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.
Akhtar Soomro / Reuters
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 he reported that a terrorist attack by an al Qaeda affiliate on a major naval base in Karachi had insider help. A similar “hit list” warning also spooked Najam Sethi, the veteran editor and talk show host on the private television station Geo TV after he told viewers that the ISI had tortured Shehzad to death. He felt forced to leave the country for four months, and upon his return, had to initially broadcast his show from a studio inside his home. Now he travels in an armored vehicle. 

The only people with the right to free speech in Pakistan belong to the military or its militant clients. Everybody else must get in line.
Anyone who publicly criticizes the military in Pakistan is treading on thin ice, but discussing Baluchistan is a particular taboo. With a few exceptions, journalists and other writers self-censor mostly out of concern for their own safety. Last April, the prominent journalist and host of another popular Geo TV show, Hamid Mir, was seriously injured when unknown gunmen opened fire on his car after he reported on the “disappeared” of Baluchistan. Mir claimed that he had angered senior ISI officials. The channel is still smarting from a strong military backlash after it broadcast allegations by Mir’s family that the head of the ISI had carried out the attack on him. It was no surprise then that Geo TV bleeped the intrepid Sethi out when he tried to discuss the alleged role of intelligence agencies in Sabeen’s murder on air.

And last September, two men I took to be agents from the ISI, accosted me at Columbia University in New York, where I had just launched my book on the Pakistan military. They were angry that I had claimed that it was open season on torture and killing in Baluchistan. Before parting, one of them asked me if I had any “real evidence” on the military’s killing of the Baluch, quickly adding, “you better watch out for the crocodiles if you want to swim in the river.”

The military considers middle class, English-speaking rights activists particularly dangerous because they can advance their causes by expressing their concerns to informed audiences both at home and abroad. And as the astute Pakistani columnist Cyril Almeida noted in Dawn, a prominent local newspaper, social media like Facebook and Twitter have significantly enhanced their ability to advocate their causes. Sabeen was one such activist who had apparently been pushing the envelope too far. T2F’s scheduled discussion for April 29 was to include an examination of the legality and appropriateness of military courts for trying terrorism cases, which were set up at the generals’ insistence after a gruesome December 2014 attack by Pakistani Taliban on an army run school in Peshawar. In 2012, the prominent human rights lawyer, Asma Jehangir, who has relentlessly documented the military’s human rights violations in that province for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and routinely censures the generals for their involvement in civilian politics, claimed senior ISI officials were plotting to kill her. She now travels with armed civilian police guards.

We will probably never find out who really killed Sabeen. Some local police officers, journalists with known sympathies for the military, and other assorted right-wing nationalists are already busy pointing fingers at the usual suspects, including India’s Research and Analyses Wing (RAW). Shehzad’s murder and the attack on Mir were similarly shrouded in deliberate ambiguity and obfuscation, which help reinforce the military’s sense of impunity. In 2009, a journalist from Der Spiegel asked Ahmad Shuja Pasha, then Director General of ISI, why Pakistan wouldn’t arrest the Afghan Taliban leadership believed to be hiding in the country. His response was telling: “Shouldn’t they be allowed to think and say what they please? They believe that jihad is their obligation. Isn’t that freedom of opinion?” Clearly, the only people with the right to free speech in Pakistan belong to the military or its militant clients. As Mahmud’s murder makes crystal clear, everybody else must get in line, or there will be blood.

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  • AQIL SHAH is Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College.
  • More By Aqil Shah