PESHAWAR, June 16: A tribal journalist missing for about seven months has been killed. His body was found lying outside a village in Mirali in the restive North Waziristan tribal region on Friday afternoon. His hands chained, the 29-year-old Hayatullah Khan had been shot from behind, his brother Ihsanullah Khan Dawar told Dawn on phone. “He looked very weak, had grown beard while in captivity and wore the same brown clothes he had on when he went missing. He appeared to have received five gunshots, looks like he was shot from behind while attempting to escape”, Ihsanullah said. The body bore no torture marks.
He said that in one of the meetings with local intelligence operatives and government officials on May 15, he had been assured that the family would hear something about him on or about June 15.
“And this is what we have got “his body”, 21-year-old Ihsanullah said. He said that he had been assured time and again that Hayatullah was alive and well, but had been detained on matters relating to national security.
“We knew it all along who or which agency had held him. There is not even an iota of doubt in our mind. He was wearing sarkari hatkari.” He blamed an intelligence agency for the murder and vowed to avenge his brother’s death.
Secretary, Fata Secretariat, Arbab Shehzad, said that while he was saddened by the tragic death of Mr Hayatullah, he did not know who was behind his kidnapping and subsequent killing. “It remains a mystery,” he said.
Hayatullah, who worked for national dailies and a western wire photo service, was kidnapped by five armed masked men on December 5 last year.
He is the third tribal journalist to fall in the line of duty while covering militants’ activities and the military operation in the region. Earlier, two journalists had been gunned down by masked men in Wana, South Waziristan, in February last year.
Hayatullah’s disappearance under mysterious circumstances has been a subject of discussion and speculation. It sparked protest demonstrations by journalists in Peshawar and prompted international organisations, including Journalist Sans Frontier and Committee for the Protection of Journalists, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, to issue statements urging Islamabad to secure his release.
While initial suspicion fell on militants, they were quick to deny their involvement and informed his family he was not with them. There were also speculations that Hayatullah might have been detained by Pakistani intelligence agencies operating in the region.
His family suspected that he had been picked up by an intelligence agency after he first released pictures of parts of US missiles that had killed senior Al Qaeda operative Hamza Rabia in North Waziristan on December 1.
The pictures proving US involvement in the missile attack flew in the face of claims that the Al Qaeda operative had been killed in a blast in a house. Recently, government officials, including the Political Agent of North Waziristan, told his family that he was probably in the US custody at Bagram near Kabul.
It also came through some government circles that Hayatullah had been relocated to the US as a reward for pinpointing Rabia’s hideout. This prompted the US to categorically deny its involvement in Hayatullah’s disappearance.
On May 10, the US Consulate in Peshawar circulated a statement saying that the US had no information about Hayatullah’s whereabouts.
Ihsanullah said he was informed by tribesmen at around 4pm that the body of his brother was lying in mountains near Khesor village, about seven kilometres south of Mirali. Later, he said, a major from the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) in Mirali asked him to collect the body.
Hayatullah leaves behind his wife, two sons and two daughters.
Incidentally, it was the detention of his father by the political authorities in 1992 that prompted the young man to become a journalist and expose excesses and injustices.
He started working for newspapers soon after doing his first term in MSc Economics from the Government Degree College in Bannu in 1998. He courted problems with the authorities and was externed from the tribal region for two months in 2002.
Earlier in 2001, he had a brush with US forces when he was arrested in the south-eastern Paktika area of Afghanistan by US forces mistaking him for a secretary to the Taliban supreme leader Mullah Muhammad Omar.
He was detained at the Bagram airbase for two months and questioned about the whereabouts of Taliban’s elusive one-eyed leader.
Hayatullah’s tragic death caused shock and grief in the journalists fraternity in Peshawar. A statement by the Khyber Union of Journalists strongly condemned the killing and accused the government of failing to provide protection to journalists, particularly those working in tribal regions.
It demanded immediate arrest of elements responsible for his killing and announced it would hold a protest rally in Peshawar on Saturday.
The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists and the All Pakistan Newspaper Employees Confederation also condemned the murder. The two organisations of newspaper employees said in a joint statement that they would observe a ‘black day’ on Monday when protest demonstrations would be held and journalists would boycott assembly sessions.
The statement appealed to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to take suo moto notice of the kidnapping and murder of Hayatullah Khan and appoint a judicial inquiry commission.