QUETTA, Pakistan (AP) — Many Pakistanis were in deep mourning on Tuesday, a day after a suicide bombing that targeted lawyers killed 70 people in the city of Quetta, touching a chord in the country's long-simmering culture war. By targeting lawyers, Islamic radicals appeared to take aim at a pillar of the country's budding civil society — and a symbol of the supremacy of secular law in a modern state.
Across the country, many courts were closed and lawyers staged rallies in support of their colleagues.
But in Quetta, the capital of the southwestern province of Baluchistan, the streets were deserted. Shops were shuttered, and markets and schools closed to mourn those killed. "People are scared, and they ask, 'for how long the violence will continue?'" said Mohammad Saleem, who works at the market.
Senior attorney Mohammad Ashraf stood with several fellow lawyers outside a Quetta court building, a spot where he had often gathered for breaks with many of the lawyers killed in the bombing. The perpetrators "cannot be called humans," he said with anger. "We request that the government tracks down and punishes all those who killed innocent lawyers and other people," he added.
Tariq Lodhi, a former head of Pakistan's main civil spy agency, told The Associated Press that the attack was carried out by militants to "terrorize lawyers and judges," who are handling cases involving militants accused of carrying out attacks in the country.
A prominent local lawyer, Bilal Kasi, the president of the Baluchistan Bar Association, was on his way to work when he was shot dead by gunmen early Monday. After his death, around 100 lawyers gathered at Quetta's government-run Civil Hospital, where a suicide bomber attacked those mourning.
Survivors later described scenes of panic as the blast ripped through the emergency room, littering it with body parts.
Two journalists who had been covering the event for Pakistani TV were killed, but many of the dead and wounded were lawyers.
In a statement, Ahsanullah Ahsan, a spokesman for the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar — a breakaway faction of the militant Taliban group — said its fighters killed Kasi and dozens of lawyers at the hospital. Ahsan's group has been behind several attacks in Pakistan in recent years, including a deadly Easter Sunday bombing in a park in the eastern city of Lahore that killed at least 70 people.
But in what was likely an opportunistic statement, the Islamic State group also claimed responsibility for the Quetta attack later on Monday. There have been instances of competing claims in previous attacks in Pakistan.
It was not the first time that militants in Pakistan have targeted lawyers. Last year, gunmen in the northwestern city of Peshawar killed Samiullah Khan Afridi, a former lawyer for the Pakistani doctor who helped the U.S. find Osama bin Laden. Earlier this year, the son of the supreme chief justice of Sindh High Court was kidnapped, and a suicide bomb attack outside a courtroom in Pakistan's north-east killed 11 people in March.
The Quetta bombing was, however, the deadliest attack to hit Pakistan's legal community.
Bilal Kasi, the first lawyers targeted, was among the most outspoken lawyers in Baluchistan province and was popular for campaigning for improvements to the judiciary. Tahir Hussein, an advocate, said his friend Kasi practiced criminal law and was not involved in any cases involving militants. He did not believe that militants had specifically targeted lawyers.
"Terrorists do not differentiate between doctors and engineers and lawyers or policemen. They kill people to spread fear," Hussein said.
Yet lawyers also represent a powerful segment of Pakistan's civil society, which has played a key role in turning popular opinion against Islamic militant groups such as the Taliban. Many Pakistanis, particularly religious conservatives, tolerated or even supported the Taliban and opposed the military's campaign against militants. But this changed in the wake of a series of brutal attacks against civilians, such as an attack on a school in Peshawar that killed 156 people in 2014.
Pakistan's growing civil society has been vocal of its opposition to the narrow, rigid interpretation of Islam espoused by groups such as the Taliban. Many of the lawyers killed were pursuing cases involving human rights violations.
The legal community has also emerged as a powerful political actor in Pakistan. In 2007, lawyers launched a campaign against then-President Pervez Musharraf for sacking the chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry. Later, political parties joined the campaign and Musharraf was forced to quit in 2008 and Chaudhry was reinstated.
For militants, lawyers are representatives of a civil society that increasingly rejects their hard-line interpretations of Islam, and agents of the Pakistani state, which has declared open war on Islamic militant groups.
The government does not publish statistics, but dozens of militants are known to have been tried in military and civilian courts in the past year alone.
The Quetta hospital bombing was planned to inflict the maximum number of civilian casualties. It follows a series of large-scale attacks on civilian targets this year, including the storming of a school in north-eastern Pakistan in January, when 20 people were killed, and the Easter Sunday bombing.
The brutality of such attacks have undercut militants' support base, but they also underscore concerns that insurgents are still capable of striking in major cities, despite government claims of dismantling various terror networks.
Outside the courtroom later Tuesday, Sanaullah Zehri, the chief minister in the Baluchistan province, struck a defiant note. He pledged the government would trace and punish those linked to the hospital attack, vowing that the "blood of innocent people will not go to waste."
Associated Press Writers Ahmed in Islamabad and Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report.