On 24 April 2015, I was having a lazy evening in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. We were having dinner—a group of friends, and me, the only journalist, all of us equally bored with the taciturnity that grips this seemingly serene city. Suddenly, the calm was broken. One of us, a private security official, got an alert, and we started hysterically checking with friends to verify the news. Sabeen Mahmud, an old friend, mentor and one of Pakistan’s bravest remaining rights activists had been shot in Karachi. She succumbed, almost instantaneously, to five bullets fired by unidentified assailants into her face, neck and chest. I do not know of anyone who knew her and was able to accept what had happened without initial disbelief. Coming to terms with it would incapacitate us in some ways—and it seems it has, despite all the protests against her murder around the world in the past few weeks.
In 2007, with her grandmother’s health fund, and her family’s blessings, Sabeen had opened The Second Floor, an art and culture café and bookstore in Karachi, which also functioned as a community space Also known as T2F, it was a platform for poets, musicians, writers and scientists alike, to display their work, and reach out to a city, so restless and so diverse. However, her murder was ominous in its timing, as it took place moments after a talk on Balochistan was conducted in T2F, a discussion the country’s military explicitly despises in public space.
The attack by the “unknown men on motorbikes” came after Sabeen had been subjected to several warnings and visits from the Inter Service Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s premier spy agency. She had received threats as she prepared to conduct the talk, called “Unsilencing Balochistan (Take 2).” Sabeen rescheduled the event due to the intimidation, before finally hosting it on the evening of her murder at The Second Floor. The same talk had earlier been cancelled, following threats at the Lahore University of Management and Sciences, where it was originally scheduled to take place on 9 April. This cancellation sparked outrage among the university’s students and faculty, all of whom accused the ISI of attacking civil liberties in the country.
The talk involved a panel of activists that included Mama Qadeer, the vice chairman of the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons, and Mir Mohammad Talpur, a writer who has been associated with the Baloch rights movement. Both Qadeer and Talpur have for a long time been trying to raise awareness about an issue that remains largely ignored in Pakistan: the disappearances and murders of Baloch nationalists. Balochistan, the largest province in Pakistan has been gripped by multiple conflicts over its present and future. This includes a separatist insurgency, which is demanding an independent state. It has been wracked by brutality, abductions and extrajudicial killings inflicted upon its citizens by both military outfits and intelligence organisations, yet its provincial government, the Pakistani Parliament and state, continue to ignore these events.
Balochistan is such a sensitive subject in Pakistan that no journalist, academic or activist is safe if they attempt a public discussion of the situation there. For those Pakistanis who believe in free speech, talking about the crisis there is about promoting free discourse, and not necessarily about supporting the Baloch separatist movement—but they are routinely accused of complicity with the separatists and so, threatened by state intelligence agencies. That receiving calls and emails from ISI is now considered normal among free-speech advocates in Pakistan, and that these threats have led to long interrogations, torture and murder, makes it obvious that the Pakistani government oppresses free expression aggressively and profoundly.