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Pakistan

Rights activist killed after Baluchistan forum raises fears of impunity

People carry the coffin of Sabeen Mahmud, a human rights activist killed by gunmen, during her funeral in Karachi, Pakistan, 25 April 2015
People carry the coffin of Sabeen Mahmud, a human rights activist killed by gunmen, during her funeral in Karachi, Pakistan, 25 April 2015 Reuters/Akhtar Soomro

Pakistan’s government ordered an investigation on Saturday into the murder of a rights activist who was shot dead after hosting a forum on the country’s troubled Baluchistan province. Sabeen Mahmud was gunned down in Karachi on Friday evening as she drove to her home with her mother, who was wounded in the attack.

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Mahmud was founder of The Second Floor, a café, bookshop and charity that also organised conferences on social issues.

“She was a social rights activist who always stood up for justice,” said Mir Mohammed Ali Talpur, a Baluch activist who was one of the speakers in Friday’s conference. “But it was not only political; it was also a social and cultural setup, with music, poetry, paintings, and book launches.”

The conference addressed the Pakistani military’s alleged involvement in torture and killings in the country’s largest province. Rights groups believe security services are responsible for the disappearance of thousands of people over the past decade, and Talpur has no doubt Mahmud’s murder was linked to the fact that she allowed the talk to go ahead.

“The invitations were sent, people were coming, and everybody knew this talk would be held,” he says. “Anyone who wanted to do it knew quite well what he was trying to do, or what it was trying to do, if it was an institution.”

Mahmud organised the talk after a similar event planned at Lahore University of Management Sciences was cancelled in early April. Activists believe it was shut down by the powerful Inter Services Intelligence agency, and now suspect that authorities have played a role in Mahmud’s death.

“We don’t have proof or evidence, but whoever talks about Baluchistan and their rights and what’s happening either gets shot or goes missing,” says Noor E Maryam Kanwer, director of the Pakistan Youth Alliance. “We all suspect this is a clear message from the establishment to people like us, to people like me, to all the activists, to all the journalists. They are silencing any voice who works to un-silence Baluchistan.”

Accounting for 44 per cent of Pakistan’s surface area, the south-western province of Baluchistan holds only a small part of its population, but political tensions and the reported disappearances of thousands of people over the past decade make it a sensitive subject with the country’s authorities.

“It has had a long-term, very low intensity separatist insurgency, which the Pakistani government and security forces insist is linked to support from the Indian government, something they have never been able to convincingly prove,” says Phelim Kine, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.

“The government has not only turned a blind eye, but has basically written a blank check to Pakistan’s security forces in allowing them to take whatever measures they see necessary to address ‘security issues’, which unfortunately, as we have documented, include things like enforced disappearance, torture and extrajudicial killings. ”

Human Rights Watch has reported on what it calls a “very disturbing pattern” of disappearances of men and boys in the region, as well as activists, rights defenders, journalists and lawyers.

“These people are abducted by elements that are often linked to the security services,” Kine says. “They are held in secret detention and what happens far too often is that they are found dead, often with bullet wounds and marks of torture.”

Kine calls the situation a “human rights nightmare” that Pakistani officials have “failed to address in any substantive way”. And while Pakistani Prime Minister Mohammed Nawaz Sharif condemned Mahmud’s killing and ordered an investigation, activists like Talpur have little hope it will produce any results.

“There have been more than a hundred hearings on missing persons in the Supreme Court of Pakistan, and even after those hundred-plus hearings, not a single person was charged,” he says. “So I don’t expect anything from this investigation.”

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