Madhusree Mukerjee’s new book is a shocking indictment of one of the West’s great idols, Saad Sarfraz Sheikh finds
Madhusree Mukerjee’s new book is a shocking indictment of one of the West’s great idols, Saad Sarfraz Sheikh finds
“These journalists work under extremely dangerous circumstances”, says noted Pakistani journalist Najam Sethi. The Friday Times Editor-in-Chief said that journalists are both “part of the problem and solution,” walking a fine line between reporting the public’s sentiments on Pakistan’s ongoing turmoil and reinforcing them. Sadly, what is being revealed by human rights groups (here) is that it isn’t just the terrorists and their activities that make Pakistan dangerous for journalists. In addition to anti-state elements (militants), state elements top the list for “abducting, beating, detaining, disappearing, threatening, torturing and murdering journalists, who dare to question their intervention and authority”.
40- year- old Syed Saleem Shahzad, Asia Times Online’s Pakistan bureau chief, is the latest victim of the dangerous quest for honesty and truth. According to news reports, he was “picked up” in broad daylight in Islamabad on 29th May, as he was on his way to a television interview.
Fears grew for his safety after he was missing for more than 2 days, and the Human Rights Watch (HRW) believed him to be in the custody of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The HRW declared that Syed Saleem Shahzad could also be subjected to mistreatment and torture during “custody”. As ill-fate would have had it, police found his body in Mandi Bahauddin on Tuesday, May 31, about 150 kilometres southeast of Islamabad, days after he published an article that could have upset the powerful people at the centre of Pakistan’s war on terror.
“This killing bears all the hallmarks of previous killings perpetrated by Pakistani intelligence agencies,” said Ali Dayan Hasan, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in South Asia. He has called for a “transparent investigation and court proceedings”.
The following quote from Shahzad’s final article gives an idea of just how embarrassing his latest revelations might have been to several powerful parties.
In a follow-up to this despatch, Shahzad had planned to explain the recruitment and training of militants. Sadly, that never happened.
As we dig into the archives of Shahzad’s bold reportage, an experience that brought him dangerously close to the dark world of Al Qaeda, Taliban and extremists’ links to Pakistani politics and security – where he often took great personal risks to deliver his unique insights, we realize the immense research and information Saleem Shehzad possessed. An expert on the Al-Qaeda, Taliban, ISI, Pakistan Army, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Harkatul Islam and Lashkar-e-Taiba, his prolific journey as a reporter is as deeply rooted as the problems he focussed on.
Saleem found his true calling while reporting on the symbiosis of the ISI and Taliban factions on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Recently, he focused on militant loyalists within the armed forces of Pakistan, mentioning their human resource operations and changes. His reportage has brought ISI’s former strategic asset Ilyas Kashmiri into focus, as he is now seen as the operational in-charge responsible for establishing Al-Qaeda-Taliban “terror cells”.
Saleem Shehzad may not have been targeted by the ISI, but he was surely being monitored as a potential threat by all the stakeholders. Fellow journalists reacted angrily to his death, which is not merely the murder of a journalist; but the murder of truth itself.
People are now directly accusing the ISI on television and social media forums. “Any journalist here (Pakistan) who doesn’t believe that it’s our intelligence agencies?” tweeted Mohammed Hanif, a bestselling author.
The sad thing is that Saleem isn’t the first, nor will he be the last Pakistani journalist to face such dangers to life. Last September, Umar Cheema, an investigative reporter for The News International , was kidnapped, blindfolded, stripped naked, had his head and eyebrows shaved, beaten up, filmed in humiliating positions and dumped on the side of the road six hours later.
“If you can’t avoid rape”, one of his interrogators jeered during the ordeal, “enjoy it”. The perpetrators were never found, but when asked about his suspicions, Cheema told the New York Times: ‘I have suspicions and every journalist has suspicions that all fingers point to the ISI’.
Cheema is more concerned than ever for his own safety. ‘Obviously I feel really vulnerable’ he says. ‘We need an independent commission to look into [Shahzad’s death]’.
One of the primary reasons as to why people majorly suspect the ISI is that the kind of operation in which Syed Saleem Shahzad lost his life, doesn’t seem to be the work of militant groups known for spot killings or abductions that end up in Waziristan, but of the intelligence agencies.
Shahzad was known to have sources both within the Pakistan’s intelligence community and among Taliban and Al Qaeda militants. Last October, the journalist had been called for a meeting at the ISI headquarters after he had written an article that claimed the Pakistani authorities had released from custody Afghan Taliban military commander Mullah Baradar to negotiate with the Pakistan army.
Shahzad said the mood at the meeting, at which he was asked for but declined to reveal the sources for his article, was polite but that at the end one of the senior officers had said to him: “I must give you a favour. We have recently arrested a terrorist and have recovered a lot of data, dairies and other material during the interrogation. The terrorist had a hit list with him. If I find your name in the list, I will certainly let you know.”
Ali Dayan Hasan of the Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the journalist had taken these words as a threat. “He told me he was being followed and that he was getting threatening telephone calls and that he was under intelligence surveillance,” Hasan told Reuters. “We can’t say for sure who has killed Saleem Shahzad. But what we can say for sure is that Saleem Shahzad was under serious threat from the ISI and [we have] every reason to believe that that threat was credible.”
One of the ISI’s media wing officials who attended the meeting and questioned Shahzad was Rear Admiral Adnan Nazir, a naval officer.
On Monday, May 30, Pakistani intelligence officials told journalists that they had picked up Kamran Ahmed Malik, a former navy commando, in Lahore on May 27, Friday. Malik and his brother have been detained in connection with the investigation. While Malik has not been formally charged, it is widely reported that he is being held for questioning about his links to both the terrorists and former colleagues inside the navy.
When contacted on Thursday June 2 night, Rear Admiral Adnan Nazir declined to comment on the raid or the death of Shahzad, saying “I don’t speak to anyone.”
Amid chants of ‘Yay jo deshatgardi hay, iskay peechay wardi hay (Militancy is backed by the military) ringing around the Lahore Press Club, Pakistani journalists find themselves in a concatenation of cross fires. There is a new fear, and the government is in no mood to protect the journalists. The only official reaction is Interior Minister Rehman Malik’s suggestion that journalists should be allowed to carry small firearms for their self-defence.
As public outrage intensifies, the ISI, in a rare clarification, has felt that it needs to make its voice heard. On June 2, a senior ISI official told the government news agency, Associated Press, that allegations of the agency’s involvement were absurd. He said allegations that its operatives were behind the abduction and killing of Syed Saleem Shahzad were baseless, and vowed to help bring the perpetrators to justice. He denied that the agency had made any threats to the journalist and described Saleem Shahzad’s death as “unfortunate and tragic” and a “source of concern for the entire nation.” The intelligence official was unnamed in accordance with the nature of his job.
The ISI, which has been accused of multiple human rights abuses against journalists and political activists in Pakistan, said it was regrettable that some sections of the media had levelled such allegations against the agency. It called on them to act responsibly and suggested that it may consider taking legal action against them.
The official said that a meeting between ISI officials and Shahzad in October was part of the media wing’s mandate to keep in touch with members of the media and that it represented nothing sinister.
The only problem with this version of events is Shahzad’s last written testament to Human Rights Watch in Pakistan some months ago in which he communicated his fear that the ISI, rather than some unknown forces, had warned him off for wading into troubled waters and might exact punishment. Additionally, his wife has confirmed that a senior ISI officer was in touch with her husband and had even “interrogated” him some time ago.
Hopes for any inquiry, however, are low. Although the ISI technically reports to Prime Minister Gilani, in reality it is controlled by the army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani. Although accused of numerous human rights abuses over the years, serving ISI officials have never been prosecuted.
Waseem Shahzad, Saleem’s younger brother, says ‘Nobody can say my brother backed down because of threats or bribes. He paid the ultimate sacrifice’.
Saleem Shahzad is survived by his wife, Anita, and three children. His widow wants no autopsy nor any charges filed against anyone.
Published via Syndicate Features in the South Asian Tribune
Lahore was shaken and shattered on July 1, 2010, when the shrine of the patron saint of the subcontinent, Ali Hajveri Data Ganj Baksh, was attacked by two suicide bombers on Thursday. The resulting impact was clearly visible on the faces of all residents of ‘Data ki nagri’, Data’s city. It was a familiar site after the blasts outside the shrine’s complex, as endless decks and streams of frantic ambulances crowded the roads and lined along the pavement, awaiting orders.
Inside the shrine, shoes and clothes lay scattered on the floor. Complete pandemonium ensued, as the entire place smelt like a meat shop with body parts scattered on the ground, there was a murky layer of blood plastered on the marble floor, ugliness that would take weeks to clean, and many generations to forget.
Emergency officials scampered around the complex, screaming for more ambulances, as civil defence officials scavenged the remnants of the victims.
Officials rummaged and sifted through the rubble and filled cans full of ball bearings.
The Police also recovered remains of the suicide bombers.
Rescue 1122 and civil defence workers reached within 20 minutes of the blast. One could hear them calling out to each other, “Look, I found a watch, let’s send it to the morgue, it could help in identification purposes…”
Lahore’s violent and explosive past has trained them well. Barely a month ago, they were rescuing people from an attack on two Ahmaddiya worshipping places.
Thursday is the busiest night of the week as around 40-50,000 people frequent the shrine.
This Thursday it was no different, as the usual number of people settled themselves at the complex, unaware of the impending doom. They later drowned in a massive blood bath as a string of suicide attacks struck different parts of the complex.
CCTV footage clearly showed how the suicide bombers had penetrated the security gates. It showed bombers in their final moments before they blew themselves up. In the footage, a security guard at the shrine was seen chasing one of the bombers shortly before a huge blast, which sent crowds of panicked devotees fleeing in all directions. Salim Raza, a guard posted at an entry gate with a scanner, detected a suspicious man clad in a green turban, white robes and a shawl, carrying a bag. He ran after the suspected bomber who seconds later detonated his explosives, engulfing the site in a huge cloud of white smoke.
Entering through the same security gates later made one realise how two men wrecked the future of at least two hundred families, who had lost their brethren in the attacks. Doctors said they were expecting the death toll to rise, as the city’s main hospitals declared a state of emergency. Relatives poured into morgues and emergency wards to identify the survivors and victims.
Angry protesters waited in the darkness, building a mob around the complex, igniting whatever they could get their hands on. The Police were unable to control them, and resorted to firing to disperse the violent crowds, who had just damaged media vans and thrashed their employees for “lying to the masses” The firing caused further panic and confusion, as people ran in all directions.
Initial reports suggested the use of crackers/low intensity bombs, but as survivors ran for their lives leaving behind victims, it was clear that it was indeed a high grade bomb.
Data Darbar was the last place one could think of being attacked, but considering the fact that these terrorists wanted to cause maximum damage, using a carefully orchestrated attack strategy, it comes as no surprise.
Eye-witness at the shrine recalled the explosion as an intense one, and said that a majority of the victims were busy praying inside the complex.
A resident of Lahore said that they now had nowhere to go, as mosques and shrines were not safe anymore.
The lunger, which was stopped for the first time in history, was located in the basement, where volunteers were seen cooking large cauldrons of rice and vegetables in the past.
The Data Darbar administration stopped the distribution of free food among devotees, a tradition that has been a distinctive feature of the shrine for hundreds of years. “Free food was available 24 hours of the day for everyone, it had never been stopped under any circumstances,” said Jawad, a resident of Bhatti Gate area, a regular visitor. In addition to the devotees, free food was also a source of living for hundreds of labourers.”
Data Darbar Administrator Rao Fazalur Rahman, however, justified his decision to shut down the provision of free food. “The people associated with the preparation of lunger are in a state of shock,” he said, adding that lunger would be started as soon as the situation normalised.
The media carefully reported a lower death toll although from the blast site, it was evident that hundreds must have lost their lives.
The attack shut up those who still questioned whether these attackers were ‘Muslims’ or not, adding stead to the fact that all spheres of Muslim schools respected the Patron Saint of Lahore.
The Taliban were quick to deny and involvement and ‘condemned’ the attack, and ‘innocently’ announced that they never attacked ‘public places’…
It remains a mystery as to who did it, as no outfit has claimed responsibility till date.
The 3 day strike was widely followed, and traders estimated a business loss of Rs3 billion as all major markets and commercial shopping centres were shut. The loss of Rs3 billion did not include taxes and duties paid to the government.
“This is yet another blow for the city of Lahore. These bombings are further proof that there is only so much you can do to protect yourself. If someone is determined to blow themselves up, they will do it.” an official said.