Islamabad: The Pakistani government should "urgently act" to protect the minority Shia community from sectarian attacks by Sunni militant groups that have killed at least 320 people this year, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.
Though sectarian violence is a "longstanding problem" in Pakistan, attacks against Shias have "increased dramatically in recent years", HRW said in a statement.
"In 2012, at least 320 members of the Shia population have been killed in targeted attacks. Over 100 have been killed in Balochistan province, the majority from the Hazara community," it said.
The government should "hold accountable those responsible for ordering and participating in deadly attacks" targeting Shias, HRW said.
Sunni militant groups like the "ostensibly banned" Lashkar-e-Jhangvi have operated with "widespread impunity" across Pakistan while law enforcement officials have "effectively turned a blind eye on attacks against Shia communities".
"Some Sunni extremist groups are known to be allies of the Pakistani military, its intelligence agencies, and affiliated paramilitaries, such as the Frontier Corps," HRW said.
Brad Adams, the Asia director at HRW, said: "Deadly attacks on Shia communities across Pakistan are escalating. The government`s persistent failure to apprehend attackers or prosecute the extremist groups organising the attacks suggests that it is indifferent to this carnage".
In the most recent violence, gunmen attacked and killed eight Hazara Shias in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan, in two separate attacks on September 01.
On August 30, gunmen riding a motorbike shot dead Zulfiqar Naqvi, a Shia judge, his driver and a police bodyguard in Quetta. HRW listed other recent attacks on Shias.
On August 16, four buses passing through Babusar Top area of Mansehra district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province were intercepted by gunmen who made all the passengers disembark.
"The attackers checked the national identity cards of each passenger and summarily executed 22 passengers identified as belonging to the Shia community," the statement said.
A spokesman for the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan claimed responsibility for these killings.
HRW said similar attacks targeting Shias had taken place repeatedly over the past year in Balochistan, the port city of Karachi, predominantly Shia populated areas of Gilgit-Baltistan and in Pakistan`s tribal belt.
Though authorities claim to have arrested dozens of suspects in attacks against Shias since 2008, only a handful have been charged and no one has been held accountable for attacks, the statement said.
The August 31 arrest of LeJ chief Malik Ishaq in Lahore in a case filed against him for inciting violence against Shias was an "important development" as it came after repeated failed attempts to bring him to justice, HRW said.
Despite being the accused in some 44 cases involving the killing of 70 people, mostly Shias, Ishaq has previously been acquitted by Pakistani courts in 34 cases and granted bail in another 10.
"The arrest of Malik Ishaq, who has been implicated in dozens of killings, is an important test for Pakistan`s criminal justice system. Sectarian violence won`t end until those responsible are brought to trial and justice," Adams said.
The government should direct civilian agencies and the military to actively protect those facing attacks from extremist groups.
It should increase the number of security personnel in Shia majority areas and enclaves at high risk of attack, particularly the Hazara community in Quetta, HRW said.