Syed Saleem Shahzad: murdered journalist just another statistic

Amanda Hodge, in The Australian, 2 June 2011

OVER coffee in an Islamabad cafe three weeks ago, Syed Saleem Shahzad clutched his tender right side, where fragments of a bullet fired by an unstable security guard last August remained lodged, and laughed off his misfortune. In one year, the prominent Pakistani journalist had been shot, threatened by al-Qa’ida-linked commander Ilyas Kashmiri, detained by senior ISI ( Inter-Services Intelligence agency) officers and injured in a car accident after his driver fell asleep while on the road back from seeing militant contacts in Waziristan.

On Tuesday, Shahzad’s battered body was pulled from a canal 130km fromIslamabad. His car, with identity documents and a diary, was found 10km away. A rushed autopsy, conducted just before Shahzad was reportedly buried as an unclaimed body, noted his already-fragile right ribs had been broken. His lungs were punctured and his liver had failed. Shahzad had been missing since Sunday evening after setting off for a local television station where he was to give an interview on his investigation into alleged links between al-Qa’ida and the Pakistannavy. His story, published in the Hong Kong-based Asia Times Online on May 27, reported that al-Qa’ida operatives attacked the Mehran naval base inKarachi last month after talks with al-Qa’ida broke down over the release of naval officers arrested for suspected links with the terror group. It was to have been the first in a two-part series.

His disappearance sparked immediate alarm among his family, friends and colleagues, and suspicions among human rights campaigners that he had been abducted by intelligence services.

The 40-year-old father of three had walked into theIslamabadoffices of Human Rights Watch days earlier to complain about fresh threats from the ISI.

“He told me he was being followed and that he is getting threatening telephone calls and that he is under intelligence surveillance,” HRW’s senior South Asia researcher Ali Dayan Hasan said, adding he had been led to believe through interlocutors that Shahzad was in the custody of the ISI’s powerful Intelligence Directorate wing. “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 Human Rights Watch has every reason to believe that that threat was credible.”

Months earlier, Shahzad had forwarded an email to Hasan detailing an October meeting with the ISI’s head of communications, Adnan Nazir, and his deputy in which he was questioned about another controversial article.

“Dear Hasan, I am forwarding this email to you for your record only if in case something happens to me or my family in future”, it began, before outlining details of the interrogation.

At the end of the meeting, Rear Admiral Nazir told Shahzad a hit list had been found among documents collected during the arrest of a top terrorist.

“If I find your name on it, I will let you know,” he said.

At a coffee house last month, in a window seat overlooking where Punjabgovernor Salman Taseer was murdered five months earlier, Shahzad recounted the same story to The Australian.

The ISI, under intense pressure to deny involvement in Shahzad’s murder, has so far made no comment and calls to its media wing yesterday went unreturned. Shahzad was the only journalist in recent years to interview Kashmiri, and in 2008 secured an interview with the late Pakistan Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud. Last week, his book — Inside Al-Qa’ida; Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11 — was released.

Like so many well-connected journalists inPakistantrying to make sense of the often hostile, sometimes conspiring forces at play there, Shahzad knew it was a perilous balancing act. As a fellow journalist tweeted after news of his murder was confirmed: “Pakistan’s journalists have become the new soldiers”, wedged between the jihadists and the security agencies.

Shahzad is the third reporter inPakistanto be killed this year because of his work. Ten Pakistani journalists were killed last year, prompting a delegation from the Committee for the Protection of Journalists to meet President Asif Ali Zardari to demand more protection for the media. In a statement yesterday, the CPJ said it was “alarmed and angered” by Shahzad’s death.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday condemned the killing. “(Shahzad’s) work reporting on terrorism and intelligence issues inPakistanbrought to light the troubles extremism poses toPakistan’s stability,” she said. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has ordered an inquiry into the murder, and vowed the culprits will be “brought to book”. Interior minister Rehman Malik assured reporters the probe would include investigation into alleged ISI involvement.

By yesterday afternoon, as Shahzad was being buried in his home city of Karachi, his death had been relegated to fourth or fifth place in most Pakistani news bulletins. “Had he been a Daniel Pearl — a journalist from a Western country — then maybe a fuss would be made,” Citizens for Democracy spokeswoman Marvi Sirmed said, referring to the Wall Street Journal reporter killed by al-Qa’ida in 2002. “But since he was Pakistani, Saleem Shahzad will just become another statistic. It’s that mechanical now inPakistan”

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