The army chief of Pakistan recently confirmed the death sentence of Saad Aziz, a business-school graduate and restaurant manager who was convicted of killing my friend Sabeen Mahmud. Sabeen, who was 40 then, ran The Second Floor in Karachi, a cafe where many writers and artists, including me, got their first break. It was also a hub for activists advocating controversial, often lost, causes. She was shot dead on April 24, 2015, minutes after a talk she had organized about the disappearance of Baloch activists, allegedly at the hand of Pakistan’s military intelligence agencies.
Chances are that after the requisite technical appeals to higher courts and a plea for mercy to the president of Pakistan, Aziz will hang. There are even stronger chances that we’ll never know for sure why he killed Sabeen.
Aziz was sentenced to death by a military court last May. The media weren’t allowed to cover the trial. There is no detailed judgment. We’ll never get to hear what Aziz may have said in his defense or about his motives.
Was he a lone killer, or acting on someone’s behalf? Was Sabeen killed for taking a stand against the Pakistani Taliban and their supporters in the mainstream? For defying the powerful military establishment? Because she insisted on drawing red hearts on walls around the city to mark Valentine’s Day?
In a detailed interview with a journalist before his trial, held while he was in police custody, Aziz confessed to killing Sabeen. “There wasn’t one particular reason for targeting her: She was generally promoting liberal, secular values,” he said. In the same interview, Aziz also said he had taken part in a May 2015 attack on a bus that killed more than 40 Shia Muslims.
According to the Pakistani army, those crimes made Aziz a “jet black terrorist.” So why give him the dignity of a proper trial?
Military courts were given jurisdiction over civilians in some terrorism cases more than two years ago, not long after gunmen barged into a school in Peshawar in December 2014 and killed more than 140 people, including children as young as 11. (The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.) Pakistan’s political parties and military leadership came together then to lift a moratorium on the death penalty that had been in place since 2008 and to allow military courts to hold in camera summary trials for jet-black terrorists.
Since then, military courts have convicted at least 274 people and sentenced 161 of them to death. (Twelve have been executed.) Sometimes the defendants’ families found out about the convictions through tweets by the army’s public relations division. The rest of us never found out much at all about these people on death row.
The military courts’ special jurisdiction expired on Jan. 7, and the government is holding consultations with opposition parties about reviving it. Some parties are wary, but no one really wants to be seen challenging the army.
Pakistan’s insistence on trying and convicting its terrorists in secret is baffling. The war against the Taliban and other religious extremists is supposedly a war of ideas. But how are we to fight an idea when we don’t know what it is?
Should I just be relieved that my friend’s killer will be hanged? Or should I also be asking: How should we kill our killers? I don’t have the stomach for the death penalty, but if Aziz is to be executed, I’d like to make sure he actually did murder Sabeen and I want to know why.
These trials provide not justice so much as revenge, and they uncover very little information. The Taliban were fond of killing our soldiers and making videos while doing it. We let our army take away suspected terrorists to try them and hang them, but we want to be spared the gory details.
And yet the gory details are what we need to know if we want to know our enemy. The reasons Aziz gave in his interview for killing Sabeen — she spoke out against the Taliban, she promoted secular values — echo views and values common among corporate workers, lawyers, journalists and other armchair jihadists. That’s why holding court hearings in the open matters: Because then they might reveal how a theological argument can lead to a massacre, how prejudice can lead to sectarian violence.
Our killers went to the same schools we did. They and their supporters read the same newspapers we do. We all attend the same wedding banquets. But many of us pretend they live in caves and are funded by our enemies. Well, maybe they are funded by our enemies, but some of them also have business degrees and run restaurants in Karachi.
Before these terrorism trials, the Pakistani army already had its own system of justice: It would abduct people it believed were a threat to national security. Only last week there were protests across the country after four activists went missing. They were all critical of the army and their families believe intelligence agencies abducted them. The army has been accused by local and international human rights organizations of killing and dumping the bodies of Baloch nationalists. Some of the people convicted of terrorism by the military courts had been declared missing and were already in the army’s custody.
This kind of military justice confirms the notion that we are at war. But it doesn’t tell us who we are at war with. Do we have a shape-shifting enemy, or are we fighting a war of convenience? The Pakistani army has twisted its narrative about the war too many times.
For a long while we were told that the Taliban in Afghanistan were our assets and the Pakistani Taliban were our misguided brothers. Today we are told that everyone who attacks us is bankrolled by India.
But all these stories are just a way of refusing to admit that for many years now, we have been fighting an enemy who lives among us and who believes in many of the things we believe in.
Mohammed Hanif is the author of the novels A Case of Exploding Mangoes and Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, and the librettist for the opera Bhutto.