Veteran Journalist Najam Sethi Arrested

May 10, 1999

His Excellency Muhammad Nawaz Sharif
Prime Minister
Prime Minister’s Secretariat
Islamabad, Pakistan
2118 Kalorama Rd., N.W.

Your Excellency,

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is outraged by this weekend’s arrest of veteran journalist Najam Sethi, founder and editor of the English-language weekly newspaper Friday Times. Sethi is the third Pakistani journalist arrested under suspicious circumstances in less than a week, prompting fears that your government is engaged in a campaign to silence the country’s independent press. All three men had been interviewed before their arrest by a BBC television crew preparing a report on high-level official corruption in Pakistan for the program “Correspondent.”

Around 2:30 a.m. on May 8, dozens of government agents raided Sethi’s home. According to Jugnu Mohsin, Sethi’s wife and the publisher of the Friday Times, the raid was the work of Pakistan’s Intelligence Bureau in partnership with the Punjab police. She said that the officers forced their way through the locked gate of the residence, assaulted two security guards who had been hired to protect the family, and broke into house. At least eight armed officers-only two in uniform, the rest in plainclothes-burst into the couple’s bedroom to make the arrest. Officers pulled Sethi out of bed, and beat him with billy clubs and steel handcuffs, said Mohsin. She added that when she asked the officers to produce a warrant for the arrest, one of them threatened to shoot Sethi immediately and leave his corpse in place of any warrant.

While some officers dragged Sethi away at gunpoint, two others tied up Mohsin and locked her in her dressing room. During the course of the raid, officers had also taken the couple’s mobile phones and destroyed the bedroom telephone with a rifle butt.

An unnamed government spokesman was quoted widely in the Pakistani press as saying that the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency was responsible for the arrest, and citing Sethi’s alleged collaboration with Indian intelligence agents as grounds for his detention. Just two days before his arrest, Sethi told CPJ that the government was using the state-controlled media to set the stage for his arrest on charges of high treason and sedition. Sethi said he had been warned by senior government officials that his recent work with the BBC is viewed by some members of the administration as an attempt to destabilize the country and overthrow the government, and that his arrest was imminent.

In response to a writ petition first presented before the Lahore High Court on Saturday by Asma Jehangir, a lawyer who formerly chaired the independent Pakistan Human Rights Commission, the Punjab provincial government has said it would attempt to locate Sethi by Wednesday. Sethi is still being held incommunicado at an undisclosed location, though his wife says she was told by the Governor of Punjab Province that he has been moved to Islamabad.

Meanwhile, Hussain Haqqani, a regular columnist for the  Friday Times and the Urdu-language daily newspaper Jang, is still missing, after being kidnapped by a group of men believed to be agents from Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) on May 4. Official statements indicate that the government plans to charge Haqqani with embezzlement, but no charges have yet been filed, and his whereabouts are still unknown. As in Sethi’s case, a Lahore High Court judge has ordered the provincial government to respond to a habeas corpus petition, but no new information has yet been provided.

Haqqani is also a leader of Pakistan’s political opposition, but government officials have told CPJ’s sources that he is being detained in connection with interviews he gave to the BBC team, and that he could be charged with sedition and treason on the basis of his recent columns.

Mehmood Ahmed Khan (M.A.K.) Lodhi, the head of investigations for the Lahore edition of the English-language daily The News, was detained for two days by the Intelligence Bureau and interrogated about his involvement with the BBC project. Lodhi was arrested on May 2 and released on May 4 with no official explanation for his illegal detention.

As an organization of journalists dedicated to the defense of press freedom around the world, CPJ is dismayed that the state continues its persecution of independent journalists, apparently unconcerned with international standards regarding the right to free expression and unchecked by the laws of Pakistan. Article 19 of Pakistan’s constitution expressly guarantees that “Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and there shall be freedom of the press.” And Article 9 of your country’s constitution states that “No person who is arrested shall be detained in custody without being informed, as soon as may be, of the grounds for such arrest,” and that “Every person who is arrested and detained in custody shall be produced before a magistrate within a period of twenty-four hours of such arrest.”

CPJ strongly urges Your Excellency to immediately release Najam Sethi and Hussain Haqqani, and publicly reveal the reasons for their detention. There is growing concern among journalists in Pakistan about the safety of the two men.

We thank you for your attention to these urgent matters, and await your response.

Sincerely Yours,

Ann K. Cooper
Executive Director

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His Excellency Muhammad Nawaz Sharif
Prime Minister
Prime Minister’s Secretariat
Islamabad, Pakistan