ISLAMABAD — Asma Jahangir, a leading Pakistani rights activist, fearless critic of the military’s interference into politics, and a staunch defender of the rule of law, died Sunday in Lahore. She was 66.
The death was confirmed by her daughter Munizae, who said the cause was a heart attack.
Ms. Jahangir, a human rights lawyer, had a reputation of speaking truth to power and defending the weak and the marginalized, women and minorities against injustice. She gained international acclaim for being the voice of conscience in a country where liberal, secular voices have been continuously under threat.
She was the founding chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent group, and was a trustee of the International Crisis Group. She won several local and international awards and served as the United Nations rapporteur on human rights and extrajudicial killings.
Ms. Jahangir never minced words while defending democracy and human rights, despite threats to her life, both from military dictators and militants. She championed the rights of religious minorities — especially those who were charged under the country’s blasphemy laws — and women and men killed in the name of honor.
Born on Jan. 27, 1952, into an affluent family in Lahore, Asma Jilani Jahangir studied at the Convent of Jesus and Mary, receiving her bachelor’s degree from Kinnaird College in Lahore. She received her law degree from Punjab University in Lahore in 1978.
Ms. Jahangir was exposed to politics and activism at an early age. Her father, Malik Ghulam Jilani, was a civil servant and a left-wing politician who was frequently jailed for opposing military dictators. Ms. Jahangir initially appeared in court to represent her jailed father.
Her first foray into politics was in 1969, when she participated in a women’s march to the residence of the governor of Punjab and clashed with the police. In 1983, she was put under house arrest and later imprisoned when she campaigned for women’s rights and democracy during the rule of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq.
In 2007, Pervez Musharraf, then a general, also put her under house arrest as the country’s lawyers and politicians began a movement to restore democracy.
Ms. Jahangir worked for the rights of religious minorities and bonded laborers, especially brick kiln workers.
“In bonded labor cases, judges would ask me why I had brought those people to the courts who stank. ‘You are here precisely for them,’ I would respond,” she told The Herald, a local magazine.
Although Ms. Jahangir was widely respected internationally, she faced bitter criticism from the military and right-wing nationalists. She was attacked for advocating peace with India, and was often accused of being an Indian agent or a traitor.
Her criticism of the country’s military and its intelligence agencies made her a target of campaigns on television and social media.
Some Pakistanis accused her of looking the other way when it came to the corruption of two mainstream political parties — the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz — and of being single-mindedly focused on criticizing the military.
In 2012, Ms. Jahangir said that an assassination plot against her had been hatched “at the highest level of the security establishment.” She refused to leave the country despite the threats, however, and told the British newspaper The Telegraph that she would not follow other activists out of the country.
“I will not leave,” she said. “My ancestors are buried here, and my life is here.”
To many women in the country, Ms. Jahangir was an inspiration.
“Asma Jahangir was a voice of the oppressed and an icon of courage and valor,” said Maryam Nawaz Sharif, the daughter and political heir of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. “She endured so much but chose to be on the right side of history.”