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Pakistani Activists Mourn Slain Human Rights Proponent


We're going to turn now to Pakistan where a free-speech activist was gunned down in Karachi a few days ago. Her name was Sabeen Mahmud. She owned a cafe in her home city of Karachi. It was a gathering place for other human rights activists and community leaders trying to improve life for Pakistanis - women in particular. Two gunmen on a motorcycle shot her late Friday when she was leaving the cafe. It's a setback for a progressive minority in Pakistan trying to steer their country away from extremist elements. Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has condemned her killing and announced an inquiry into her death. NPR's Philip Reeves has more from Islamabad.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Sabeen Mahmud ran a cafe in Karachi. It's called The Second Floor or T2F.


REEVES: Actually, it's not exactly a cafe.

FRAMJI MINWALLA: T2F is really a space in Karachi that allows people to have the kinds of conversations that they would not ordinarily have publicly.

REEVES: Framji Minwalla is a university professor and one of Mahmud's many friends.

MINWALLA: It was a space for the free exchange of ideas. It was a place that was free of any censorship. Any issue that anybody wanted to bring up, any issue - as wacky as it might be - Sabeen gave you space to actually discuss it.

REEVES: Sabeen Mahmud modeled T2F on the old-style coffee shop with a bookstore thrown in. She wanted it to be a center for intellectual discourse and a talent incubator. Publishing executive Ameena Saiyid says it became something even bigger.

AMEENA SAIYID: It grew into a kind of a movement. It actually became a social movement. It became a platform for the younger creative people of Karachi to showcase their work. So whether they were musicians or writers or filmmakers.

REEVES: In Pakistan, rights activists, lawyers and journalists are killed with alarming regularity. The chief suspects are usually Islamist militants or state security agents. Minwalla says Mahmud was aware of the risks.

MINWALLA: She received many deaths brought. She received them consistently. Most recently she received a bullet in the mail. She received hate mail, hate e-mail on her personal account, her Twitter account, her Facebook page.

REEVES: A literature festival is underway at the moment in Pakistan's capital Islamabad. Yesterday, among the writers, readers and artists, were many of Mahmud's friends.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Ladies and gentlemen, please be seated. We are shortly going to begin this session - a tribute to Sabeen Mahmud.

REEVES: The program was changed to include a session celebrating Mahmud's life and mourning her death.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: May you rest in peace, Sabeen, and may your legacy continue - love you.

REEVES: There was poetry...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Reading poem in foreign language).

REEVES: ...And anger.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: Mahmud was killed right after holding a forum at T2F about the conflict between government forces and separatists in Pakistan's Baluchistan province. It's a dirty war. There have been many mysterious disappearances and assassinations. Pakistan security agencies stifle public debate on the issue. There are suspicions there behind Mahmud's killing, but no one is sure.

MINWALLA: Yes, she may have been killed by people who actually wanted to silence her and to silence this particular subject. But there are many subjects that were actually discussed at T2F, including blasphemy...

REEVES: Framji Minwalla says Mahmud wasn't afraid of nurturing debate about a lot of issues that are generally considered dangerous territory in Pakistan.

MINWALLA: Issues regarding free expression, issues regarding the blasphemy law, issues regarding land encroachment, issues regarding government thuggery - about military covert operations going on in the various provinces in our country.

SAHAR SHAFQAT: When somebody like Sabeen is assassinated, it makes all of us feel like our work has been for naught.

REEVES: That's Sahar Shafqat, an academic, an activist and one of Mahmud's friends. Those friends are now grief stricken and worried about their nation's future. Shafqat hopes Mahmud's death will be a catalyst for change.

SHAFQAT: I hope sincerely that all of us will rise up and demand that no topic be taboo, that the discussion be allowed to continue freely in Pakistan because those are our constitutionally given rights. But I worry.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.