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The Pakistani rights activist wasn't foolish, she was fearless


Who killed Sabeen Mahmud?

By Sanam Maher on April 26, 2015

That which was squashed by others
Was lifted by this slight one
-Mir Taqi Mir

On Friday April 24th, the city of Karachi lost one of its bravest daughters. Sabeen Mahmud, a rights activist and the owner of The Second Floor (T2F) café, was shot dead shortly after she hosted an event that sought to highlight grave human rights abuses widely attributed to the Pakistan Army and associated militia in the country’s largest province of Balochistan. By Saturday afternoon the café where, since 2007, residents of Karachi could talk about virtually any subject—religion, ethnicity, sexuality, politics or even just the merits of the latest Apple invention—fell silent as Sabeen’s body was brought in by well-wishers, admirers, friends and family members. There were too many shoulders jostling to help carry the weight of the bier holding Sabeen’s slight, forty-year-old frame. She would have been 41 this June and had never been so still for so long in this café, for hers was a manic, irrepressible energy.

I was often irked by Sabeen’s optimism. When I spoke with her last week about a project we were collaborating on, I asked, tired, “How is everything going?” She replied, “Oh its madness! But the best kind.” I wondered how her spirit did not flag—or at least did not appear to—even as she lived in a place that did not always respond kindly to her attempts to fix what was broken and change what was flawed.

When Sabeen and other civil society activists would call for protests, vigils or gatherings outside the Press Club, or send out mass emails asking for support, they would be snickered at. These activists are disparagingly called the “mombatti mafia”—the “candle-light mafia”—the simple-minded men and women who think that merely coming together in public vigils to register their discontent, anger or sadness can actually achieve something. “Keep thinking and reflecting,” Sabeen said once, sagely. “Keep doing what you’re doing because you believe it’s the right thing to do.” But sometimes, her spirits did flag and the critics did get under her skin. “Like fools we have been coming out on the streets for so many years,” she raged in a Facebook post once. “For years, people have mocked us and laughed at us for our small numbers. You doubted our motives. You questioned our agendas. You bastards. If you had joined us, we wouldn’t have been so pitiable. We would have had a movement by now.”

Sabeen Mahmud

This is what we know about her death: Friday evening’s two-hour event at Sabeen’s café focused on the issue of “missing persons” in Balochistan, a province where a secessionist insurgency has persisted for decades. The Baloch are the people who have “disappeared,” their mutilated bodies often found years later. The missing are mostly youths abducted by armed men believed by many to be either from the Pakistani army and frontier paramilitary forces or from the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), (or to be actors in cahoots with both). Corpses are found daily in the Balochistan countryside, bearing the marks of torture.

Balochistan is one of the most resource-rich yet poverty-mired areas in Pakistan. Since 2001, armed separatist groups have waged a war against the Pakistani government and armed forces, seeking greater autonomy and independence from a state that has historically ignored the rights and needs of the Baloch people while plundering the province’s resources. The Voice of Baloch Missing Persons organization says the army and intelligence agencies use a “kill and dump” policy to eliminate autonomy-seeking activists and students. Human Rights Watch stated this month that in July 2014, authorities recovered the bodies of 800 people—mostly political workers—killed in Balochistan over the last three and a half years.

One of the speakers at Friday’s event, “Un-Silencing Balochistan,” was Mama ‘Uncle’ Qadeer—a rights organizer who says that more than 21,000 people, largely Baloch rights activists and students, have “disappeared” in the province. He should know—his son’s mutilated corpse was recovered in 2009 after the boy went missing, just like those thousands of others.

We know that Friday’s event was originally scheduled to be held at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) on April 9, as part of a series of talks on human rights in Pakistan. A few hours before the roundtable was due to start at the university, it was called off, reportedly under pressure from “government officials.”

We know that this turn of events angered Sabeen. “What makes it dangerous for us to talk about Pakistan’s largest province at one of our most celebrated universities?” she asked at the time.

We know that she was happy once the event at T2F was underway. She was glad that she had been able to provide a space for the Baloch activists to speak out, even if they had been shunned by officials in Lahore.

We know that she left T2F with her mother, Mahenaz, that night, and that she was shot in her car as she drove away from the café. We know there were four bullets—to her chest, abdomen and shoulder. From the photographs of the crime scene, I know that her shoes were left behind in her small white car, on a mat of crushed glass, as she was rushed to the hospital, and pronounced dead on arrival at 9:40 pm.

Who is responsible for her murder?

As Sunday’s editorial in the English-language Dawn newspaper makes plain, the answer will be hotly debated. “Clearly, in the tumultuous city of Karachi and given the variety of causes Ms. Mahmud championed, the security agencies are not the only ones perceived as suspects in her assassination. Ms. Mahmud’s work had attracted criticism and threats in the past, particularly from sections of the religious right, which viewed her promotion of the arts, music and culture with great hostility.”

The police have offered a number of possibilities. “It is a clear case of targeted killing and police are working on few possible motives of the murder,” Karachi-South Deputy Inspector General Jamil Ahmed said on Saturday. He added that an “enemy country or its intelligence agency” may have wished to give Karachi’s law-and-order situation a “complicated turn” by targeting someone like Sabeen. This is, of course, a reference to the U.S. or India—it is common for non-government organizations and rights activists in Pakistan to be accused of being “Indian agents” or dollar greedy and out to “malign” Pakistan’s interests.

At the same time, Ahmed has also said police are investigating whether Sabeen’s murder is related to “personal enmity.” According to Dawn, Sabeen’s friends and relatives informed the police that she had been receiving threats for the last “four to six weeks.”

To counter the popular belief that the intelligence agencies targeted Sabeen, the army’s public relations wing issued a rare rejoinder to critics via Twitter on Saturday, the day of the funeral.

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But other narratives are also being aired: The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan have denied any involvement in the murder, and the group’s spokesperson said on Sunday that “investigation by the Taliban’s intelligence wing suggests government agencies are behind the killing.”

Sabeen was shot by two men on a motorbike, who pulled up to her car as she stopped at a traffic light near T2F. Police say there are no CCTV cameras at this traffic signal, so the identities of those two men remain a mystery. It’s a climate in which the government, the army, or the hardline militants they say they are fighting can plausibly be accused of the murder of one woman guilty of nothing more than political engagement.

We know that many are criticizing Sabeen once more, asking why she bothered to risk her own life by highlighting the cause of the Baloch activists. But I also know this: this is not the first time that Sabeen acted in a way that her critics called foolish.

In 2007, when demonstrators against then-president Pervez Musharraf needed a space to plan their next move against the dictatorial regime, Sabeen welcomed them into T2F. When warned against holding a launch for a book about Pakistani military interests, Sabeen and her partner-in-protest Zaheer Kidwai invited those threatening them to come to the café to talk about what was bothering them. “Don’t bring guns; don’t bring anything. Just come,” said Zaheer, at the time.

When Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer was shot dead in 2011 for speaking out against Pakistan’s repressive blasphemy laws, Sabeen did not shy away from welcoming talks and events at T2F to discuss what had happened. “The only thing we have said no to is motivational talks,” she said wryly at the time. When I asked her why she couldn’t just give politics and political discussion a rest, if only for a little while, she replied, “There’s politics in everything. What kind of politics are we going to tell people not to talk about? People have become apathetic and they’ve given up on their right to be political.”

In December 2014, after 132 children were killed at the Army Public School in Peshawar in an attack by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, Sabeen was one of many activists who relentlessly pushed to prosecute the religious extremist groups who support such militants. When our political leaders were cowed into silence, she was one of the loudest voices calling for the arrest and imprisonment of a radical, powerful cleric, Maulana Abdul Aziz.

She was not foolish: she knew that activists in Pakistan place themselves in grave danger. Before Sabeen, there was Rashid Rehman—a lawyer who took on the case of a colleague accused of blasphemy in 2014, and who was shot in his office near the Multan courts in Punjab on May 7. Before Rashid, there was Perween Rahman, allegedly murdered by the land mafia in Karachi in March 2013 for her development projects in one of the largest squatter settlements in Asia. In March 2011, the federal minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti was shot for his criticism of the blasphemy laws. Then of course, there is the case of Malala, who was shot but thankfully survived, in 2012.

“You have to be prudent and you need to make a judgment call,” Sabeen told me at the time of Taseer’s murder, as she planned events to pay tribute to the slain governor. “You have to consider whether your actions will help the cause or take away from it.” She added, “I have to ask myself: ‘Is this worth doing? Is this worth losing everything?’” That’s not foolish; that’s fearless.