The group of around 300 Shia Hazara pilgrims who had been visiting religious shrines in neighboring Iran never knew what hit them. Within minutes after they arrived at the Pakistani border town of Taftan on June 9, the heavily armed gunmen from the Deobandi Islamist militant group Jaish–ul-Islam rampaged through their hotel.
The attackers – including suicide bombers – raked the pilgrims with machine gun fire and tossed hand grenades. At least 30 died, including at least nine women and a child. After a prolonged firefight, Pakistani security forces killed the attackers.
For Pakistan’s beleaguered Shia, who constitute 20 percent of the country’s overwhelmingly Muslim population, the incident was gruesome déjà vu. An attack on a Shia pilgrim bus convoy travelling to Taftan, in southwestern Balochistan province, from Iran on January 21 killed at least 22 pilgrims and injured dozens of others. The government has not arrested any suspects in that incident.
That earlier attack was claimed by the Deobandi militant group Lakshar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a Pakistani-Taliban-affiliated organization that views Shia Muslims as heretics and their killing as religiously justified. Pakistani media reported that the government had ignored intelligence warnings of an impending attack ahead of the June 9 massacre. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan responded to the attack by banning Shia pilgrims from traveling by road between Quetta and the Iranian border, saying it was impossible to “fully secure” the route.
The Taftan attacks – and the Pakistan government’s failure to adequately protect the Shia or to apprehend their killers – are scandalously symptomatic of an epidemic of violence that has claimed the lives of thousands of Pakistani Shia since 2008. Human Rights Watch has recorded the killing of 850 Shia by Pakistani Deobandi militants in 2012 and 2013 alone. As international attention focuses on the growing threat of Sunni-Shia sectarian violence in Iraq following the incursion of the militant group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a Human Rights Watch report released on June 30 documents an ongoing vicious campaign of violence against the Shia in Pakistan.
There has been sporadic sectarian violence between Pakistan’s Sunni and Shia militant groups for decades. But in the past five years, that violence has become overwhelmingly one-sided as groups including Jaish–ul-Islam and the LeJ have waged an increasingly brutal campaign against Pakistan’s Shia. Balochistan has become the epicenter for this slaughter due to its 700-mile porous border with Afghanistan. That proximity to Afghanistan has made the province a nexus of Taliban militancy, fostering the emergence of domestic Sunni extremist groups as the LeJ.
Following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Balochistan’s Hazara community has borne the brunt of the Sunni militant violence due to their distinctive facial features, which easily identify them as Shia and Hazara. More than 500 Hazara have been killed in sectarian attacks in Balochistan since 2008.
Since 2009, LeJ killings of Shia Hazara have morphed from the targeting of individuals including Hazara police personnel, doctors, bureaucrats, and business people, to mass bombing attacks that have killed dozens. Two attacks in January and February 2013 by LeJ militants against Hazara in Balochistan’s provincial capital, Quetta, which is home to half a million Hazaras, resulted in the highest death tolls for individual acts of sectarian violence in Pakistan since Pakistan’s wrenching partition from India in 1947.
On January 30, a LeJ suicide bombing of a Quetta snooker club frequented by Hazaras killed 96 and injured at least 150. Many of the dead and injured were victims of a car bomb that detonated near the club 10 minutes after the initial blast, striking those who had gone to assist the injured. On February 17, a bomb detonated in a vegetable market in a predominantly Hazara neighborhood in Quetta killed at least 84 Hazara and injured more than 160. LeJ militants had rigged hundreds of kilograms of explosives to a water tanker truck, which they detonated in the middle of the crowded shopping district.
The Pakistani government’s response to this violence suggests incompetence, indifference, or possible complicity by security forces and other state personnel with the extremists. Authorities have failed to apprehend or prosecute members of militant groups, including the LeJ, that have claimed responsibility for such attacks. While Pakistan and Balochistan authorities claim to have arrested dozens of suspects linked to attacks against Shia since 2008, only a handful have been actually charged with any crimes.
The poster child of Pakistani impunity for killings of Shia Hazara is Malik Ishaq Deobandi , the operational chief of the LeJ since 2002. In October 1997, Ishaq admitted to an Urdu language newspaper his involvement in the killing of over 100 people. He has faced prosecution for alleged involvement in some 44 incidents of violence involving killings of 70 people, the majority Shia. However, the courts have not convicted him of any of those killings and have acquitted him in 40 terrorism-related cases. They include three acquittals by a Rawalpindi court on May 29 on the basis that “evidence against Ishaq was not sufficient for further proceedings.”
That culture of impunity has traumatized Quetta’s Hazara community, and safety concerns have effectively ghettoized them. Since 2012, Quetta’s Hazara have been compelled to limit their activities to the Hazara-dominated neighborhoods of Marriabad and Hazara Town. That has imposed increasing economic hardship on the community and limited their freedom of movement and safe access to education. Hazara unwilling to endure such economic and social privation have fled Pakistan to seek refuge in other countries.
Until the Pakistan government takes all necessary measures to stop that campaign of violence, the slaughter of Shia in Balochistan will continue with a vengeance.
Phelim Kine is deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.