NEW YORK / ISLAMABAD,: The government of Pakistan should redouble efforts to find the killers of journalist Saleem Shahzad, following the failure of the judicial inquiry commission to identify those responsible, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said on Monday. The commission concluded in its January 10, 2012 report to the government that the police had failed to question Pakistan’s military intelligence officials in its criminal investigation.
Shahzad, a reporter for the Hong Kong-based Asia Times Online and for Adnkronos International, the Italian news agency, disappeared from central Islamabad on the evening of May 29, 2011. His body, bearing visible signs of torture, was found on May 31, near Mandi Bahauddin, 130 kilometres southeast of the capital. The circumstances of the abduction raised concerns that the feared Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency was responsible. In June 2011, the Supreme Court, at the request of the government, instituted a commission of inquiry into the killing.
“The commission’s failure to get to the bottom of the Shahzad killing illustrates the ability of the ISI to remain beyond the reach of Pakistan’s criminal justice system,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government still has the responsibility to identify those responsible for Shahzad’s death and hold them accountable, no matter where the evidence leads.”
The ISI, the HRW said, had a long and well-documented history of abductions, torture, and extrajudicial killings of critics of the military and others. Those abducted are routinely beaten and threatened, their relatives told not to worry or complain as release was imminent, and then released with the threat of further abuse if the ordeal is made public. The HRW says Pakistani and international human rights organisations, including Human Rights Watch, have extensively documented the ISI’s intimidation, torture, enforced disappearances, and killings, including of many journalists.
The five-member commission, which included two judges, two senior police officers, and one journalist, convened on June 21, 2011. Over six months it interviewed 41 witnesses, including Shahzad’s family members, journalists, senior ISI officials, and others. It also conducted an extensive examination of documents, including relevant emails, telephone records, and investigation reports, as well as reports by previous similar commissions.
Among those interviewed were Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch and Hameed Haroon, president of the All Pakistan Newspaper Society (APNS) and publisher of the Dawn Group. Each had received emails from Shahzad in 2010 complaining of threats by ISI agents for his reporting on links between the ISI and Al Qaeda. On October 19, 2010, Shahzad sent an email to Human Rights Watch outlining his meeting with the ISI and asking for the email to be released “in case something happens to me or my family in future”. Shahzad sent the same email and information about other threats to Mr Haroon, and to colleagues at Asia Times Online.
ISI officials maintained to the commission that Shahzad had cordial relations with them until shortly before his killing. The commission concluded that the Pakistani state, militant groups including the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and unnamed ‘foreign actors’ could all have had a motive to kill Shahzad on the basis of his writings.
“The commission appeared fearful of confronting the ISI over Shahzad’s death,” said Mr Adams. “Shahzad had made it clear to Human Rights Watch that should he be killed, the ISI should be considered the principal suspect. He had not indicated he was afraid of being killed by militant groups or anybody else.”
Human Rights Watch said the investigation’s weakness was exemplified by the failure to interview another journalist, Umar Cheema, who was abducted, tortured, and then dumped 120 kilometres from his residence in Islamabad in September 2010. Cheema alleged that his abductors were from Pakistan’s intelligence agencies. It is inexplicable that the commission failed to seek Mr Cheema’s testimony despite his very public allegations against the ISI and repeated offers to testify before the commission, Human Rights Watch said.
“At great personal risk, scores of journalists, human rights activists, and others presented themselves before the commission to offer accounts of ISI and military involvement in human rights abuses,” Mr Adams said. “The commission repaid this courage by muddying the waters and suggesting that just about anyone could have killed Shahzad.”
The commission’s recommendation that all intelligence agencies should be made accountable through “parliamentary oversight” and judicial redress should be promptly implemented by the government through appropriate legislation, Human Rights Watch said. The commission also recommended that “the balance between secrecy and accountability in the conduct of intelligence gathering be appropriately re-adjusted” and a “statutory framework carefully outlining their respective mandates and role” be developed. It also urged that the intelligence agencies’ “interaction with the media be carefully institutionally streamlined and regularly documented”.
‘State within state’
“ISI abuses will only stop if it is subject to the rule of law, civilian oversight, and public accountability,” Mr Adams said. “It is the government’s duty to insist on such accountability and the military’s duty to submit to it. The ISI needs to stop acting as a state within a state.”
Human Rights Watch expressed grave concern that the commission found it appropriate to recommend that the “press be made more law-abiding and accountable through the strengthening of institutions mandated by law to deal with legitimate grievances against it.
“It is perverse to use an investigation into the killing of a journalist as a way of limiting press freedom,” said Mr Adams.
Brig Gen Zahid Mehmood of the ISI told the commission that the ISI/ISPR (Inter Services Public Relations) and other agencies “should stop patronising and protecting ‘favourite’ journalists”. Government payoffs to journalists not only distorts the news reaching the public, but the withdrawal of such patronage and ‘protection’ can result in threats and violence, said journalists who spoke to the commission.
Human Rights Watch called on the government to pass legislation to prohibit the country’s security and intelligence agencies to end the practice of the ISI and other agencies planting agents in media organisations or providing secret payments to journalists to write or not write stories.
“Journalists are under attack from all directions in Pakistan, including by the military,” said Mr Adams. “This murderous free-for-all will only end when the government can protect journalists from militants and its own intelligence agencies. Arresting the killers is the best way to do that.”
In Islamabad, despite many efforts, ISPR Director General Major General Athar Abbas could not be contacted for his comments.