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    South Asia
     Jun 4, 2011

Who killed Syed Saleem Shahzad?
By Amir Mir

LAHORE - In the shadowy world of Pakistan, journalists can be reasonably sure of living until the next morning when their byline appears. From there on, you don't know who might take affront to your report, abduct, torture or even kill you. This is the essence of the tragic story of Syed Saleem Shahzad, 40-year-old Pakistan bureau chief of Asia Times Online, whose mutilated body was found in a canal 150 km away from Islamabad on May 31.

Shahzad went missing on the evening of May 29, just two days after the article "Al-Qaeda had warned of Pakistani strike" was published. The article stated that al-Qaeda was engaged in negotiations with the Pakistan Navy for the release of naval personnel incarcerated for alleged links to the terror outfit. The report said the navy had agreed to free them only on the completion of their interrogation, a term al-Qaeda rejected. The

audacious attack on the Mehran naval base in Karachi on May 22, Shahzad's story claimed, was an outcome of the breakdown in the navy-al-Qaeda negotiations, thereby testifying to the militant-military nexus.

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."

The pertinent question to ask is: who tortured Shahzad, not who killed him? One school of thought accuses the Pakistan's dreaded intelligence establishment, the Inter-Services Intelligence, saying Shahzad had been tortured in order to extract the source of his article. The ISI issued a statement denying the allegation. A second school of thought believes militants could have bumped off Shahzad to embarrass the ISI. Then there are those who say Shahzad was the victim of personal enmity.

The first to fire a salvo against the ISI was Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch (HRW). On May 30, he said, "We were informed through reliable interlocutors that he was detained by the ISI." But what really had the tongues wagging against the ISI was Hasan's other disclosure - on October 17, 2010 Shahzad had been summoned to the Islamabad headquarters of the ISI by the Information Management Wing of the agency, which wanted to discuss Shahzad's recent report in which he claimed that Pakistan had quietly released the fugitive ameer of Afghan Taliban Mullah Omar's deputy, Mullah Baradar, for taking part in Afghan negotiations through the Pakistani military establishment.

Present at the ISI headquarters were just two navy officers, who politely requested Shahzad name the source of his story or at least write a denial. When he refused, one of the officials informed Shahzad about a hit-list obtained from a detained terrorist and added, "If I find your name on the list, I will certainly let you know." Interpreting this as a threat, Shahzad thought it prudent to tell the HRW representative about the meeting in an e-mail, dated October 18, 2010. Fueling speculation is another nugget of information - one official during the 2010 meeting was Commodore Khalid Pervaiz, who has recently been appointed the new commander of the Mehran naval base, a few days after the May 22 attack.

The ISI has issued a rare statement about that meeting following Shahzad's murder, "The reported e-mail of Mr Saleem Shahzad to Mr Ali Hasan Dayan of HRW ... has no veiled or unveiled threats in it." The ISI justified summoning Shahzad in these words: "The reported meeting between the journalist and ISI officials of the Information Management Wing was held to discuss a story he had done for Asia Times Online on 15th October, and the meeting had nothing sinister about it. It is part of the Wing's mandate to remain in touch with the journalist community. The main objective behind all such interactions is provision of accurate information on matters of national security. ISI also makes it a point to notify institutions and individuals alike of any threat warning received about them", the statement added.

Seasoned journalist Najam Sethi, however, provided a new twist to the raging speculation in his Geo TV program: "The way Shahzad has been killed seems more likely to be a handiwork of the agencies." Sethi felt the abductors were oblivious to Shahzad's physical vulnerability - he had been shot at last year, the bullet lodging into the left side of his ribs, right under his heart. His abductors might have abducted him to teach him a lesson, ignorant of his low endurance level to beating because of the wound sustained last year. They didn't want to kill him, opined Sethi.

Sethi's scenario is reasonable but his assumption is wrong, say votaries of another school. Anyone could have tortured Shahzad, not necessarily the ISI. Interior Minister Rehman Malik has said that the murder could be the result of a personal vendetta. That Shahzad was fired at last year by a security guard following a scuffle in the F-6 area of the federal capital, is being furnished as an evidence to insist that he at least had one ruthless enemy capable of extreme violence. Islamabad police have already arrested the guard, Ishtiaq, in connection with the murder investigations, and he is being interrogated. However, Shahzad's close circles say he had pardoned the guard and withdrawn the case against him, after which he was released.

A third school of thought says Shahzad could have been killed by Islamic militants who have repeatedly targeted the Pakistan military installations on the assumption that it betrayed Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011. Proponents say the militants had correctly estimated that the killing of Shahzad would be blamed on the ISI, undermining its credibility further. A defensive ISI is indeed good news for militant outfits, they say. No, argue critics, pointing to Shahzad's formidable connections in the militant world and asking: haven't in the death of Shahzad the militants lost a journalist upon whom they relied to report their views?

Those who suspect agencies' involvement refer to an anonymous call Shahzad's wife received on the night of May 29, the day her husband was abducted, telling her not to worry as he who would be released the following morning. Chairman of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Zohra Yusuf has also blamed state actors for the murder, stating: "The timing and manner of Shahzad's abduction make it abundantly clear that he was targeted only because of his work as a journalist. The quick disposal of his body and burial strengthens [belief] in the involvement of state actors".

Therefore, the ISI is surely on the back foot. Whoever is responsible for Shahzad's barbaric murder, one thing is for sure - he will not be the last journalist to have sacrificed his life for uncovering the truth, as there are many more newsmen in Pakistan who firmly believe that the "truth" remains superior to the so-called "national interest".

Amir Mir is a senior Pakistani journalist and the author of several books on the subject of militant Islam and terrorism, the latest being Talibanisation of Pakistan: From 9/11 to 26/11.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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