25 Apr 2015

Pakistan activist Sabeen Mahmud shot dead in Karachi

Sabeen Mahmud, one of Pakistan’s most outspoken human rights campaigners, has been killed by armed men after giving a talk in Karachi, writes Saira Jaffer.

Sabeen Mahmud, a prominent Pakistani human rights activist was shot dead by gunmen on Friday in the southern city of Karachi, shortly after hosting an event on one of Pakistan’s most controversial subjects.

Police said armed men on a motorcycle targeted Mahmud as she left her non-profit community café, The Second Floor (T2F) with her mother.

The people of Pakistan are going through severe disasters and traumas every day Sabeen Mahmud

Mahmud received four bullets at close range and was pronounced dead when she reached the hospital.

Mahmud was one of Pakistan’s most outspoken human rights advocates, and never let fear get in the way of her convictions.

She had started T2F in 2007 as a community space for dialogue. The café’ soon became a conversational haven in the country’s most violent city.

“Things are dangerous and bad things happen, but you can’t let fear control you,” she once said.

“You’ll never get anything done. Fear is just a line in your head – you can choose what side of that line to be on.”

I see a light, beckoning at the end of the tunnel Sabeen Mahmud

On the evening of her death, Mahmud had just hosted a talk on forced disappearances in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, where security forces have been fighting separatists since 2005.

The “Unsilencing Balochistan” event was on those political activists who had “disappeared”, only for their bodies to be retrieved bearing signs of torture.

Prominent Baloch activists, who were part of the panel for Friday’s talk, said that more than 2,825 people had “disappeared” since 2005.

The event was initially supposed to be held on 21 April at a different location, but the venue was later changed after the organisers started receiving threats.

Mahmud eschewed the armed security popular in Karachi’s commercial shops, restaurants and cafés as she wanted to keep the space accessible for all in an increasingly exclusive and divided city.

Popular with students and the artistic community, T2F represented a space for creativity and free speech and was part of PeaceNiche, a platform she founded for “intellectual and cultural engagement”.

The space hosted talks, concerts, exhibitions, screenings and experimental theatre – one of the few alternative spaces in a city of 20m people.

Internet freedoms

An independent female entrepreneur, and a self-taught graphic designer and coder, Mahmud was very active in the technology sector and was a fierce and vocal champion of Internet freedoms in a country where YouTube has been banned since 2012.

For her efforts, she was invited to the World Economic Forum in Davos in January.

She played cricket competitively, protested on the streets for various human rights causes and entered the tech world as a 17-year-old.

Despite the uncertainties and violence around her, Mahmud had been a force of positivity and inspired others to remain hopeful.

She said: “The people of Pakistan are going through severe disasters and traumas every day… I see a light, beckoning at the end of the tunnel that Pakistan has entered right now.”

Mahmud was one of a handful of vocal protesters against Taliban apologists following the Peshawar school attack by Taliban fighters, in which at least 130 school children were killed.

She had protested in the capital Islamabad against Abdul Aziz, the chief cleric of the capital’s Red Mosque after he had attempted to justify the killings.

Together with other activists, Mahmud had managed to turn the cleric’s response into a national issue, which ultimately culminated in the registration of a police report against the controversial cleric.

Activist killings

Mahmud’s death will come as a severe blow to Pakistan’s fast-shrinking civil rights community.

It is unclear who is behind Mahmud’s killing, but her death follows attacks on other prominent civil rights leaders.

Prominent journalist and civil rights activist Raza Rumi survived an assassination attempt in January 2014 and had to leave the country for speaking out against the violent Sunni-Lashkar-e-Jhangvi group.

Journalist Hamid Mir also survived a gun attack last year after his vocal coverage of the military operation in Balochistan and the disappearance of Baloch activists, allegedly involving the country’s intelligence services.

Balochistan was the topic of debate on the evening of Mahmud’s death. Her friends say she had received threats to defer the event, but that she had persisted.

Mahmud’s death will be felt across Pakistan and especially in her city, Karachi, where she had created a space that supported a culture of tolerance, social awareness and change.