Journalist charged with sedition

New York, January 26, 2004—After authorities denied holding freelance journalist Khawar Mehdi Rizvi for weeks, on Saturday, January 24, Pakistan police formally charged him with sedition, conspiracy, and impersonation, senior police officials told Agence France-Presse (AFP). The maximum penalty for the charges is life imprisonment.

Two other individuals were also charged with Rizvi, Allah Noor and Abdullah Shakir. Police accuse them of fabricating video footage of Taliban activity in Pakistan and trying to “defame the country,” according to an AFP interview with Shoaib Suddle, the police chief of the southwestern Baluchistan province. The three are currently being held in police custody in the southwestern city of Quetta.

The charges stem from Rizvi’s work as a fixer for two French journalists, Marc Epstein and Jean-Paul Guilloteau from the newsweekly L’Express, in December 2003. Rizvi and the French journalists went to Quetta to research a story about Taliban activity along the Pakistan-Afghani border, from December 9 through December 14, even though Epstein and Guilloteau only had visas to travel to Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad.

When the three journalists returned to Karachi, officers from the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) arrested Epstein and Guilloteau, and charged them with visa violations under Pakistan’s Foreigners Act for traveling to Quetta without permission. Rizvi was also detained, but police officially denied holding him until January 24. The French journalists appealed a guilty verdict in their case and were allowed to return to France on January 12.

Rizvi will be allowed to appear in court within seven days of being charged, according to local journalists, when a regional district judge in Quetta will hear the police’s charges against him and the two other individuals and decide whether they will be formally indicted.

Authorities allege that Rizvi intentionally hired Noor and Shakir to impersonate members of the Taliban in video footage made by the French journalists. Footage of Noor and Shakir has been shown on state television PTV. As Rizvi has been held in secret detention by security agencies since December 16, his version of the events in unknown. Epstein and Guilloteau have said that the footage is accurate, and that Rizvi did not hire Noor and Shakir to impersonate members of the Taliban.

Rizvi is charged with violating the sedition law under Pakistan’s Penal Code, section 124-A, which is defined as using speech that “brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the Central or Provincial Government established by law.”

“We are outraged by the treatment of our colleague Khawar Mehdi Rizvi, and by the charges brought against him,” said Ann Cooper, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “We urge the government to give Rizvi the full access to legal representation that he is entitled to under the law.”