Leading human rights advocate Asma Jahangir has died, her family said on Sunday, in a major blow to Pakistan’s embattled rights community. She was 66.
The lawyer and co-founder of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan died of cardiac arrest, according to her sister. “Unfortunately we have lost her,” said Hina Jilani, also a prominent rights activist and lawyer.
Funeral arrangements have yet to be announced, according to a statement by her daughter Munizae Jahangir, as the family waited for relatives to return to their hometown of Lahore.
Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi expressed grief at Jahangir’s death, praising her contribution to upholding the rule of law and safeguarding human rights.
Jahangir’s supporters and former opponents alike took to social media to offer their condolences and express shock at news of her death. “The best tribute to her is to continue her fight for human rights and democracy,” tweeted Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai, adding she had met Jahangir just last week in Oxford.
Outside of Pakistan, Jahangir served as U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran. In 2014 she received France’s highest civilian award and Sweden’s Right Livelihood Award, for her decades of rights work.
Few Pakistani rights activists have achieved the credibility of Jahangir. She braved death threats, beatings and imprisonment to win landmark human rights cases while standing up to dictators.
The rights commission which she helped create made its name defending religious minorities and tackling highly charged blasphemy accusations along with cases of “honor” killings—in which victims, normally women, are murdered by a relative for bringing shame on the family.
There is still terrible violence against women, discrimination against minorities and near-slavery for bonded laborers, Jahangir told AFP during an interview in 2014, but human rights have made greater strides in Pakistan than may be apparent. “There was a time that human rights was not even an issue in this country. Then prisoners’ rights became an issue,” she said. “Women’s rights was thought of as a Western concept. Now people do talk about women’s rights—political parties talk about it, even religious parties talk about it.”
Jahangir secured a number of victories during her life, from winning freedom for bonded laborers from their “owners” through pioneering litigation, to a landmark court case that allowed women to marry of their own volition. She was also an outspoken critic of the military establishment, including during her stint as the first-ever female leader of Pakistan’s top bar association.