Activists and supporters are paying glowing tributes this week to Bashir Ahmad Bilour, the Pashtun leader and former senior minister of the restive northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, who was killed in a suicide attack three year ago.
In a weekly live call-in show called Along the Borderland hosted by RFE/RL’s service to Pakistan, Radio Mashaal, callers demanded the government investigate his assassination and bring the perpetrators to justice.
Bilour was killed, apparently by a lone suicide bomber, after participating in a rally in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's capital Peshawar on December 22, 2012. He was 69 years old.
In the years leading to his assassination, Bilour distinguished himself as a fearless leader by often visiting the scenes of Taliban attacks and openly questioning the insurgent narrative that they were fighting in the name of Islam.
Abdul Nabi Bangash, a former lawmaker of Bilour's Awami National Party (ANP), says his late colleague was a brave figure who stood by his people in trying times. He says that after assuming office in 2008, the ANP's government faced constant threats and attacks by militants. Bilour's constituency and hometown Peshawar was a prime target.
"Whether in office or in opposition, we are the sons of the soil and will do everything to defend it, which is why we are the prime targets [for the militants]," he said
After winning provincial elections in 2008, the secular leaning ANP assumed Khyber Pakhtunkwa's provincial administration. It first attempted striking deals to restore peace in the mountainous Swat district where the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militants had established de facto control.
But the quick failure of the peace talks prompted provincial authorities to back a large-scale military operation in Swat in 2009.
While the operation restored relative peace to the Swat Valley and the surrounding Malakand region, it put the ANP in the militants’ crosshairs. In the subsequent years more than 1,000 party leaders and activists were killed across Pakistan. Bilour was the most prominent among them.
His son Haroon Bilour says his father stuck to his principals and remained loyal to the ANP's philosophy of non-violence. "He was a great man. I feel immense pride to be his son," he said. "Whether in the parliament or among the masses in the streets, he served our people with dedication."
Bilour's family is proud of his sacrifices, and even proudly display the burned and bloodied dress he was wearing at the time of his death in a glass cabinet in their family home.
Zahid Buneri, an ANP loyalist, stressed the need for documenting the stories of all his party's supporters and leaders killed by militants. He also called for transparent investigations into their murders to punish those responsible for their murders.
"Bashir Bilour was a leader of the masses and shared their joys and sorrows," he said. Buneri added that the government needs to ensure that the sacrifices of our leaders are not wasted and bring their killers to justice.
Sana Ijaz, a woman rights campaigner in Peshawar, says Bilour inspired the youth to make sacrifices to free their homeland from militants.
"Khalilullah, one of the party’s youth leaders, was killed in Swat by the militants because, inspired by Bashir Bilour, he strived for peace and opposed the militants," she said.
Radio Mashaal's Peshawar based correspondent Khalid Khan says that while the Pakistani Taliban and its largest umbrella organization the TTP have claimed responsibility for the killings of ANP leaders including Bilour, the authorities have largely failed to prosecute the perpetrators of those murders.
Pakistani authorities and media reports suggest that more than 50,000 civilians have been killed and thousands more injured in Taliban attacks in Pakistan since 2004. Most of the victims were from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the adjacent tribal areas. But few of the murders have so far been investigated in a transparent manner.
Every Tuesday, millions of listeners in the Pakistani borderlands of Federally Administrated Tribal Area (FATA), Baluchistan, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces tune in to Along the Borderland. It is a weekly, hour-long Radio Mashaal call-in show known for interactive debates on social, cultural, and political issues.