Imprisoned journalist’s hearing to be held tomorrow

New York, March 18, 2004—Imprisoned freelance journalist Khawar Mehdi Rizvi is scheduled to appear at a court hearing tomorrow in the southwestern city of Quetta, Pakistan. According to local journalists, the court will consider whether Rizvi’s upcoming trial on sedition charges will be held in anti-terrorism court or regular court.

The charges against Rizvi stem from his 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, 2003, even though Epstein and Guilloteau only had visas to travel to Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad. When the three journalists returned to Karachi on December 16, 2003, officers from the Federal Investigation Agency 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 and government authorities officially denied holding him despite protests from his family and international human rights groups.

The French journalists pleaded guilty to the visa violations on January 10 and received six-month sentences that were waived on appeal two days later. They were allowed to return to France on January 12, but Rizvi remained behind bars. On January 24, police filed criminal complaints against Rizvi, charging him with sedition, conspiracy, and impersonation, which carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Two other individuals were also charged with Rizvi, Allah Noor and Abdullah Shakir. Police accused the three men of fabricating video footage of Taliban activity in Pakistan. Rizvi has said that he is innocent.

On February 12, formal sedition charges against Rizvi, Noor, and Shakir were submitted to an anti-terrorism court. Anti-terrorism courts were designed to try cases that are a threat to law and order, and to accelerate the judicial process. On February 24, Rizvi’s lawyer filed to have the charges against him dismissed, and after a March 11 hearing, Rizvi told reporters that he was tortured while in police custody, and that he has not been allowed visitors.

Because he is being tried in an anti-terrorism court, Rizvi is not eligible for bail. According to local journalists, police evidence, including confessions made by defendants while in police custody, are admissible in these courts. Local journalists also say that the case against Rizvi is political, and that holding the trial in an anti-terrorism court is meant to send a warning to the journalism community in Pakistan.

“We are deeply concerned about the welfare of our colleague Khawar Mehdi Rizvi and outraged that he faces the possibility of trial before anti-terrorism court,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper.