Pakistan Journalist Vanishes: Is the ISI Involved?

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Saeed Ali Achakzai / Reuters

Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad in a file picture taken November 28, 2006.

Updated: May 31, 2011. 2:30 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time.

Fears are growing for the safety of a well-known Pakistani journalist who has been missing for 39 hours now and, according to an international advocacy group, is believed to be in the custody of Pakistan's controversial Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Human Rights Watch (HRW) declared that Syed Saleem Shahzad, a reporter working for the Hong Kong–based Asia Times Online and Adnkronos International, the Italian news agency, could be subject to mistreatment and even torture while in custody.

UPDATE: Pakistan's main news channels are reporting that Shahzad's dead body has been found. One news channel broadcast what appeared to be a black and white image of Shahzad's face. There were visible signs of torture. According to Ali Dayan Hasan of HRW: "Human Rights Watch is clear about the fact that Saleem Shahzad was under threat from the ISI. However, it is essential that the mystery of his gruesome murder be resolved through a transparent investigation and above board legal process. It is time that the Pakistani government understood that this kind of heinous killing is both abhorrent and unacceptable. The perpetrators of this crime, regardless of who they are, must be held to account." Hasan also said: "Given that Shahzad alleged in his lifetime that he had been threatened by the ISI, and given that we believe that the allegation was credible, the onus is on the ISI to prove that it was not holding him in illegal detention, and that its personnel were not responsible for his death."

While the ISI was said to have bristled at previous reports by Shahzad, his disappearance happened two days after he wrote a story for Asia Times Online that said that al-Qaeda had attacked a naval base in the port city of Karachi on May 22 after talks had broken down between the Pakistan navy and the global terrorist organization. In his report, Shahzad claimed that al-Qaeda had carried out the attack in retaliation for the arrest of naval officials suspected of links with the terrorist group.

The 17-hour attack on the Karachi naval base by at least four people led to the destruction of two Lockheed Martin P-3C Orion aircraft that had been enhanced with counterterrorism capabilities. An investigation is currently under way. At the time of the attack, former military officers and analysts speculated that it could not have been mounted without some help from the inside.

On Monday, Pakistani intelligence officials told journalists that they had picked up Kamran Ahmed Malik, a former navy commando, in Lahore on 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.

Shahzad, the missing journalist, is believed to have been abducted by intelligence agents from the well-heeled F-6/2 area of Islamabad around 5:45 p.m. At the time, he was on his way to the studios of Pakistan's Dunya News channel to discuss the contents of his latest report about the naval-base attack. He had driven there from his house in central Islamabad's leafy F-8/4 neighborhood, some 4 km away. At a quarter to 6, Shahzad had responded to a call from a producer at Dunya News and said he was on his way, says Nasim Zehra, director of current affairs at the channel. No one has heard from him since. TIME's request for comment from the military was not answered.

The following morning, Ali Dayan Hasan, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, received a call from Shahzad's wife. "He had told her that I was one of the people that should be called in case anything happens to him," says Hasan. "He had feared for sometime that something like this would happen to him." Later, Human Rights Watch says it was able to establish that Shahzad was being held by the ISI. "We were informed through reliable interlocutors that he was detained by the ISI," says Hasan. Those interlocutors, he adds, had received direct confirmation from the agency that it was detaining Shahzad. In any case, Hasan says, "in a high-security zone like Islamabad, it is only the ISI that can effect the disappearance of man and his car without a trace."

Human Rights Watch was also told that Shahzad was supposed to return home on Monday night. "The relevant people were informed that his telephone would be switched on first, enabling him to communicate with his family," says Hasan. "They were told that he would return home soon after." But by 1 a.m. on Tuesday morning, Shahzad had still not been heard from. At that point, Hasan recalled that Shahzad had sent him an e-mail on Oct. 18, 2010, that was to be released in the event of his disappearance. At the time, says Hasan, he was "fairly sure that sooner or later something was going to happen." Human Rights Watch says it has made repeated attempts to contact Pakistan's government and establish Shahzad's whereabouts, but has received no response.

On Oct. 17, Shahzad had been summoned to the ISI's headquarters to discuss the contents of an article published the day before with two officials from the agency's media wing. That report, published in Asia Times Online, alleged that Pakistan had quietly released Afghan Taliban commander Mullah Baradar, Mullah Omar's deputy, to take part in talks through the Pakistan army. According to the e-mail, labeled "For future reference" and seen by TIME, one of the officials said the following words to Shahzad: "I must give you a favor. We have recently arrested a terrorist and recovered a lot of data, diaries and other material during the interrogation. The terrorist had a list with him. If I find your name in the list, I will certainly let you know." Incidentally, the two ISI officials present at the meeting, Rear Admiral Adnan Nawaz and Commodore Khalid Pervaiz, are both from the navy. Pervaiz has just been appointed the new commander of the Karachi naval base that was attacked.

Hasan of Human Rights Watch says that statement can be read as a threat. "The tone and the manner in which it was issued did constitute a threat," he says. "Shahzad described it to me." The rest of the meeting, as Shahzad described it in the e-mail, was held in "an extremely polite and friendly atmosphere," but no words were minced. In the e-mail, the ISI official was said to have asked for the source of his story. Shahzad writes that he would not name the source, but said he had been told the information by an intelligence official and later confirmed the story from "the most credible Taliban source." According to Shahzad's account, he was asked to "write a denial of the story" but "refused to comply with the [ISI] demand."

Many of Shahzad's media colleagues speculate that the ISI is holding him to extract the identities of his sources. "It is very difficult to say what they want from him," says Hasan. "But when the ISI picks up journalists in this manner, they are often subjected to mistreatment and torture. The longer he stays in their custody, the greater the likelihood is that he will be tortured."

Last September, Umar Cheema, an investigative reporter for the News, an influential Pakistani daily, was kidnapped, blindfolded, stripped naked, had his head and eyebrows shaved, beaten, 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."

The disappearance of Shahzad is a reminder of the multiple hazards faced by journalists working in Pakistan. In January, Wali Khan Babar, a respected reporter for Geo News, was gunned down in Karachi. Last month reporter Abdullah Bhittani cheated death after being shot three times in Rawalpindi, while a radio station in the northwest town of Charsadda was bombed. Bhittani has recovered, but with 10 slain journalists last year, the Newseum in Washington, D.C. called Pakistan "the deadliest country in the world for journalists." Reporters Without Borders ranked it 151 out of 178 countries when it comes to press freedom.

The principal threats, human-rights campaigners say, come from military-intelligence agencies and Islamist militants. "As a consequence, it is becoming difficult for journalists to perform their basic professional duties in the context of a war between the Pakistani state and the militants," Hasan says. "Both parties target journalists, arbitrarily and with brutality." Human Rights Watch has called on Pakistan's government to locate Shahzad, return him safely to his home and hold those who held him "illegally" accountable. "To date, no intelligence personnel have been held accountable for frequently perpetrated abuses against journalists," laments Hasan. "Tolerance for these practices has to end, now."