April 04, 2020
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The Pen, Knifed

An outspoken journalist is silenced in Pakistan. The ISI, the main suspect, protests in discomfiture.

The Pen, Knifed
AFP (From Outlook, June 13, 2011)
The Pen, Knifed

Who Killed Shahzad?

  • The ISI may have tortured him to have him divulge sources for a recent story. Allegedly threatened him earlier.
  • Militants may have done the deed, so that the blame falls on the ISI.
  • Or been a victim of personal enmity.


In the shadowy world of Pakistan, journalists can reasonably be sure of living till the morning their bylines appear. From thereon, you don’t know who might take affront to your report, abduct, torture or even slay you. This is the essence of the tragic story of Syed Saleem Shahzad, the 40-year-old bureau chief of the web newspaper Asia Times Online, whose body was found in a canal 150 km away from Islamabad on May 31. Shahzad had been missing from the evening of May 29.

On May 28, the Asia Times Online had posted Shahzad’s story, ‘Al Qaeda had warned of Pakistan strike’, which claimed the terror outfit was engaged in talks with the Pakistani navy for the release of navy personnel arrested for links with militants. The navy, the story said, agreed to free them only after interrogating them, a term Al Qaeda rejected, then warned of dire consequences. The sensational attack on the Mehran base, Karachi, Shahzad’s story claimed, was an outcome of the breakdown in the navy-Al Qaeda negotiations, thereby testifying to the militant-military nexus.

On May 29, Shahzad left his residence in the F-8/4 locality of Islamabad to participate in a TV discussion at the studio of Dunya News Channel, located in the spiffy F-6/2 area. At 5.45 pm, he took a call from Nasim Zehra, the channel’s director of current affairs, who wanted to know if he’d be late for the recording, scheduled at 6 pm. Shahzad’s response suggested he was in the studio’s vicinity. He surfaced as a corpse two days later.

Syed Saleem Shahzad in Karachi

The post-mortem report of Shahzad, prepared by a team of three doctors, says the journalist died soon after he was kidnapped, and that his wasn’t a case of deliberate killing. Dr Farruk Kamal, who headed the autopsy team, said, “There were at least 17 wounds, including deep gashes.... The ribs from the left and right sides seemed to be hit with violent force, using a blunt object. The broken ribs pierced Shahzad’s lungs, apparently causing the death.”

So a cogent question may be: who tortured Shahzad; not, who killed him? One school of thought accuses the dreaded ISI, saying Shahzad had been tortured for the extraction of his source for the May 28 story. The ISI issued a statement rubbishing the allegation. A second school believes militants could have liquidated Shahzad to embarrass the ISI. Then there are those, like interior minister Rahman Malik, who say Shahzad was the victim of personal enmity.

Shahzad’s wife claims she got a call on the night of May 29, telling her he’d be back. He never returned.

The first to fire a salvo against the ISI was Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch. On May 30, he said, “We were informed through reliable interlocutors that he was detained by the ISI.” But what really had the tongues wagging against the ISI was Hasan’s other disclosure—on October 17, 2010, Shahzad had been summoned to the ISI HQ by the Information Management Wing, which had wanted to discuss a recent report by him in which he claimed Pakistan had quietly released Mullah Omar’s deputy, Mullah Baradar, for taking part in Afghan negotiations through the Pakistan army. Present at the ISI HQ were just two navy officers, who politely requested Shahzad to name the source of his story or at least write a denial. When he refused, one of the officials informed Shahzad about a hit-list obtained from a terrorist and added, “If I find your name in the list, I will certainly let you know.” Interpreting this as a threat, Shahzad thought it prudent to tell Hasan about the meeting in an e-mail. Fuelling speculation is another nugget of information: one official during the 2010 meeting was Commodore Khalid Pervaiz, who is the new commander of the Mehran naval base.

About the October 17 meeting, the ISI clarified in a rare statement this week, “The reported e-mail of Mr Saleem Shahzad to Mr Ali Hasan Dayan of hrw...has no veiled or unveiled threats in it.” The ISI justified summoning Shahzad, “It is part of the wing’s mandate to remain in touch with the journalist community. The main objective...is provision of accurate information on matters of national security. ISI also makes it a point to notify institutions and individuals alike of any threat warning received about them.” It promised to leave “no stone unturned in helping bring the perpetrators of this heinous crime to justice.”

Journalists protest in Hyderabad

Veteran journalist Najam Sethi, however, provided a new twist to the raging speculation in a TV talk show: “The way Shahzad has been killed seems more likely to be a handiwork of the intelligence agencies.” Sethi felt his abductors were oblivious of Shahzad’s vulnerability—in a scuffle in a restaurant last year, he had been shot at by a private security guard (who has now been arrested.) The bullet lodged in the left side of his ribs, right under his heart. The agency, as is its wont, tortured him to teach him a lesson, ignorant of his low endurance level to beating because of the wound sustained last year. They didn’t want to kill him, opined Sethi. Reminding the viewers of his own experience with the ISI, he said, “Although I was not subjected to torture, my heart gave out and I had a cardiac arrest.”

Sethi’s scenario is tenable, but his assumption is wrong, say votaries of another school. Anyone could have tortured Shahzad, not necessarily the ISI. For a moment, assume Shahzad owed a substantial amount of money to someone, who tortures Shahzad to warn him of what awaited him in case he failed to repay immediately. Shahzad then buckles under. That he was fired at last year is the evidence this school furnishes to insist he at least had one implacable enemy capable of extreme violence.

The third school of thought says Shahzad could have been killed by militants, who have repeatedly attacked the Pakistan military on the assumption that it betrayed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on May 2. This school feels the militants had correctly estimated that the killing of Shahzad would be blamed on the ISI, undermining its credibility further. A defensive ISI is indeed good news for militant outfits, they say. No, argue critics, pointing to Shahzad’s formidable connections in the militant world. In the death of Shahzad haven’t they lost a journalist whom they relied upon to voice their views?

But the theory of the ISI’s involvement has popular endorsement. They refer to Shahzad’s wife Anita’s claim that she had received an anonymous call on the night of May 29, asking her not to worry about her husband as he would be released from their custody the following morning. He never returned to her. At the centre of all of Pakistan’s ongoing upheavals, the ISI is on the backfoot—obvious from the pious statement they released to counter allegations.

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