Pakistan: The life and death of Sabeen Mahmud
May 27, 2015, 10:23 am

Sabeen Mahmud was the founder of NGO Peace Niche and the director of The Second Floor (T2F), Karachi’s cultural institution. She represented progressive thinking and strived towards creating a safe space for free expression in Pakistan. On 24 April 2015, she was assassinated while leaving T2F with her mother after hosting an event about human rights in Balochistan.

She was an ordinary student of literature, philosophy and journalism in Lahore but happened to love arts, music, culture, computer and science. After completing her degree, she joined a technology company. By 2006, she was getting tired and wanted to do something different in the development field. She also realised that she was contradicting herself – she was angry about what her important clients – such as Unilever and Shell – were doing in other parts of the world while she was helping them sell more toothpaste and oil. It became more difficult to reconcile her ideas around activism with the job she was doing. So she took a change to realise her biggest dream – to change the world for the better through the internet and technology; and, T2F was part of that dream.

In 2007, she set up T2F – an independent and safe space for discourse and performances by artists and marginalised voices. This project was a part of her non-profit umbrella called Peace Niche. T2F quickly became a mainstay of Karachi’s activism where Hindus, Muslims and Christians worked together. Using technology, theatrical shows and music, she was able to bridge boundaries of differences. Wholeheartedly, she became vocal in human rights issues and freedom of expression particularly the blasphemy law that she wished abolished.

Dangerous environment for defenders under the Blasphemy laws in Pakistan

Several sections of Pakistan’s Criminal Code comprise its blasphemy laws. Anyone convicted of insulting Islam or the Prophet Muhammad can be sentenced to death under the laws. Blasphemy cases are also notoriously dangerous for activists, defence lawyers and even judges in Pakistan. They are frequently subjected to death threats for their involvement in defending a perceived blasphemer. Also the government officials who took a stand against the blasphemy laws have encountered death threats.

For instance, Mr. Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab and critic of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws was shot 26 times, on 4 January 2011, by his own bodyguard, who openly stated that he had killed Mr. Taseer because he was a blasphemer. Mr. Taseer had spoken out in support of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy.

In addition, Mr. Shahbaz Bhatti, Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs and a critic of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws was shot dead on 2 March 2011. He had defended the same woman sentenced to death for blasphemy as Mr. Taseer. Tehrik-i-Taliban took responsibility for his death, justifying his murder with the assertion that he was a “known blasphemer.”

Last year in May, Mr. Rashid Rehman, Human rights lawyer and Regional Coordinator for the work of human rights defenders for Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) was shot dead. At the time of his death, he was defending a Bahauddin Zakariya University professor accused of blasphemy (an offence which carries the death penalty in Pakistan) who had been unable to retain a lawyer until Mr. Rehman stepped forward.

On 24 April 2015, Sabeen hosted a panel discussion called “Unsilencing Balochistan Take 2” at T2F which no one wanted to host. In early April, “Unsilencing Balochistan” was supposed to take place at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), however, it was cancelled at the last minute “on orders from the government”, according to a LUMS statement. This made Sabeen decided to host the panel discussion at T2F instead. At the event, prominent Baloch rights activists Mama Qadeer, Farzana Majeed and Muhammad Ali Talpur were speaking about the human rights situation in Balochistan.

The very same day, right after she hosted the discussion on human rights in Balochistan at T2F, Sabeen was gunned down. She was on her way home with her mother when was shot four times, with bullets going through her shoulder, chest, face and neck. She was pronounced dead on arrival at the National Medical Centre hospital at 9.40pm. Her mother also sustained bullet wounds and was treated at the same hospital.

The attack on Sabeen was a brutal act of targeted killing and is directly linked to her work as a human rights defender promoting freedom of expression and freedom of religion in Pakistan. Her work as a defender had attracted criticism and threats in the past, particularly from sections of the religious right, which viewed her promotion of the arts, music and culture, dangerous.

Her murder is also an indication of growing intolerance and a shrinking space for civil rights movements in Pakistan. The environment for freedoms of expression and opinion in this country has steadily deteriorated over the past few years. With the promotion of a strong discourse on anti-terrorism based on national security in a State where religious nationalism is supported by extremist groups, the space for dissenting voices always comes under attack. Reporting on or discussing certain issues within Pakistan are not tolerated by both states and non-state actors. Under this category falls the struggle of Balochistan people.

Enforced disappearance issues in Balochistan

According to the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP), over 21,000 persons have been the victim of enforced disappearance in Balochistan since 2005. Mama Qadeer, the founder and Vice Chairman of the VBMP, and family members of Baloch missing persons peacefully walked a 2,000 kilometers from Quetta to the capital, Islamabad, to raise awareness about enforced disappearances in the restive region. The march lasted four months and ended on 28 February 2014.

Like many defenders, Sabeen had reportedly received death threats in her work to promote and protect the fundamental right to freedom of expression; and sadly, the price is death. This is the reason why human rights defenders need support and protection.

To find out more about Sabeen’s works and passion, please visit T2F and Peace Niche.

For more information about human rights defenders, please see this document, known as the UN Declaration on human rights defenders.