ISLAMABAD: The killing of a prominent rights campaigner Friday has sent shockwaves through the country's progressives, as those who speak out against alleged abuses by the state say they are under increasing threat.
Sabeen Mahmud, the 40-year-old director The Second Floor cafe in Karachi which regularly hosted debates and arts events, was killed when gunmen attacked her car as she left the venue minutes after hosting a seminar on abuses in the restive Balochistan province.
The same talk, featuring prominent Baloch activist Mama Qadeer who has campaigned for the “missing people” of Balochistan, had been cancelled by the prestigious Lahore University of Management Sciences weeks earlier after members of faculty reported pressure from intelligence agencies.
Police say they are examining whether she was targeted because of her work at the cafe, which held talks against religious extremism as well as state brutality.
“She had no personal enmity so there is much possibility that she might have been targeted because of her intellectual activities. She was getting threatening calls from some unknown callers. We are working (out) who they might be,” senior police official Jamil Ahmed said Sunday.
Culture of impunity
Her death led to an outpouring of grief with hundreds of mourners attending her funeral Saturday, as the United States and the European Union joined Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in officially condemning the killing.
But most analysts say there is little chance her murderers will ever be brought to justice given the recent history of impunity among those who target the country's marginalised liberals.
Last year, prominent liberal TV host Raza Rumi narrowly escaped a gun attack on his car in Lahore that killed his driver, while another anchor, Hamid Mir, survived being shot in the stomach in Karachi shortly after hosting a TV programme about Balochistan.
No perpetrators have been brought to justice in either case.
TV anchor Mir, whose brother quickly pointed the finger at the country's Inter Services Intelligence agency (ISI) for the attempt on his life, said he saw several parallels with the attack on Mahmud.
“The most common factor was Mama Qadeer Baloch because I received threats when I invited him on my show,” Mir told AFP.
“I got six bullet injuries, she got maybe four. I was attacked by the people who were riding a motorcycle, she was too. My attackers were guided by some people who were sitting in a car and this was the same case in her incident.“
Dissenting voices silenced
Hashim Bin Rashid, a leftwing columnist and activist, says that there is a growing atmosphere among the country's urban middle classes that encourages the silencing of dissenting voices.
“The overall atmosphere of fascism... is much more worrying, where anyone is offering any dissent is going to be called a traitor,” he said.
Activists who write about the rights of Baloch people on social media, or condemn the killing of minorities, are often loudly berated and receive death threats that are never investigated, while on the other hand the government blocks pages belonging to progressive groups on Facebook, he added.
Resource-rich Balochistan is the largest of Pakistan's four provinces and also its most impoverished, and it has been racked by a separatist insurgency since 2004.
Human rights groups allege the security forces commit abuses, accusing them of picking up non-militant separatists, including academics and students, torturing them and dumping their bodies on the streets.
Others simply disappear, activists say.
Mir said the room for freedom of expression on Balochistan had significantly narrowed in the mainstream media.
“Since I was attacked last year, the media has been facing a lot of pressure,” said Mir, who now travels with an armed escort. “They feel they are helpless, they cannot express their views in the media openly, they cannot get justice. They feel anyone who speaks truth or people who become voice for the voiceless will be silenced. This is not good for democratic society.“
Abid Hussain, a Karachi-based journalist who attended Friday's seminar and had known Mahmud for more than a decade, described her loss as “unquantifiable”.
“I truly hope we are able to rally around her and do our best to continue her legacy and what she taught us... but the sceptic in me says that it won't be possible,” he said.
The first test, he said, would be whether a talk on Balochistan scheduled to be held at the University of Karachi next month is allowed to go ahead, and safely.