Athar Hussain / Reuters Women light candles in Karachi to commemorate International Women's Day, March 7, 2014.

There Will Be Blood

Sabeen Mahmud and Pakistan's War on Activists

Last week, unknown assailants shot and killed human rights activist Sabeen Mahmud in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city and commercial hub, where she ran T2F (short for the Second Floor), a small café-cum-cultural center. Since its opening in 2007, T2F has provided budding poets, writers, and activists a safe space for critical expression in a country where the military and militants linked to it have created an environment of doubt, fear, and uncertainty. She was targeted immediately after hosting a discussion in the center called, “Unsilencing Balochistan Take 2” on human rights violations in the resource rich southwestern province, where the military and its intelligence services have waged a long “dirty war” against Baluch separatists. 

Just a week earlier, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had preempted “Unsilencing Balochistan Take 1,” to be held at the elite Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), by threatening the faculty there. Unfazed, Mahmud invited some of the same speakers who were scheduled to speak at LUMS, including Mama (uncle) Qadeer, a tireless 72-year-old Baluch rights activist, who had found his son’s dumped mutilated corpse in Turbat (a town in southern Baluchistan) in 2011, two years after he “disappeared.” 

People chant slogans as they hold signs and pictures of Sabeen Mahmud, a human rights activist who was shot by gunmen, during a protest outside the Press Club in Karachi, April 30, 2015.

People chant slogans as they hold signs and pictures of Sabeen Mahmud, a human rights activist who was shot by gunmen, during a protest outside the Press Club in Karachi, April 30, 2015.

After Mahmud’s death, many in Pakistan and abroad immediately pointed fingers at the ISI. Its many apologists in the media quickly retorted with their usual refrain: Where is the evidence? To be sure, no covert agency worth its salt is likely to leave behind a smoking gun. But the circumstances surrounding Mahmud’s death fit the agency’s playbook: a ritual of intimidation designed to create plausible deniability. For instance, media reports have suggested that the ISI had discovered her name on the “hit list” of an Islamist militant group back in January, presumably for her activism against an Islamist campaign opposing Valentine’s Day. In 2012, the ISI had similarly warned the journalist Saleem Shehzad that Islamic militants were gunning for him because of his reporting on terrorism. He was soon abducted, tortured, and killed after

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