Journalist silenced

Published : Jul 01, 2011 00:00 IST

Friends and relatives carry the coffin containing Shahzad's body at Karachi airport on June 1. - FAREED KHAN/AP

Friends and relatives carry the coffin containing Shahzad's body at Karachi airport on June 1. - FAREED KHAN/AP

WHEN news first trickled in on the micro-blogging website Twitter about the disappearance of Asia Times Online's Pakistan bureau chief Syed Saleem Shahzad, not many even in the media paid much attention.

Even after Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch sounded an alarm about his disappearance, there were enough people within and outside journalism who remained sceptical though 24 hours had lapsed since he was last seen or heard from.

Shahzad was known to play both sides of the fence to get his stories. With considerable sources in the security establishment and the varied terror networks in the country, he was the only journalist to have interviewed Ilyas Kashmiri, who, ironically, was reportedly killed days later. Across the Durand Line, people who knew him wondered openly whether it could be said with certainty that Shahzad had been detained by the intelligence agencies. Is this a fact or just the suspicion/assumption? was the question doing the rounds a day after his disappearance.

Alarm bells began ringing only the following morning when he failed to turn up as per a parallel narrative that claimed Shahzad had been picked up by the intelligence agencies on suspicion of writing for Al Qaeda and would be released before the day was through.

Hasan, fearing that Shahzad's life was already in jeopardy, remained circumspect about this claim and feverishly drew the attention of the powers that be to the disappearance, claiming that though the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had said he would be released soon, it should not be trusted.

As the second morning broke without a trace of the journalist, Hasan began revealing why he feared so much for Shahzad. The journalist had apparently told his wife to call Hasan in case she felt something was amiss, and she had done so when Shahzad failed to return home more than 12 hours after he left his house in the upmarket F-8/4 area of Islamabad for the even more highly secured F-6/2 sector that falls in the Red Zone of the federal capital.

October 2010 e-mail

As the hours ticked by, Hasan remembered an e-mail he had received from Shahzad on October 18, 2010, that he wanted released if this sort of situation arose. The previous day Shahzad had been summoned to the ISI's headquarters to discuss the contents of his article stating that Pakistan had quietly released the Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar's deputy, Mullah Baradar. The ISI officials wanted to know the source of his story and also asked him to publish a denial, which he refused to do.

Though his interlocutors were admittedly cordial, Shahzad returned feeling threatened enough to e-mail Hasan, his employers in Singapore, and Hameed Haroon, the publisher of the leading English daily The Dawn with which he had worked earlier.

Once Shahzad's body was found, the ISI in a rare statement denied these charges as baseless amid particularly vocal criticism, but Haroon maintained that they formed an integral part of Shahzad's last testimony. `His purpose in transmitting this information to three concerned colleagues in the media was not to defame the ISI but to avert a possible fulfilment of what he clearly perceived to be a death threat.''

His body bore 17 torture marks, and death had apparently been caused by a broken rib that pierced his lung. Having survived a similar experience, veteran journalist Najam Sethi said that in all likelihood the intent was not to kill but to torture Shahzad into silence or submission. What his tormenters probably did not realise was that his physical condition was not particularly good as he had been shot at and had met with an accident over the past year.

While there was speculation of the possibility of Shahzad being kidnapped by terrorists, this theory got ruled out rather quickly when it became evident that he had been picked up from the highly sanitised Red Zone. Add to this the speed with which his body initially declared as an unidentified one was buried after a post-mortem examination and the reluctance of the local police to have anything to do with the case.

Theories of what sealed Shahzad's fate abound, but the only certainty is that the truth will never be known. Given that the second part of his two-part exclusive report on the PNS Mehran attack died with him he was picked up two days after the first report appeared indicating how deep Al Qaeda had penetrated the Navy's ranks the assumption is that he was onto something. But, as one veteran journalist pointed out, who will now even hazard a follow-up?

Anita Joshua
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