CPJ urges PM Brown to investigate Farrell rescue

November 5, 2009

The Rt. Hon. Gordon Brown
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
10 Downing St.
London, U.K.

Via facsimile +442079250918

Dear Prime Minister Brown:

The Committee to Protect Journalists wishes to offer our condolences on the loss of British Parachute Regiment Cpl. John Harrison, who died in a September 9 military operation to rescue two journalists kidnapped by Taliban forces in Afghanistan. We are grateful that New York Times reporter Stephen Farrell, a British-Irish national, was safely rescued, but we’re saddened by the loss of his colleague, fellow New York Times reporter Sultan Munadi.

As an organization of journalists dedicated to the defense of press freedom around the world, we are writing today to request that you authorize a comprehensive investigation into the rescue operation on September 9. Many questions remain, among them whether Munadi’s rescue was a central objective, what circumstances existed when he was killed, and why his remains were left behind after British forces withdrew. We urge you to authorize the Ministry of Defence to carry out an internal inquiry and to make its findings public. We believe that such an inquiry can be carried out without compromising the operational security of British and NATO forces operating in Afghanistan.

Farrell and Munadi were taken captive by Taliban forces south of Kunduz on September 5. They had gone to the area to report on the aftermath of a NATO airstrike on two fuel trucks stolen by the Taliban. News reports said as many as 90 people, including civilians and Taliban militants, were killed by the airstrike, fueling anger among local villagers.

After Farrell and Munadi were captured, representatives of The New York Times and an official from the British Foreign Office spoke several times by telephone, according to Times officials. Conversations were limited, but a Times representative did express concern that a military operation could lead to loss of life and should be undertaken only as a last resort. The Foreign Office conveyed to the representative of the Times that these concerns would be taken into account, but the decision would be made by the British government.

Senior officials in the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms made recommendations to the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence, as your spokesman noted in a press briefing on September 10. Your spokesman also noted that you were consulted, but the decision to proceed with the operation was made by Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth. The operation, according to a Defence Ministry statement the same day, was supported by Afghan authorities and NATO allies.

The operation was carried out on September 9. After fighting began, Taliban captors left Farrell and Munadi alone in a room, Farrell wrote in an account posted on the Times’ blog, “At War.” The men advanced from the building in which they had been held. “It was dark,” Farrell wrote on the blog. “We had no idea who was there, and there were bullets flying through the air. I could hear Taliban voices shouting and shooting from trees to our left, I thought. I could also hear indistinct voices ahead.”

The two men continued moving about 20 yards along a wall until reaching a corner, according to Farrell. Munadi twice shouted, “Journaliste, journaliste,” before he was shot and fell to the ground, Farrell wrote, adding that he dove into a ditch. British soldiers appeared within minutes, and Farrell identified himself as a “British hostage.” Farrell said a voice instructed him in English to approach with his hands in the air and lie down on the ground. Farrell said he did as he was instructed, and then identified himself and his newspaper and pointed to where Munadi was lying behind him, saying that he thought his colleague had been shot.

“I twisted around and pointed to where Sultan was lying 5-10 yards away—in clear sight even at night—slumped over the mud ridge of the ditch inside which I had taken shelter,” Farrell explained in greater detail in an e-mail to CPJ. He said troops told him they had a photograph of Munadi.

His e-mail to CPJ went on: “It was the soldier closest to me who told me they had his picture. But I never saw if they acted on the information I gave them, as they were already pushing my head down close to the ground because of the gunfire in or beyond the trees around us. I was very quickly rushed away from the scene, and did not see Sultan again.

“I didn’t know he was dead at that stage. I was in no position to know with any medical certainty what his condition was, as was obvious to anyone who was there. I had no chance to go over and examine him in the middle of a firefight. The British soldiers were the only ones in a position to find out his real condition, and they immediately told me that they had his photo. But I never saw if they had the photo, or acted on what I told them.”

Farrell said in his e-mail to CPJ that he continued to ask British soldiers about Munadi:

“I repeatedly asked them if he was alive, injured, and where he was. This went on between pauses as we ran, walked, and crawled from cover to cover, heading for the intended helicopter landing zone. The rescuers did not tell me anything about him, except once indirectly when I saw someone being carried on a stretcher, and asked if it was Sultan. They said no, it was their wounded colleague. I asked if there were any other stretchers, and I think they told me that there were not. I certainly did not see any other stretchers while we were waiting for the helicopters, or while we were running to them. That was not a good sign, but it was not definitive. I was in no position to see everything that was going on. It only gradually became clear over the following hours that he was not on one of the helicopters.” 

Hours after the rescue operation, on September 9, you noted in a statement that Farrell had been freed during the operation in which Munadi, as well as a member of the British Armed Forces, had both been killed. Your statement went on to explain the motivation for the operation: “Whenever British nationals are kidnapped, we and our allies will do everything in our power to free them.”

In the same statement you noted: “Sadly, we were unable to rescue Stephen’s Afghan interpreter, Sultan Munadi.” Similarly, on September 10, the Defence Ministry also stated: “Sadly, it was not possible to rescue Mr. Farrell’s Afghan interpreter, Sultan Munadi.”

The Media Club of Afghanistan, an association of Afghan journalists formed after Munadi’s death, stated on September 10 that negotiations toward freeing the two men were under way when the rescue operation occurred, and that the operation was launched “before exhausting other, nonviolent means.” The Media Club also criticized “international forces” for leaving behind Munadi’s body, calling the action “inhumane.”

Munadi’s body was left at the site of the operation. Villagers notified Munadi’s family and drove the body to the area of Pul-i-Khumri, where a family member recovered it, according to a local journalist. Family members who viewed the body described a small entry wound below the jaw and a large exit wound to the top of the head.

Two days after the operation, on September 11, Secretary Miliband told the BBC that it “was conducted by people determined to rescue both hostages.” But Secretary Miliband declined to answer the question posed by the BBC interviewer as to why British rescue forces did not recover Munadi or his remains.

“We looked at all the options,” Secretary Miliband said. “We came to the conclusion that the only way in which we could secure the successful release of both hostages was through the military action that was taken.” Secretary Miliband further stated that no inquiry into the operation was warranted. “I don’t think an inquiry is needed; all the right procedures were followed. Of course, we look at all the lessons that are to be learned and that is a process that goes on.”

CPJ’s two-month-long effort to document the events that led to the rescue and Munadi’s death, however, has revealed many unanswered questions. We feel compelled to note that British authorities have declined our requests for information. The unanswered questions include:

  • Was the recovery of both Farrell and Munadi an explicit objective of the military operation?
  • What were the circumstances of Munadi’s death? Is there any evidence Munadi was shot accidentally by British forces who did not recognize him as a hostage?
  • After Farrell pointed out Munadi to British forces, did anyone check for vital signs?
  • Why were Munadi’s remains left at the scene of the firefight?

Afghan journalists are understandably upset over the loss of a colleague and have conveyed to us their deep concern. Munadi’s many colleagues in the international media also would like answers to these questions.

We believe that a thorough and transparent investigation into the September 9 rescue operation will help strengthen the relationship between Western forces and Afghan civilians, whose trust is essential to military success. Making public the findings of a comprehensive inquiry would underscore to Afghan journalists—without whom international reporters could not operate independently on the ground— that they can report with the same degree of safety as their Western colleagues when encountering British and other foreign troops.

Thank you for your consideration. We await your response.


Joel Simon
Executive Director

Paul E. Steiger

Editor’s note: The original text of this letter was modified in paragraph five to correct that comments were made by a spokesman for Prime Minister Brown, not Brown himself.