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Inquiry into the Murder of Journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad May Implicate Pakistan Intelligence Agency

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A rare inquiry to investigate the murder of Asia Times reporter Syed Saleem Shahzad has begun in Pakistan. Shahzad was kidnapped in May near his residence in Islamabad and found dead two days later. His body showed signs of torture. He had complained of being threatened by Pakistani intelligence and had just published an exposé of a militant attack on a Karachi navy base, alleging links between Pakistani navy officials and al-Qaeda. Shahzad is also the author of “Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond bin Laden and 9/11.” His murder immediately fueled speculation about involvement by state security forces and raised questions about press freedom in Pakistan. Immediately after Shahzad’s murder, Human Rights Watch said the Pakistani government should establish an independent investigation into his killing and look into other allegations of serious human rights abuse by the Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. We speak with Ali Dayan Hasan, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, about Shahzad’s work and how the allegations linking the ISI to his murder are the most direct connections yet linking the agency to threats to Pakistani journalists. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We end today in Pakistan, where an inquiry to investigate the murder of Pakistani journalist Saleem Shahzad started. Asia Times reporter Shahzad was kidnapped near his residence in Islamabad last month and found dead two days after he went missing. His body showed signs of torture. He had complained of being threatened by Pakistani intelligence and had just published an exposé of a militant attack on a Karachi navy base, alleging links between Pakistani navy officials and al-Qaeda. His murder immediately fueled speculation about involvement by state security forces.

This is Pakistani journalist Mohammed Hanif.

MOHAMMED HANIF: All the circumstantial evidence points towards our own intelligence agencies, that they are somehow complicit in it. And even if they are not, it’s their responsibility to trace Saleem Shahzad’s killers.

AMY GOODMAN: Shahzad’s brutal murder also raised questions about press freedom in Pakistan, and the journalists’ union called for protests immediately after his funeral. This is Amin Yousuf, secretary general of Pakistan’s Federal Union of Journalists.

AMIN YOUSUF: [translated] The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists has announced two days of mourning. From tomorrow, black flags will be placed on all press clubs and the union office. We have given a call for countrywide protests on June 3rd. We have demanded the government to constitute a commission headed by a Supreme Court judge to investigate this incident and bring the facts to the public.

AMY GOODMAN: Offials say the hearings investigating Shahzad’s murder will not be open to the public or the media. Pakistan’s largest English-language daily newspaper, Dawn, recently reported leaders of Pakistan’s Supreme Court Bar Association and Human Rights Commission will observe the proceedings. In a recent ruling, Pakistan’s Chief Justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, also advised the government to make the findings of the inquiry public.

Immediately after Shahzad’s murder, Human Rights Watch said the Pakistani government should establish an independent investigation into his killing and, quote, “look into other allegations of serious human rights abuse by the Pakistani military’s Inter Services Intelligence agency,” known as ISI.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Pakistan is one of the most dangerous countries for reporters. Earlier this month, 32-year-old journalist Waqar Kiani was badly beaten just days after he published an account of his 2008 abduction and torture by suspected Pakistani intelligence agents. Kiani works for The Guardian newspaper.

We’re joined right now by Ali Dayan Hasan, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division. Previously, he was the senior editor of Pakistan’s premier independent news magazine, Herald. He joined me in studio just after show yesterday, and I asked him to talk about the murder of Pakistani journalist Saleem Shahzad.

ALI DAYAN HASAN: Saleem Shahzad was a journalist who specialized in issues relating to terrorism and counterterrorism. His work was not regarded as mainstream but was very highly regarded. He was also a person who had contacts and sources both within the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies and also amongst al-Qaeda and the Taliban. There was always great interest in his sources. Certainly this interest was not limited to Pakistani intelligence agencies, but also other actors who were engaged and involved in counterterrorism activities. However, Saleem Shahzad remained one of those highly regarded journalists whose work, though not mainstream, was considered significant. And he was a person of continuing interest to Pakistani intelligence agencies. They would summon him periodically. They would want to know about is sources. And to the best of my knowledge, he never revealed his sources.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us exactly what happened to him? What do you understand happened?

ALI DAYAN HASAN: Saleem Shahzad was first formally threatened by the Inter-Services Intelligence agency on the 17th of October, 2010. He was summoned by what is referred to as the media wing of the ISI, and this was run by two naval officials, one of whom is now the commander of the naval base in Karachi that was subsequently attacked. When he was summoned, the conversation was fairly cordial, but it ended with the naval commander saying to him, “We have received—we have arrested a terrorist, and we have recovered information from him, including a hit list. And we’ll let you know if your name is on it.” Now, this may sound like good advice or friendly advice, but for those of us who have monitored media freedoms in Pakistan, and certainly the ISI’s methodology in how it administered threats, it was quite clear that this was in fact a threat.

When Saleem Shahzad returned from that meeting, he spoke with me. I suggested that he minute this meeting and he send those minutes to me, to his former employer, who is the head of the Dawn Group of Newspapers, and also to, in fact, the people who interviewed him in the ISI, telling them that he had placed this information with other people. And we hoped that it would act as a deterrent.

Subsequent to that, I spoke to him on at least two or three occasions, and he told me that he continued to receive threats from the ISI. He had left instructions with his family—with his wife, in particular—that should anything happen to him, he should get—that they should—the family should get in touch with me. And when he disappeared on the night of Sunday the 29th of May, his wife called me the following morning. Through the day, both she and I and various other people in the journalist community in Pakistan were told through unofficial sources that in fact he was in ISI custody and that he would be released by the evening, that his telephone would be switched on, his cell phone, an hour before release, that people could speak to him. And this is all part of the standard operating procedure, so we had credible reason to believe that he was in fact being held by the ISI.

Of course, he was also abducted from the center of Islamabad, from what is referred to as the “Red Zone.” It’s a high-security zone in Islamabad. And when we did an analysis of—he was leaving his home to go to a TV studio to record an interview. And there are nine security check posts in that—you know, on that route, which is perhaps a few kilometers. And really, it is not possible for anyone other than Pakistani intelligence agencies to effect the disappearance of an individual with his car at 5:00 p.m. from that Red Zone.

When Shahzad did not show up by that evening, I began releasing information about the fact that he had been abducted to the world through Twitter and also spoke to friends in the media, both in the Pakistani media and the international media, and our aim was to effect his release as rapidly as possible. When he had not shown up by 1:00 a.m., as I had been instructed by Shahzad, I began releasing the contents of his meetings with the ISI and what had happened. By the morning, it was clear, because we—I, on behalf of Human Rights Watch, got on record to say that we knew that he was a subject of continuous threats and ongoing threats by the ISI, and therefore the ISI was certainly a prime suspect in his disappearance. That afternoon, Tuesday afternoon, his body was discovered. He had been tortured to death, and it was discovered, dumped a hundred miles away from Islamabad.

AMY GOODMAN: These allegations, the connection between the ISI and his death, they are the most direct connections that we have seen yet in Pakistan. Talk about the significance of this and what the ISI is saying. And for people who are outside of Pakistan, don’t understand the significance of the ISI, would you say it’s equivalent to the U.S. CIA?

ALI DAYAN HASAN: I would say that the ISI is certainly the equivalent of the CIA. The difference, of course, is that the ISI is and remains the principal human rights abuser in Pakistan. Certainly Human Rights Watch, international human rights organizations and Pakistani human rights organizations have documented extensive cases of illegal detention, arbitrary detention, mistreatment, torture and other serious human rights abuses that have been perpetrated by the ISI and by the Pakistani military, in general. So, these abuses are well documented, and this is an organization that has a well-established reputation as a human rights abuser. So that is the context.

It has also had historically a very, very coercive relationship with the Pakistani media, where the militaries—Pakistan is essentially what you would call a Praetorian state. It’s a military-dominated state, which has periods of quasi-democratic rule, has had several abortive transitions to democracy, and another one is underway now. The way the military has managed Pakistan is that it seeks to control the parameters of discourse, if you will. So what it is fine with is the media being critical of politicians. However, it is not fine of the media critiquing the military or the intelligence agencies themselves at all. And those are the areas where essentially the strong arm of these intelligence agencies is found in evidence.

Now, there is a long, well-documented history of journalists being summoned by the ISI, being told that they may not report on X subject or Y subject, depending on what the taboo areas of the day are. And certainly, prior to working for Human Rights Watch, which now I’ve been doing for almost a decade, I was a journalist in Pakistan, and I have seen my boss, the editor of the magazine I worked for, be summoned by the ISI. So there is a level of firsthand knowledge about this, and this is something that really any journalist of northern Pakistan has gone through at some point or the other. What was particularly egregious about this incident was that this was not a journalist, this was not a local journalist, this was not someone picked up in one of the outlying areas of Pakistan. This was a journalist picked up from the center of Islamabad, the capital. And he was killed.

Now, when this happened, this has acted as a—almost as a game changer in Pakistan. We hope that it is sustainable, this game change. But essentially, what has happened is a series of journalists have come out in public and have gone public with similar experiences that they have had with the ISI. There have always been journalists who have gone public. Last year, Umar Cheema, who’s a reporter for a newspaper called The News, was picked up by the ISI. He was tortured very, very badly. His eyebrows were shaved. His head was shaved. He had welts and bruises from whipping all over his body. He was subjected to sexual assault. And he went public with all of this information. So there are very brave journalists in Pakistan who do speak out. But the fact is that this is the first time that the ISI has directly been held responsible.

Of course, now, because I was in the unenviable situation of having done so, immediately I was told that, “Oh, you’re part of a Western conspiracy,” that this is a conspiracy to malign the ISI, which, frankly, I found absolutely preposterous, because, as I did go to great lengths to tell everyone who was willing to listen in Pakistan, it was not my idea that Saleem Shahzad be killed. It was not Human Rights Watch advocating any such brutality. And it was the ISI that, in all probability, had picked him up.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you, yourself, Ali, are you not in danger? And what has the ISI responded to you?

ALI DAYAN HASAN: Well, what they did was that they responded to the allegations that we made in the media. And essentially, once the body was discovered, our position was that this is now a criminal matter, and there has to be an investigation. And while we cannot say that the ISI killed him, what we would like is a credible, transparent investigation in order to—and that the ISI remains the principal suspect in this murder.

Now, the ISI responded by issuing what has been regarded widely as the longest statement ever issued in the agency’s history. And it had the disconcerting element of mentioning me by name, suggesting that the media was acting on disinformation provided by me. Now, Human Rights Watch is—one shouldn’t blow one’s own trumpet, but is an organization of some credibility, we’d like to believe, and we don’t make these allegations lightly. And we are—however we are ethically, it is incumbent upon us, if we are placed in the position that Saleem Shahzad placed us in by leaving this information with us and by trusting us to bring it into the public domain if something happens to him, to do so. Once the ISI issued the statement—


ALI DAYAN HASAN: Saying that—essentially that the allegations against the ISI were baseless and false, that I—that the media was using information provided by me to spread these baseless allegations. This met actually with a very strong reaction from the Pakistani media itself. And Hameed Haroon, who is the publisher of Dawn, Pakistan’s oldest English-language newspaper, and was Saleem Shahzad’s former employer and is the president of the All Pakistan Newspapers Society, also issued a statement saying he had exactly the same information with him, and he had no reason to believe that anything that I was saying or that Human Rights Watch was saying was incorrect.

Now, what this led to then was tremendous pressure on the government, because really journalists, it appeared, had, through a combination of Human Rights Watch coming forward and the newspaper publisher coming forward, decided to break the silence on this issue. And they demanded. They protested. They demanded an independent inquiry. They demanded that it be conducted by a Supreme Court judge. And it appears that that is going to happen.

That said, I would point out that though we have extensive evidence of multiple abuses, serious human rights violations, including disappearances and killings, where there is credible evidence of ISI involvement, to date, no Pakistani intelligence personnel, or military personnel, for that matter, have been held to account for human rights abuses. Let us see if it happens now. The signs are not encouraging. We certainly hope that it does.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what Saleem Shahzad was actually investigating? What was the meat of his work that was so threatening to the ISI?

ALI DAYAN HASAN: Saleem Shahzad investigated—essentially wrote about—because he wrote about al-Qaeda and the Taliban and that whole terrain of counterterrorism and terrorism in Pakistan, what he basically concentrated a lot on were links between Pakistani intelligence and military, on the one hand, and elements of al-Qaeda and Taliban, on the other, and infiltration both ways, but particularly in Pakistani intelligence structures and military structures, including the navy, air force and the military itself, the army itself. And this is, of course, something that, on the one hand, it’s almost a no-brainer, if you know Pakistan, that there is this kind of infiltration, that there is certainly great ideological sympathy that members of the Pakistani armed forces—some of them—feel. But on the other hand, the Pakistani military feels that its institutional reputation and coherence are threatened by such allegations being brought into the public domain.

And they had a particularly bad month in May with the discovery and killing of Osama bin Laden, and then followed by this attack on the naval base. And essentially, in Pakistan, a climate was created where, whether you were a Pakistani nationalist who was protesting the raid that the U.S. conducted to capture and kill bin Laden, or whether you were someone questioning what bin Laden was doing in Pakistan for five years, there appeared to be a consensus that, certainly, it was evidence of incompetence by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies. If they didn’t know he was there for five years, they were incompetent. If they knew that he was there for five years, they were complicit. If they didn’t know that he was there and then they didn’t know that the CIA had set up a station and was actually spying on this man whom they suspected to be bin Laden for a year, they were doubly incompetent. There was no good press for them in this particular situation.

AMY GOODMAN: Ali Dayan Hasan is senior researcher for Human Rights Watch based in Pakistan. We’ll put the complete interview with him on our website,

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