Pakistan was declared the most dangerous place in the world for journalists by the United Nations in 2014. Doing a bit better, it slipped to No. 4 in 2015.
Not that the freedom of expression, especially protest, was any more welcome than before. More than 70 journalists and human rights activists have lost their lives since 2001. Numerous activists and individuals faced death threats and were even killed.
“Extremism has increased in Pakistan. We’ve seen many human rights defenders targeted over the years,” said Zohra Yusuf, chair of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent organization. “You can’t expect the government to protect every human rights defender, but they need to crack down on those who are preaching violence and extremism.”
But crackdowns hardly ever happen. More often than not, killers of those silenced for raising their voice and taking a stand mostly get away with it.
The following are just a few of the many who lost their lives in the line of duty.
May 7, 2016
The 40-year-old human rights activist was an editor for "Let Us Build Pakistan," a blog aimed at supporting "a progressive, inclusive and democratic Pakistan." He was known for condemning radical militants such as the Pakistani Taliban.
He was among the activists who campaigned against Maulana Abdul Aziz, the head cleric of the Red Mosque, a bastion of Sunni extremists in Islamabad in 2014.
He was gunned down at a restaurant in Karachi. The Hakimullah faction of the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for Zaki's death.
"Our four friends in Karachi riding on two motorcycles targeted Khurram Zaki successfully," faction spokesman Qari Saifullah said.
Nov. 3, 2015
Mehsud was shot several times by two gunmen while riding his motorbike in the Tank district of Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
The 38-year-old journalist was the president and secretary-general of the Tribal Union of Journalists' South Waziristan chapter and the district coordinator in Tank for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
The terrorist group Taliban in Pakistan, aka TTP, claimed responsibility for Mehsud's killing.
"We killed him because he was writing against us ... we have some other journalists on our hit list in the region, soon we will target them," their commander Qari Saif Ullah Saif told Reuters.
April 24, 2015
Mahmud, a leading Pakistani human rights activist, was killed in a drive-by shooting in Karachi after hosting a talk on allegations of torture in the province of Balochistan.
She had been the subject of death threats before.
Her organization, Peace Niche and under it, T2F café and a book shop, regularly held seminars on human rights issues attended by the city’s liberal activists and students.
Read More: This Is What Sabeen Mahmud Stood For
May 7, 2014
Rehman, a well-known advocate and a regional coordinator for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, was shot dead by two gunmen pretending to be prospective clients in the city of Multan.
He knew the risks he was taking when he agreed to defend Junaid Hafeez, a lecturer at Multan’s Bahauddin Zakariya University, accused of blasphemy. He usually took on issues that many others declined.
“He was a dedicated activist from the very beginning. All his life he was helping the downtrodden,” senior Human Rights Commission of Pakistan official Zaman Khan said. “He was fearless and never gave any time to the threats. He said he would live for the struggle and die for the struggle.”
April 16, 1995
Masih was only 12 years old but he had a purpose in life greater than many people double his age. He was shot and killed while he was riding his bicycle with his friends in Muritke, near the country’s second-largest metropolitan city, Lahore.
Masih was a vehement activist fighting against child labor.
Sold in to slavery at the age of 4 by his father, he spent most of his young life working more than 12 hours a day in a carpet weaving factory. In 1992 Iqbal's life changed dramatically when he and some other children managed to attend a freedom day celebration held by the Bonded Labor Liberation Front in his area and learned about their rights.
The child gave an impromptu and eloquent speech about his sufferings there and refused to return to his owner. He contacted a Bonded Labor Liberation Front lawyer and obtained a letter of freedom, which he presented to his former master and hence started his journey as an activist for other children like him — a journey that was cut short by a bullet.
“I want to do what Abraham Lincoln did,” Iqbal said in a documentary about his life. He wanted to become a lawyer, to fight the Pakistani legal system from the inside and find a way to liberate the slaves.
“Iqbal’s outspoken advocacy against child labor was obviously a threat to the status quo in Pakistan. I saw pictures of his dead body, his once animated and earnest face now completely silent, as he was laid to rest in a grave,” wrote Jennifer Margulis, an investigative journalist who had met Masih.
The common factor:
Here’s what all these and other activists killed over the years had in common:
- Raising their voice against the status quo
- Disregard for forces opposing human rights for all
- No fear for self
Pakistan is a country engulfed in political turmoil and rife with corruption and violence. Anyone who raises a voice against it all is seen as a threat, one that must be silenced, and most usually is.
Be it the governor of its largest province, Punjab, or a 12-year-old boy fighting for the freedom of fellow bonded laborers, no one who is brave enough to take a stand is safe.
Most of the time, it’s the extremist religious factions that snub these voices of bravery and freedom but not always. Most of the people in power and reaping the benefits of rampant corruption do not want to change the status quo as well.
Nor do they have any qualms over snuffing a brave voice that speaks up about injustices.
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