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Under the shadow of terror — II

“Hang me or free me,” a former Jail Superintendent, Hyderabad, quoted Omar Saeed Sheikh alias ...

Under the shadow of terror — II

“Hang me or free me,” a former Jail Superintendent, Hyderabad, quoted Omar Saeed Sheikh alias Sheikh Omar as saying. Sheikh’s appeal against his death sentence was pending for 17 years in one of the most high-profile cases of a US reporter, Danial Pearl, who was abducted and brutally killed in Karachi in 2002.

On the condition of anonymity, the jail chief, who later served in Karachi, said Sheikh had been confined to a death cell but that the case was going nowhere frustrated him most.

“Yes, I have met him a number of times during my posting in Hyderabad prison. He used to stay strange things at times, often inquired about his appeal and fate. Looked like a frustrated man.”

Only recently I talked to his lawyer, Khawaja Naveed, who disclosed that since the death of former public prosecutor of this case a few years ago no prosecutor has been appointed. Most of the hearings have been put off without any progress during the last 17 years.

It may be a coincident but the man who is holding the portfolio of Interior Minister, Brig. (retd) Ejaz Shah is the one said to be behind convincing Sheikh to surrender because of his alleged relation with him.

In 2002, due to immense pressure from the US government, the suspects were arrested. Some were charged while others were not even mentioned despite reports of their involvement, such as Al-Qaeda No 3 Khalid Sheikh Mohammad or Fazal Karim. The case in the Anti Terrorism Court was completed within three months in July 2002 but since then an appeal is pending.

In Pakistan, killing of one journalist is a message to another. Many have lost their lives and many receive death threats even today.

“I could have ignored the call from the editor but not from the militant leader,” says one from the former tribal area.

There is a long list of journalists who have been killed but their cases have also been closed. In some cases, the family comes under attack or under immense pressure. The widow of Hayatullah, who was abducted and killed in 2005, went to record her statement in the Inquiry Commission in Peshawar and identified those who had kidnapped his husband. She was assured of justice but, months later, she too was killed.

KTN cameraman, Munir Sangi’s murder case is an example in which a feudal lord was involved. His widow was left with no other choice but to leave her home town Larkhana. Sangi was killed in 2006 while covering an encounter of Unar and Abros tribes.

After years of proceedings she got so frustrated that, three years ago, she came to Karachi with all the case files and attempted to burn them outside the Supreme Court building but a few people, including me, stopped her.

I cannot name all the 120 journalists and media workers most of whom were killed in the line of duty, including Saifur Rehman (Samaa TV), Rehmatullah Abid (Dunya tv), Wali Khan Babar (Geo TV), Abdul Haq Baloch (ARY) Abdul Razzak Gul (Express tv), Mushtaq Kund (Dharti tv). Many journalists were killed from the print media too, like Naseerullah Afridi from The News and Murtaza Rizvi from Dawn.

There have been many incidents of killing of journalists before 9/11 but the worst perhaps was in 1989 when three journalists in Sindh had been killed in one day. Till this day, no one has been arrested. The three FIRs of State vs the Unknown were closed after some time.

Daily Jang’s senior staffer, Manzar Imkani’s murder case has also been closed. He was killed by unknown persons as he came out from his house in the mid 1990s.

The family of Chisti Mujhaid who was killed for writing a column in Weekly Akhbar-e-Jehan is still looking for justice.

Since the State has failed to provide security and justice media houses have not given them any safety training, many journalists working in remote areas or former tribal areas of FATA and some in Balochistan have left the profession.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) there are 200 such cases in 13 countries in 2018-19.

As a journalist and a union activist, I have followed many cases of journalist’s killings since the day three journalists in Sindh were killed in one day in 1989. To this day, no one knows who killed them and why. The three FIRs registered against the ‘unknown’ were closed as ‘blind cases,’ and apparently the assailants had the last laugh.

A one-day strike was observed jointly by all media stakeholders and no newspaper was published but all the protests went in vain.

Post 9/11 and with the rise of the electronic media, journalists have become even more vulnerable. As a result, the risk has also increased. Some 120 journalists have been killed since 2002.

In my journalistic career and as former Secretary General of Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) I was expecting that I would be able to get the Inquiry Commission’s report regarding the murder of Hayatullah Khan in the governments of PPP and PML-N from 2008 to 2013. But both the former Interior Minister, Rehman Malik in the PPP government and Ch. Nisar Ali Khan in the PML-N government looked helpless.

During the last few years, efforts have been made for conducting speedy trial of the accused in the killing of journalists, such as the proposal to have Public Prosecutors. But little has been done in this regard. Wali Khan Babar’s suspects had been arrested, tried and sentenced to death. But it was not easy as some five people connected to this case were also killed. The case was transferred outside Karachi. Their appeal is pending. The trauma for Babar’s family is not over yet. His brother has suffered a lot.

Therefore, it was never easy for murdered journalists’ families who lived in FATA, Swat, and Balochistan to pursue the cases. Many of them remained under constant threat for years and could not even register an FIR.

In view of these threats and incidents, I once wrote a letter to some US newspapers after 9/11 saying extra safety and security should be provided not only for journalists who come to Pakistan but for local journalists who work as stingers. It was at a time when tribal journalist, Nasarullah Afridi was murdered and a threat was issued to Voice of America’s Pashto service stinger, Mohammad Khan Atif.

Violent attacks on journalists are common around the world as is clearly reflected by the latest CPJ findings. I have been part of some of the fact-finding missions. The most memorable one was during the conflict in Sri Lanka.

The case which I can never forget is that of the editor of The Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wikermatunge in 2008. He had predicted his murder three days before he was killed while writing an editorial about the then President of Sri Lanka. The editorial was published after he was killed soon after he left the office.

About a year ago I inquired from a Sri Lankan journalist about progress in the case and he replied, “not much and the man he suspected never got arrested.”

I end my piece with these lines by Lasantha while addressing Mahinda, whom he used to address with his first name.

“In the wake of my death I know you will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call upon the police to hold swift and thorough inquiry. But, like all other inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one, too. For truth be told, we both know who will be behind my death but dare not call his name. Not just my life, but yours too, depends on it.”

Many journalists here also had the same feelings about their assailants. They knew that inquiry commissions are made only to defuse the situation and not to punish the culprits whether it’s the case of Hayatullah or Saleem Shahzad.


Mazhar Abbas

mazhar abbas
The author is a senior journalist and former secretary general of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists.

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