NEW DELHI: This week, PeaceNiche / The Second Floor (T2F), a cafe cum cultural space in Pakistan’s port city of Karachi, was nominated for The Human Rights Tulip annual award. The award is presented by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs for “courageous human rights defenders who promote and support human rights in innovative ways.”

T2F reaffirms the role played by community spaces in promoting human rights, and can be exemplified through its founder, Sabeen Mahmud, who was shot dead in Karachi in April this year, shortly after hosting an event on Balochistan’s “disappeared people.”

Mahmud’s T2F organised debates and art events that had become the mainstay of Karachi’s activists since it opened in 2007. She was gunned down by unknown assailants as she was hit by five bullets and died on the spot.

Mahmud was known to take strong positions on human rights issues, and was often heard by her friends questioning the general silence on violations in Balochistan. But even Sabeen felt the pressure when she decided to organise one of her usual discussions at her T2F on “Unsilencing Balochistan.” She had asked some of her friends whether she should call it off, given the nasty feedback she seemed to have received. But she answered the question for herself and went ahead with the discussion where Baloch rights activists Mama Qadeer, Farzana Majeed and Muhammad Ali Talpur spoke.

Her death led to an outpouring of support, and refocused attention on the controversial issue of “disappearances” in Balochistan. The International Voice for Baloch Missing Persons says 18,000 people from the region are unaccounted for, of which approximately 2000 were killed between 2001 and 2013. There are vast discrepancies in the official numbers. In 2008, Interior Minister Rehman Malik placed the figure at 1100. However, in 2011, Balochistan Home Minister Zafrullah Zehri claimed that only 55 people were missing.

While there is contention on the numbers, there is an emerging consensus, amongst organizations including the Human Rights Watch and the HRCP, that most of these disappearances have been perpetuated by government institutions, specifically the intelligence agencies and Frontier Corps, often in conjunction with the local police.

Baloch rights activists are clear, that Sabeen Mahmud was killed to silence others. And that the perpetrators were the ISI and the Pakistan Army for whom Balochistan has always been a playing field, with successive governments working alongside to muzzle free speech and expression at all levels. Thousands of Baloch have disappeared over the years although in Balochistan there is a history of tortured dead bodies being dumped to be discovered, in what was and is intended to be a shock deterrent for others.

Earlier in the year, the ISI managed to get the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) to cancel a panel discussion with the same “Unsilencing Balochistan” title. ISI personnel are reported to have visited the prestigious institute and ensured the cancellation with the argument that “human rights is a sensitive issue and the (event) could be used to malign Pakistan.” The administration agreed, with students and faculty taking out a silent protest march against “academic censorship.”

Mahmud took the issue up and organised a discussion in her T2F cafe instead. She paid for this with her life, with activists in Pakistan clear that her death was to silence the public school, English speaking activists, students, academics and others who were becoming increasingly vocal on the issue of Balochistan. In fact protests from within Pakistan against human rights violations in this long neglected province were increasing, with Balochistan slowly emerging from the Silent Zone with the role of the intelligence and security agencies being questioned, and gradually challenged by voices that could begin to make a difference.

Journalists in Pakistan have felt the pressure and except for the odd story cannot report regularly on Balochistan without feeling the heat from the men in uniform. As scribes earlier told this writer on condition of anonymity of course, it is impossible for journalists to report Balochistan as it is without receiving threats, or at times even losing their jobs. Others in Pakistan look away when asked about the human rights violations in Balochistan, or if part of the ruling establishment insist it is all an exaggeration as life is as peaceful there as in any other part of the country.

A target that the Pakistan government and its agencies are finding difficult to act against is 72 year old Mama Qadeer Baloch who spoke at Mahmud’s meeting and is a strong voice on the rights issue. Unlike Akbar Bugti who was fighting for autonomy for Balochistan, Mama Qadeer has limited himself to fighting for justice for the thousands of Baloch he claims to have ‘disappeared’ at the hand of the security forces. He came into international prominence in 2013 when he led a 2800 km walk for justice, from Quetta to islamabad,under his The Voice of Baloch Missing Persons organisation that has been rather active in Pakistan. This march, joined by thousands en route, raised the issue of disappearances, extra judicial killings, and the atrocities that the Baloch have been, and are being subjected to. Mama Baloch is not allowed to travel abroad and was taken off a flight to the United States a while ago, just before it was due to take off.

Mama Qadeer and his organisation are categorical that the disappearances, mostly of students and Baloch rights activists, have been carried out by the Pakistan government and the ISI. Nasrullah Baloch who is the current chairperson of the Voice of Missing Baloch was quoted in the Pakistan media after Mahmud’s murder saying, "Whenever voices are raised against rights abuses in Balochistan, the government tries to suppress them. Suppressing voices does not solve the issue, indeed it only makes the voices louder."

Mama Qadeer’s son Jaleel Reiki,23, went missing in 2010. According to Qadeer ISI men in two pick up trucks with unregistered number plates picked him up from the front door of his house in full view of neighbours, shopkeepers, vendors and others. Qadeer continued to believe he would return alive, that the ISI would not kill the young man. But he was wrong. Reiki’s body was found three years later, riddled with bullets. Holes had been reportedly drilled into his bones and joints. Burn marks were visible all over his back. The message was clear, but instead of succumbing his father has been carrying on a relentless campaign since. Instead of attacking him for fear of strong repercussions in Balochistan, the vested interests that the Baloch insist is represented by the ISI are attacking those around him like Mahmud who refused to listen and toe the prescribed line.

The figures of the disappeared ,of course differ with the government placing it at just above 600 and the Baloch activists closer to the 20,000 mark. Senior journalist and human rights activist I. A. Rehman wrote at the time, “Instead of offering the embittered Baloch redress and satisfaction the authorities have chosen to quibble over the number of missing.”

Sabeen Mahmud who played no politics, and took human rights to the elite of Pakistan as well as others was killed because: 1. she was clearly making a difference and encouraging the elite sections of society to speak out on human rights issues; 2. her interventions on Balochistan worried those who have always looked on this province as a fiefdom, and brook no interference; 3. as part of the larger strategy to silence others from speaking on this sensitive issue.

The award nomination, therefore, is not an award just for the cafe and Mahmud, but for all these issues listed above.