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Rights activist Khurram Zaki killed in Pakistan despite government claims of peace

An outspoken critic of Islamist groups, Khurram Zaki, has been killed in the Pakistani city of Karachi. Activists say that selective military operations against the port city's liberal parties are emboldening Islamists.

Hundreds of human rights activists protested Zaki's murder on Sunday outside the offices of the chief minister of Sindh province.

Zaki was killed late on Saturday at an outdoor cafe in Karachi by four gunmen on two motorcycles, Muqaddas Haider, a senior Pakistani police official, said Sunday.

A friend dining with him and a bystander were both injured in the attack, Haider said. His final comment on Twitter was on the election of the new Mayor of London:

A former journalist, Zaki was a prominent and outspoken opponent of radical Islamist groups, particularly the militant Sunni organization Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Pakistani Taliban.

Zaki also led a campaign against Abdul Aziz, the radical cleric of the

Red Mosque in Islamabad.

He had accused Aziz of justifying attacks such as the

Peshawar school massacre,

in which 134 schoolchildren were killed by Taliban militants in 2014. Along with other campaigners, Zaki filed a court case against Aziz for fomenting hatred against Pakistan's Shiite minority.

A police officials escorts Maulana Abdul Aziz (C) the chief cleric of Red Mosque as he arrives in his native village to lead funeral prayers of his slain brother Abdul Rashid Ghazi, in Basti Abdullah, 12 July 2007 (Photo: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Chaudhry)

Zaki also led a campaign against Abdul Aziz, the radical cleric of the Red Mosque in Islamabad

'Horrific and shameful'

In April last year, activist Sabeen Mahmud, who also took part in the campaign against Abdul Aziz and radicalism, was

shot dead in the southern city of Karachi.

According to a statement released after Zaki's death on the website "Let Us Build Pakistan," the activist had been "a target of a systematic hate campaign" by an Islamist political leader and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Sunni supremacist and jihadist militant organization based in Pakistan.

"It is horrific and shameful that human rights defenders are being gunned down without any fear of repercussion," Nageen Hyat, an Islamabad-based rights activist, told DW. "It is with a feeling of deep sadness and trauma that we see this kind of targeted violence against helpless people in our midst. The perpetrators should be tracked down by the government and given exemplary punishment," she added.

Islamists 'exempted'

Police said it was not immediately clear who was behind the killing. However, in a phone call to Reuters news agency, a faction of the Pakistan Taliban - the Hakeemullah group - claimed responsibility, saying Zaki had been targeted for his campaign against Aziz.

The claim cannot be verified, and police say the group has previously claimed responsibility for attacks it did not carry out.

Targeted killings are common in Karachi despite an ongoing paramilitary operation. Critics say that the operation is only aimed at the liberal Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) party, and the militant extremist groups are being exempted. Last week, MQM activist Aftab Ahmed was tortured to death while being held by a paramilitary group.

A Pakistani police official collects samples at the site following an attack by gunmen on a military police jeep in Karachi on December 1, 2015 (Photo: Getty Images/AFP/R. Tabassu)

Liberal activists accuse the South Asian country's military of supporting some factions of the Taliban

"The objective of the operation is to weaken the MQM and other political parties. It is creating a lot of space for jihadist groups in Pakistan. The irony is that terrorist organizations such as Jamatud Dawa are openly recruiting and fundraising in Pakistan while the army is accusing politicians of funding terrorism," Arif Jamal, a US-based expert on Islamism, told DW, adding that the government's policies are emboldening extremist groups to target liberal activists.

Activist and filmmaker Sabin Agha believes the government needs to counter the extremist narratives instead of launching military operations.

"The use of force can only achieve short-term goals. What Pakistan actually needs is a sincere fight against the mindset that breeds extremism, hatred and intolerance. The ongoing operation in Karachi has yielded results that are tangible but at the same time short-lived, because it is impossible to curb lawlessness just by the use of force," Agha told DW.

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