about an issue that remains largely ignored in Pakistan: the disappearances and murders of Baloch nationalists. Balochistan, the largest province in Pakistan has been gripped by multiple conflicts over its present and future. This includes a separatist insurgency, which is demanding an independent state. It has been wracked by brutality, abductions and extrajudicial killings inflicted upon its citizens by both military outfits and intelligence organisations, yet its provincial government, the Pakistani Parliament and state, continue to ignore these events.
Balochistan is such a sensitive subject in Pakistan that no journalist, academic or activist is safe if they attempt a public discussion of the situation there. For those Pakistanis who believe in free speech, talking about the crisis there is about promoting free discourse, and not necessarily about supporting the Baloch separatist movement—but they are routinely accused of complicity with the separatists and so, threatened by state intelligence agencies. That receiving calls and emails from ISI is now considered normal among free-speech advocates in Pakistan, and that these threats have led to long interrogations, torture and murder, makes it obvious that the Pakistani government oppresses free expression aggressively and profoundly.
But, Sabeen’s work had always been greater than any one subject, and her primary goal was to support any issue that deserved an open discussion. In the words of Zaheer Alam Kidvai, an activist who treated Sabeen like his daughter, and mentored her through her journeys and contributions, “In the number of years that Sabeen and T2F were around she spoke up to people for every underdog, for the poor, for Ahmadis, the Shias, the Balochs. In all these years Balochis were another group that had been put under pressure … but Sabeen was way above Balochs alone. She lived and loved everyone.”
Nonetheless, her murder that took place right after she gave a platform for Baloch activists to voice their concerns was an acutely straightforward warning. At her funeral in Karachi on 27 April, and on subsequent days, it was hard to miss the underlying debate between which most of Sabeen’s friends and followers seemed to be torn. Some vociferously called for greater dissent: “We should stand for Sabeen's cause.” Others murmured that “This was clearly a red flag,” a warning to anyone who dared speak up, that dissent will not be tolerated anymore.
Mohsin Sayeed, a long-time colleague of ours, and an undeterred activist from Karachi, said, “For the first time I feel, they have won over us.” By “they,” Sayeed meant the forces in the country that are accused of being backed by the state, and have been involved in the abuse of human rights for political purposes. “They” are whom activists in Karachi have been dissenting against since the reign of Zia-ul-Haq, the sixth president of Pakistan, when military control intimidated civil society, and evidently still does. If there is a subject the counry's establishment does not want discussed, the consequences are threats and often murders. Despite many clues, "they" still remain an unseen, invisible force in Pakistan, with no real traces.
Sabeen’s murder is gravely startling because she was ruthless, but not reckless, and her murder has raised questions about the safety of other activists in the country. She was a force so strong and legitimate that we, an already small and dwindling group of free-speech advocates in Pakistan—often branded traitors by the country’s mainstream media, which is heavily biased towards the state—feel much smaller after losing her.
I recall several encounters with Sabeen, from years ago, outside the Press Club in Karachi—where many protests take place. I still lived in the city by the sea back then. Sabeen was one of a small group of liberal activists—often mocked as the “Mombatti Mafia” by right-wing conservatives after their penchant for candlelit vigils, as they spiritedly demanded human rights and democracy in Pakistan. We had protested together on numerous occasions, for the rights of almost every oppressed community, and on almost every contentious issue in Pakistan. We protested against the continuing attacks on the Christian monitories; against the murder of the former Punjab governor Salman Taseer by his own security guard in 2012; against Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws; against the 2013 attack on Malala Yusufzai; and the 2014 attack on Raza Rumi in Lahore, a friend and fellow human-rights advocate, who barely escaped from an assault very similar to the one that took Sabeen’s life.
After I spent a day grappling with my disbelief and tears after Sabeen’s murder, I flew to Karachi on 26 April, and tried looking into the investigation that was being conducted by the police authorities in Defense, the area of southern Karachi where the event took place. I received little cooperation from the police, and was denied access to any information from the investigation after an officer termed it “sensitive.” But another police official I spoke to, who works directly with Jamil Ahmed, the deputy inspector general in charge of south Karachi, told me on the condition of anonymity that investigators could not find a match for casings of the bullets that killed Sabeen, in their record of weapons, due to which it could not be determined who may have used the gun.
My thoughts went back to the killing, on 31 May 2011, of Saleem Shahzad, an investigative journalist and an old friend. A year-long investigation followed, but the appointed committee was unable to name a culprit. Shahzad’s phone records had been deleted within hours of his murder. Prior to his death, he had gotten warnings and threats from the ISI, and had been taken in by the agencies—something he had been warning his friends and family might happen weeks before it did. His wife had been frantically calling his close friends, pleading for someone to find a way to get him back. Through a phone call to Shahzad’s wife, the ISI acknowledged that they had him, and assured her that he would be returned. His body was found less than two days after his disappearance, on the bank of a canal in Mandi Bahauddin, 170 kilometres southeast of Islamabad.
Ten days before his death, Shahzad had published the first piece of his two-part series revealing the involvement of military officials in a high-profile attack on the Pakistani Navy. He was murdered for disclosing the complicated nexus that exists between Pakistani state agencies and terrorist outfits, but more importantly for daring to finally say publically what he had known as a journalist for a long, long time.
Over the past few years, I have lost many brave colleagues and friends who fought for the rights of oppressed Pakistanis. They were not from any particular geographical area, and the issues they spoke out on were not isolated only to Balochistan. However, all of these issues were in some way associated with state involvement in crime and terrorism. On 13 February 2013, Karachi’s largest slum, Lyari, lost a resilient activist and philanthropist, Parveen Rehman, when she was gunned down near her office in Orangi Town. On 8 November 2009, Nisar Baloch, another activist from the same place, was shot dead by unknown men on motorcycles in Karachi. Few activists dare to work on the issues that motivated these individuals after seeing them killed. Each brings with it, not just individual losses, but also the steady dilution of liberty in Pakistan.
But despite these murders, some continue, like Sabeen did, to believe in steadfast dissent, to come out on the streets, hold placards and chant in unison for the rights and freedoms of Pakistan’s citizens. They don’t do so to be called heroes or get personal credit. They do so because, despite the fear and intimidation they are subjected to, they truly love Pakistan, and want to stand with its oppressed communities, to fight for each other’s rights. Sabeen, after many years of protest, brought such people together one last time at her funeral. People chanted angrily, “Answer us you brutality, who is the murderer of our friend?” It did little to make us feel any stronger.
Pakistan’s resilience can be heartening and inspiring, but the way these killings are becoming more frequent is endangering the small community of Pakistanis defending freedom in their homeland. We are tired of losing our friends.
The question now is: what kind of country does Pakistan want to be? The state is morphing into a land where no one can feel safe—where nameless mercenaries can slay citizens and activists, where investigations into murder cannot name any culprits. If Pakistan’s military and government are so obsessed with security, why can’t they prioritise protecting civilians instead of intimidating them? In the name of national security, civilian lives are under constant threat from the country’s own security agencies. Who are these agencies meant to protect, if not the people? Is there no one in the state apparatus of this democratic country who will protect civil society? These questions need to be answered. And these murders need to stop.
Kiran Nazish is an independent journalist who covers conflicts and crises. She has reported from the Middle East and South Asia for the New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, Al-Jazeera and Forbes among others. She can be followed @kirannazish