Gilani, right, with U.S. special representative Richard Holbrooke and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in July. (Reuters)
Gilani, right, with U.S. special representative Richard Holbrooke and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in July. (Reuters)

Lugar: Umar Cheema case a ‘bellwether’ for Pakistan

Sen. Richard Lugar, ranking member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, wrote to Pakistani Prime Minster Yousuf Raza Gilani on September 22 to express concern about the brutal attack on Umar Cheema. The journalist was abducted on the weekend of September 4-5 by men in black commando-style uniforms, who beat and humiliated him. It’s a case I’ve written about repeatedly (you can find links here, here, here, here, here, and here). But the prime minister has not yet responded to Lugar’s letter, which was delivered through the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad.

In its opening paragraph, Lugar’s letter to Gilani mentions the September 2009 Kerry-Lugar-Berman Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act, which “seeks to enhance not only Pakistan’s economy, but its democracy.” It goes on to call Cheema’s case a “bellwether” because such attacks undercut the “bedrock of democracy.”  

The act released $831 million of more than $1 billion in development assistance funds for Pakistan for a year. “This act reflects the long-term commitment of the United States to a strategic relationship with Pakistan that is broad-based, advances the mutual goals of our democratically elected governments, and provides concrete benefits to the citizens of Pakistan,” Ambassador Anne W. Patterson said shortly before it was signed into law.

How is this bellwether case proceeding? Is Pakistan’s bedrock of democracy being strengthened? Has Umar Cheema received a concrete benefit? The government had launched two investigations into the attack on Cheema–a Joint Investigation Team (JIT), and a Judicial Commission. I messaged Cheema about Lugar’s letter, and asked for an update on his case. Here’s his response:

It would be a great surprise if the criminal investigation makes any headway. It will not happen for a number of reasons. First, the police-headed Joint Investigation Team lacks the will to identify the culprits. As I told you earlier, forming the JIT was aimed at appeasing criticism in media and for the public’s consumption, so that, whenever issue is raised, the government can say that ‘an investigation is in progress.’ I doubt they will complete the probe in even a year. I had had a telephone conversation the other day with a JIT member and he said there has been no more than what I was told two months before. It’s been over a month now when I attended the JIT session and I have yet to receive the meeting’s minutes. The truth is they don’t have such a record, and this shows the level of seriousness from the top on down. If you remember, Interior Minister Rehman Malik had pledged on September 7 to complete the investigation within eight working days. Today is November 7.

As for the Judicial Commission, it may soon submit its report to the government. But the report won’t be a big help in getting to the culprits, though. It will focus on suggesting ways and means of how to avert such happenings in the future. 

Umar Cheema is one of many cases of injustice, violence, and death that are part of daily reality in Pakistan. Most pass forgotten within a few days, unprosecuted and uninvestigated. Pakistan ranks 10th on CPJ’s Global Impunity Index, which spotlights countries where journalists are slain and killers go free. Despite continuing concerns about his own safety, Cheema is continuing to press his case, openly speaking of the abuse he was dealt at the hands of people he and most of his colleagues feel have some degree of official backing.

He deserves more support. There should be more pressure on Gilani for justice in Umar Cheema’s case.