Khan was seized by unidentified gunmen in the lawless North Waziristan tribal region bordering Afghanistan on December 5. Some of Khan’s colleagues believe he was taken by Pakistani authorities after he contradicted a government version of the killing of an al-Qaeda commander by reporting that the U.S. military was involved.
The Khan family say they have been told by Pakistani government sources that Hayatullah is in the custody of the United States. Ihsanullah Khan, Hayatullah’s 20-year-old brother, told CPJ today through an interpreter, “A Pakistani military colonel who does not want his name revealed told me that on January 15 Hayatullah was taken by helicopter from a secret government holding place in Rawalpindi to Kohat and that he was turned over to the Americans soon after that.” Rawalpindi, near the capital Islamabad, houses the headquarters of the Pakistani army. Kohat is the site of an air base. “The colonel said Hayatullah has been in American custody since about the first week of February. He said he was being held by the FBI or the CIA, but he did not know which one,” Ihsanullah Khan added.
Both the Pentagon and FBI have told CPJ that they are not holding Khan. The CIA and the U.S. consular office in Peshawar also declined to comment.
“In this swirl of rumor and disinformation all parties must make it clear whether they are holding Hayatullah or have information about where he is,” said Ann Cooper, CPJ’s executive director. “The Pakistani government and U.S. agencies have a responsibility to fully clarify this situation.”
Calls by CPJ to the Pakistani government in Islamabad for information have gone unanswered. A regional government spokesman told CPJ he had no knowledge of Khan’s whereabouts.
Ihsanullah Khan said the family did not believe Hayatullah was being held by the Taliban, whose members have started to regroup in Waziristan along the border with Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001. “Our family has a letter from the Taliban saying they have no enmity with our family and that they do not have Hayatullah. They said they did not kidnap Hayatullah and I believe them,” Ihsanullah said.
Hayatullah Khan, a reporter for the Urdu-language daily Ausaf and the European Pressphoto Agency, was seized by five men with AK-47 assault rifles after they forced his car off the road, according to Ihsanullah, who was in the vehicle. Four days earlier Khan had covered an explosion in the town of Haisori in North Waziristan. His reports contradicted Pakistani authorities’ official accounts claiming that a senior al-Qaeda commander, Abu Hamza Rabia, died after munitions exploded inside a house. Khan quoted local tribesmen as saying the house was hit by an air-launched missile. Hayatullah photographed what he said were fragments of the missile for the European Pressphoto Agency. Those photographs were widely distributed. International media identified the fragments in the photographs as part of a Hellfire missile, possibly fired from a U.S. drone.
In the past, Khan had received numerous threats from Pakistani security forces, Taliban members, and local tribesmen because of his reporting. One of Khan’s journalist colleagues told CPJ in March that Khan had told his mother that the Pakistani government was threatening him. He had been told to leave journalism or move from the region, or accept a government job there, which would effectively silence him. And in July 2002 Hayatullah and four companions were detained by U.S. Special Forces in Paktika province in Afghanistan on suspicion of being associated with al-Qaeda. The group was released after the military was able to verify their identities.