(New York) – The Pakistan government should investigate and bring to justice those responsible for the May 13, 2015 attack on members of the Ismaili Shia community in Karachi that killed 43 people, Human Rights Watch said today. An extremist group called Jundullah, a splinter group of the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP), or Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack in which six gunmen opened fire on a bus carrying Ismaili Shia to a community center.
The attack highlights the vulnerabilities of Pakistan’s Shia and other religious minorities to attack. The Karachi attack indicates that despite the government’s tough rhetoric against armed groups since the December 2014 TPP attack on a school in Peshawar in northwestern Pakistan that left at least 148 dead, they remain a potent threat to religious minorities.
“The carnage in Karachi suggests that Shia and other religious minorities are at risk anywhere in Pakistan,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director. “Anyone who believed that the government measures put in place after the December attack in Peshawar would resolve the problem of extremist violence needs to think again.”
Extremist groups such as the TTP and Lakshar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a Pakistani Taliban-affiliated organization, view Shia Muslims as heretics whose killing is therefore justified. The LeJ have targeted in particular the Shia Hazara minority in Balochistan’s provincial capital of Quetta, causing hundreds of deaths since 2008.
The Pakistani government’s response to extremist violence against the country’s religious minorities reflects incompetence, indifference, or possible complicity by the state security forces and other agencies. The authorities have repeatedly failed to apprehend or prosecute members of militant groups that have claimed responsibility for such attacks. While the authorities claim to have arrested dozens of suspects linked to attacks against Shia since 2008, only a handful have actually been charged with any crimes. A series of attacks on Shia houses of worship has resulted in the deaths of more than 80 people since January 2015.
The government’s reaction to the December 2014 Peshawar school attack prioritized measures that undermined human rights while neglecting action against groups long linked to such atrocities. Those measures include the lifting of the moratorium on the death penalty, which has resulted in 103 executions since December. The government has also implemented a National Action Plan against terrorism that permits the use of military courts for terrorism-related prosecutions, prohibitions on funding of alleged terrorist organizations, and legal penalties for hate speech, without adequate legal safeguards. But despite Prime Minister’s Nawaz Sharif’s pledge that “No armed organization will be allowed to operate,” the Karachi attack suggests that organizations that target religious minorities continue to operate with impunity.
The Pakistani government and security forces remain unable or unwilling to hold extremist groups accountable and to protect citizens who are at grave risk. The massacre in Karachi highlights the Pakistan government’s misdirected approach to combating terrorism.
“Enacting draconian counterterrorism legislation and carrying out executions and arbitrary arrests deprives citizens of fundamental rights, while failing to make them any safer from attack,” Kine said.
The government should empower civilian law enforcement to effectively maintain law and order, apprehend perpetrators, and prevent future violent attacks of this nature. The use of military and paramilitary forces as primary law enforcement agencies in urban centers such as Karachi is not a solution. The government can start this process by reviewing the National Action Plan to ensure it respects rights and is transparent.
“The Karachi attack is a bloody indictment of the government’s lack of political will to tackle the sources of violence against the Shia and other religious minorities,” Kine said. “Until the government arrests and prosecutes the leaders of groups responsible for such atrocities, religious minorities will remain at serious risk.”