Oct 16, 2012 -- In early October, a Taliban gunman shot 14-year-old girls' rights advocate Malala Yousafzai in the neck. The fearless teenager had become the most powerful voice advocating the right of girls to education in her country, and the attempt to silence her shocked the world. But her assassination attempt is only the latest attack on human rights defenders in Pakistan.
Since 2001, the country has been in a protracted struggle with extremist groups that reside and recruit within its borders. They include al-Qaida, the Pakistani Taliban, and several local militant groups. In areas where these groups have been able to seize control from the government, like the Swat Valley where Malala is from, they have repressed the equality of women, freedom of expression, and the rights of religious minorities. Among those who have suffered the most are human rights defenders—those with the courage to speak out against tyrannical policies, inhumane enforcement, and the failure of the state's institutions to uphold justice.
Salman Paseer and Shahbaz Bhatti were two moderate politicians who criticized the country's restrictive blasphemy laws. Taseer, a governor and newspaper mogul, was fatally shot in early 2011 after defending a Christian woman sentenced to death under those laws; he was killed by his government-appointed bodyguard. Bhatti, a Christian and minorities advocate, was killed two months later for his criticism of those same laws; his assassins left behind a note signed "Taliban al-Qaida."
Journalists, lawyers, and other civic activists are also at risk. In June, lawyer and leading human rights advocate Asma Jahangir expressed concern about an assassination plot against her. Last April, Siddique Eido, a journalist and member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, was found dead after being abducted in Balochistan by men wearing Pakistani security uniforms. His death was followed by that of investigative reporter Saleem Shahzad, which many also attribute to the Pakistani security forces. Human Rights Watch described Pakistan as "one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists."
In spite of these threats, murders, and attempts on the lives of Pakistan's voices of moderation and human rights, they refuse to be silenced, as demonstrated by protests in response to the shooting of Malala. As Jahangir expressed when she spoke to the Oslo Freedom Forum, this is the bright side of Pakistan, "Where there are people that are willing and continuously sacrifice their lives for a better Pakistan, for a better society."