Naming names in a Pakistan abduction case

CPJ has always been careful to avoid making accusations when journalists are abducted or killed in Pakistan. Our tactic is to call for full investigations either by the police, the courts or special investigative bodies. In many such cases, the local journalists’ community blames government security agencies, including the powerful Inter Services Intelligence group (ISI), as we noted a few days ago in an alert. Umar Cheema, who was abducted and humiliated over the weekend of September 4 and 5 near Islamabad, has specifically accused the ISI of being involved in his case and has stuck with those accusations.

Cheema has pushed so hard, with such widespread support from his colleagues, that the government launched two investigations into his abduction. He has little faith in the Joint Investigation Team that is looking into the case. But the other investigative body, a special Judicial Commission meeting in Islamabad, might bear some fruit. Rana Sanaullah, the law minister of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province, accused the ISI for the attack on Umar Cheema in a statement under oath to the Commission. On Wednesday, Sanaullah said he was sure of his accusations because he was tortured twice under the military-backed Musharraf government. His statement was reported by Cheema’s newspaper, The News, which has been allowed to have a representative sit in on the proceedings.

Sanaullah told the Commission that he holds Major Raja Khalid Pervaiz, an ex-station chief of ISI in Faisalabad, and Brigadier Aslam Ghuman, a former ISI chief in Punjab responsible for ordering the attack on Cheema. For a government official at the provincial level to make such an accusation is remarkable. Though Sanaullah has not repeated his charges outside the Commission’s hearings, he has not denied the accuracy of The News’ reporting.

According to The News, on March 8 and March 9, 2003 Sanaullah said he was abducted and “tortured till the time he lost his senses, many deep wounds were inflicted on his body and petrol was sprayed on his wounds, his hair was shaved and he was also thrown 20 kilometers away from Faisalabad on a Motorway bypass road.” This is almost identical to the experience that Cheema recounts. It’s possible that Sanaullah is coming forward now because he was emboldened by Cheema’s public response to his own attack.

Cheema says that as many as six journalists who have been victimized in similar ways have also made statements to the Commission in support of his case. The Commission, he adds, has been recording such statements in an effort to uncover the perpetrators and prevent similar attacks in the future. But none of the other victims has the public stature of Sanaullah, nor the ability to name actual suspects.

It’s rare that government investigations into cases like Cheema’s get this far. Hayatullah Khan was machine-gunned in his home village in June 2006, after being grabbed in December 2005. Pakistani journalists repeatedly told me it was the work of the ISI, an accusation CPJ has never made. There were several investigations into Khan’s death. The most thorough was that of High Court Justice Mohammed Reza Khan, but his findings have never been released to the public.

Notably, one journalist’s death has gone investigated — that of Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl, abducted in January 2002 and beheaded a few weeks later. In the case of that American’s death, there was a sweeping investigation, a murder trial and actual convictions. Pakistan CAN carry out investigations into the killing and abduction of journalists if it wants.

But in Cheema’s case, I haven’t spoken or messaged with any Pakistani journalists who expect that to happen. The best possible outcome, many think, is that it will give the perpetrators of the crimes against him reason to think twice before doing it again.