Gauri Lankish’s murder has brought back memories of Sabeen Mahmud and question-marks over her death

The recent murder of a brave and outspoken journalist in India brings back the memory of the murder of Sabeen Mahmood in Karachi few years back. Sabeen was not a journalist but she had established a sort of intellectual cafe called T2F which had become the watering hole for all the free thinking intellectuals and citizens of Karachi and beyond. Like Gauri Lankish, Sabeen was fearless and did not get intimidated by threats and warnings.

It was the night of 24th April, 2015 that Sabeen Mahmood was returning after finishing a session at T2F when her car which she was driving stopped at a traffic light. A motorbike pulled alongside her and the pillion rider fired 5 shots at her with a 9 mm pistol. Sabeen was killed instantly and her mother, who was sitting next to her, was hit by two of the bullets that passed through Sabeen, she survived but lost her only child.

Few months after the murder, police announced that they have caught the culprits who were involved. The ring leader and assailant was an educated young man named Saad Aziz who readily confessed to the killing. He also confessed to many other crimes including several murders. Earlier this year Aziz and four others were given death penalty by a military court, however they are still on death row due to legal challenges.

While it is quite likely that Aziz is the murderer, the motive given is rather flimsy. In September 2015 reporters of Herald magazine met Aziz at the detention center. They found him to be relaxed and at ease showing no signs of stress. Calmly he told them how he had killed Sabeen. When asked about the motive he did not appear that confident and claimed it was nothing specific but her general liberal ideas which were against Islam. Aziz claimed that he had decided to kill Sabeen on the day he attended a session at T2F on Karachi situation where Sabeen told the audience not to be scared of the Taliban and to stand up to them. Curiously this was 13th of February and despite Sabeen driving to and fro from T2F on a daily basis she was not targeted till 24 April, 10 weeks later.

What sticks out like a sore thumb is the fact that on the day she was killed Sabeen had held a session where the issue of those who have disappeared in Baluchistan was highlighted and discussed. Among the speakers was Baluch activist Mama Qadeer. The seminar, titled ‘Unsilencing Balochistan (Take 2) was originally to be held in LUMS Lahore on 9th April but was cancelled when Punjab government demanded this. Allegedly Sabeen had also been asked to cancel it but she refused to comply.

It has also been alleged that Saad Aziz had contacts with police and security agencies although there is not much evidence to support this. Sabeen’s driver Ghulam Abbas who was in the back seat of the car and had identified Aziz as the shooter was shot dead in September 2015.

Regardless of whether the motive for Sabeen’s murder was religious fanaticism or her attempt to talk about Baluchistan issue, one has to accept that there is a thick wall of silence in Pakistani and international media/intelligentsia on the Baluchistan issue.

The problem of Baluchistan has been simmering since the time Pakistan came into being and this province was created. It is the largest of the Pakistani provinces by area yet has the smallest population. Due to its geographic location and vast as yet untapped mineral wealth it is of great importance to Pakistan.

Unhappy at their treatment by Pakistani governments and upset at how the income generated from Baluchistan natural resources is utilized Baluch nationalists have been waging a cold or hot war for many decades.

There are uncorroborated allegations that Pakistani security forces have used unnecessary force in suppressing the insurgency in Baluchistan. These allegations include use of airstrikes against Baluchi civilian population and some even going to the extent of declaring that a Baluch genocide is in progress.

Searching through the evidence from independent agencies I have not been able to find much to support large scale indiscriminate military action by Pakistani security forces against Baluch civilians. However, there is no doubt that thousands of Baluch nationalists have been abducted by Pakistani security agencies and held in detention for various periods of time without any charge. Although when released these people often do not discuss what happened to them out of fear it is widely known that they were tortured during detention.

Much worse than this is the fate of several hundred to a few thousand (figures are widely disputed) men who have been abducted and have either disappeared without trace or have been found dumped dead by the roadside their bodies bearing signs of brutal torture – Mama Qadeer’s son was one such unfortunate victim. And as virtually all of those who were abducted and got back alive say that they were held by agencies, we can conclude that those killed are nothing but extrajudicial killings by the state agencies. Certainly some were blatantly told during detention that no one can save them including the PM or Chief Justice for they are only answerable to the Army Chief, also the police as a routine refuse to register a case when someone is kidnapped.

I think it is time that the veil of silence on the Baluchistan issue is lifted and a dialogue is started involving all the parties involved in the ongoing conflict to find a resolution and stop the ongoing brutalities. It should not be forgotten that state agencies are not the only culprits harming the innocent. The Baluch nationalists have targeted teachers, student and non-Baluchs in an attempt to ethnically cleanse the province. In addition, there are religious fanatic Baluch groups who have been targeting Shia Hazara residents of Baluchistan.

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