Justice for Saleem Shahzad? We’ve seen this before…

An important distinction is emerging in the murder of Saleem Shahzad, at left, as details of a second post-mortem were released Thursday. Shahzad was not tortured as has been widely reported. He was more likely beaten to death fairly quickly, apparently with iron rods, according to media reports. Here’s the highly respected Amir Mir, writing in Asia Times Online, the site that published Shahzad’s article that appears to have led to his death:

Shahzad’s post-mortem report, prepared by a team of three doctors, found the journalist died soon after he was kidnapped. Dr. Farrukh Kamal, who headed the autopsy team, said, “There were at least 17 wounds, including deep gashes… . The ribs from the left and right sides seemed to be hit with violent force, using a blunt object. The broken ribs pierced Shahzad’s lungs, apparently causing the death.”

 According to the reports, Shahzad’s post-mortem report said “liver failure and ruptured lungs could have caused his death.” Could such violent use of force imply that there wasn’t an attempt to extract information from him about the sources in the story the military found so embarrassing?

Shahzad was grabbed on the evening of May 29. Two days earlier his article “Al-Qaeda had warned of Pakistani strike” appeared online. Shahzad wrote that Al-Qaeda negotiators had met with officers of Pakistan’s navy. They wanted them to release naval officers who had been jailed, accused of links to Al-Qaeda. When the talks fell apart, the group launched a May 22 attack on the Mehran naval base in Karachi that lasted for 17 hours. The attack further embarrassed the country’s military structure, which had already been shamed by the U.S. attacks on May 2 that killed Osama bin laden in Abbottabad, deep inside Pakistan.

Shahzad’s brutal killing was likely meant to send a message to journalists in Pakistan to end their criticism of its powerful military and security establishment.

The anger surrounding the abduction and murder of Saleem Shahzad is still raging. But, rage or not, the response of the government–pledges to investigate and expressions of sympathy to the family, an opposition call for a special commission to investigate the killing–are typical of the pattern we have seen in the past. Maybe the only new, and absurd, wrinkle in the government’s response this time around was the suggestion by Interior Minster Rehman Malik that reporters carry weapons to protect themselves.

Pakistani journalists are easy prey for many of the violent actors in their country–militant and extremist groups, criminals and thugs, and, despite official denials, the military and security establishment. The country has a record of perfect impunity in the murders of journalists since some of the killers of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl were brought to justice after his 2002 beheading, the only such trial CPJ is aware of in Pakistan since we started keeping records in 1992. In all those cases, CPJ has held to the course of not making accusations, only calling on the government for investigations and trials to bring the killers to justice. 

CPJ might not make the accusations, but ask virtually any journalist in Pakistan about two other notorious cases of the 37 journalists killed in Pakistan we have on our records since 1992, and they will tell you with very little doubt that government officials–the police, the military, or the Inter Services Intelligence Directorate–were behind the attack. And in both cases, after a public outcry, there was an investigation of one sort or another, but no further action taken. It seems entirely reasonable to expect the same in Shahzad’s case.

In December 2005, freelancer Hayatullah Khan, who for years had been under threat from government officials and militant groups in North Wazirstan, had been considering getting out of journalism. He and his wife had built a small guest house, and were in the process of building a school in the town for boys and girls. But Khan was alerted to a story that was too good to pass up. He came up with photographic evidence–remnants of a Hellfire missile–that had hit a house inside Pakistan. The ostensible target was senior Al-Qaeda figure Hamza Rabia. The pictures–widely distributed by the European Pressphoto Agency on the same day they were shot–contradicted the Pakistani government’s explanation that Rabia had died in a blast caused by explosives located within the house. At the time, the Musharraf government was in denial that the United States was violating Pakistani territory and conducting military operations inside its borders. Khan had supplied some of the first proof that revealed what later came to be common knowledge and is now an everyday event.

On December 5, 2005, the day after Khan had transmitted his pictures which got global coverage, five gunmen in a white Toyota pickup truck ran Khan’s car off the road. His younger brother Haseenullah had been driving, but was unable to save his brother. At 4:40 p.m. on June 16 after frantic efforts to locate Hayatullah and a local and international campaign to get the government to answer the family’s pleas for information, a Pakistani intelligence officer identifying himself as Major Kamal who had been dealing with the family said Khan’s body could be found in Miran Shah’s marketplace. Khan wore the same clothes he had on when he was abducted, now tattered and filthy. His body, with multiple gunshot wounds, had been ritually shaved in the Islamic manner used to prepare a corpse for burial. On his left hand dangled the distinctive sort of handcuff used by the military.

The very loud public campaign inside and outside of Pakistan to get Khan released during the six months of his disappearance had not worked, but the protests only grew louder after his death. President Pervez Musharraf ordered an investigation to be carried out by Superior Court Justice Mohammed Reza Khan, who did just that. Judge Khan delivered his report in September, but the results have simply never been made public. In July 2006, Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao and Secretary of the Interior Syed Kamal Shah pledged in a meeting with CPJ to make the report public. The call for the release of the report continued to be made over the years. On May 3 this year, World Press Freedom Day, in a meeting with President Asif Ali Zardari and Interior Minister Rehman Malik CPJ made the request again. One month later, the report still has not been released.

Umar Cheema was abducted on September 4, 2010, and held overnight by, as he put it, “men in police commando uniforms.” During the hours he was held before he was bound and dumped on a roadside, he was beaten, humiliated, and sexually abused. By his account, his captors asked him why he continued with his critical reporting–was he trying to discredit the government and bring back former President Musharraf?

At the time, the English-language daily Dawn‘s widely reprinted editorial said it best, and made an accusation: “No half-hearted police measures or words of consolation from the highest offices in the land will suffice in the aftermath of the brutal treatment meted out to journalist Umar Cheema of The News. This paper’s stand is clear: the government and its intelligence agencies will be considered guilty until they can prove their innocence.”

Cheema was a prominent political reporter for the English-language daily The News. Unlike Hayatullah Khan, his beat was the government offices of the capital city Islamabad, his sources were political insiders, not Taliban leaders–a world, it turns out, almost as treacherous as Hayatullah Khan’s.

There was outrage and anger at the abduction, and the government promised a full investigation, the results of which were never made public. Soon after the attack, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani called Cheema to assure him the attack would be thoroughly investigated. “The prime minister assured him that the matter would be thoroughly investigated to bring the culprits to book,” the official Associated Press of Pakistan reported. “He further apprised him that he had already issued orders for judicial inquiry.” Two government panels–a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) and a judicial commission–investigated his abduction. The JIT met less frequently as the case wore on, and never reached any conclusion. The commission made some recommendations to Parliament, but they were never made public.

In effect, nothing was done and the case is all but closed. Umar continues to work at The News. He’s working to set up an investigative reporting group and regularly speaks out for journalists’ rights.