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Syed Saleem Shahzad was a crusading reporter until he was murdered. Who did it?
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – A number of Pakistani journalists and newspapers are disappointed that a judicial investigation has failed to reveal new information about the torture and murder of a leading Pakistani journalist.
"Having seen that a prominent reporter can be killed with no consequences for those involved is sure to have a chilling effect on the profession," wrote the Pakistani national newspaper Express Tribune.
Syed Saleem Shahzad, the Pakistan bureau chief of the Asia Times Online and a reporter for the Italian news agency Adnkronos International, was on his way to appear on a talk show on May 29, 2011. The then 40-year-old reporter, known for his investigations into alleged links between militants and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), never arrived. His tortured body was found a few days later about 90 miles south of Islamabad.
Just two days before his disappearance Shahzad reported that Al Qaeda carried out an attack on Mehran naval base in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi after talks failed to win the release of two naval officials. The officials had been arrested on suspicion of having links to Al Qaeda.
A number of media and human rights organizations voiced the suspicion that the ISI had a hand in Shahzad’s killing. Human Rights Watch told Reuters that Shahzad had complained about threats from the ISI.
International leaders such as Hillary Clinton, U.S. Secretary of State, also condemned Shahzad’s killing.
The ISI was already under pressure over the raid on Osama bin Laden by U.S. Navy SEALS, which was carried out without the notice of the agency. The US raid revealed that the ISI had failed to find bin Laden or, as others suspected, had a hand in hiding him. Brigadier Zahid Mehmood Khan, Sector Headquarter Central Islamabad, who represented the ISI before the commission denied the allegations.
Nationwide agitation and demands from Pakistan’s journalist community for an investigation into Shahzad's murder persuaded the government to constitute a judicial commission. It was expected to probe the murder and name suspects, a rare move in country where murderERs of journalists usually go scot-free. For a second year running Reporters Without Borders named Pakistan the deadliest country for journalists. Ten journalists were killed in Pakistan in 2011.
Hamza Ameer, the 28-year-old brother-in-law of the slain journalist and a freelance journalist for foreign media, criticized the report for merely stating possible murder motives.
“After eight months we find out what we were already talking about in the first months. How disappointing can that be?” he asked, sitting in his home in Islamabad.
The report, which recorded statements of 41 witnesses with different opinions on whom might have been behind Shahzad’s murder, drew the ire of the Daily Times newspaper in Pakistan.
"It seems that Saleem Shahzad committed self-torture and suicide and later his dead body drove a car to the canal and dumped itself there," said the Daily Times. The newspaper report goes on to say that "the Judicial Commission has made a mockery of justice. It is crystal clear that the judiciary lacks the courage to question the ISI for its alleged extra-judicial murders and other illegal activities."
Umar Cheema, an investigative reporter for The News International, a leading Pakistani newspaper, also said that the commission could have done more. Since it lacked substansive evidence to pinpoint a culprit, the commission could have heard all journalists who have complained of being victimized, he said. This would have helped determine who is generally suspected, said Cheema.
Cheema, 35, knows what he is talking about. In September 2010 he was abducted while on his way home from dinner. He was stripped naked and beaten and filmed in compromising positions. His head and eyebrows were shaved.
“It is a terrible experience and it has its implications and ramifications. I try to do my best, but don’t feel as worry-free as I was before. I remain under threat all the time. I have to take precautions. I have to restrain my movement,” he said.
In his case, Cheema and many of his colleagues point fingers at the ISI. As in other such cases, he lacks evidence though, he said. Also, merely blaming the ISI is no solution, Cheema said. He said that the spy agency lacks a proper legal framework.
“If there are no checks and balances, no agency can be reined in. You can only rein them in if you have proper legislation,” said Cheema.
In the view of Cheema and Hamza Ameer — who was one of the witnesses for the report, but didn’t pinpoint the blame for the murder or anyone or any institution, because he said he did not know who was behind it — the report has only one positive. The report said that the “more important agencies” referring to the ISI and another agency, the Intelligence Bureau, should be made “more law-abiding through a legislation carefully outlining their respective mandates and roles.”
Ameer said he won’t challenge the commission. “It was courageous enough of the commission to state that the agencies need to be checked,” he said.
No matter what it does, the report cannot return Shahzad to his family, said Ameer: “What they’ve taken away from us can’t come back.”