Those who deal regularly with the thorny issue of Pakistan woke up to very bad news today. The body of respected journalist Saleem Shahzad was found in a canal, dead and with signs of torture. Within minutes, Pakistan's intelligence agency, ISI, was suspected of carrying out the murder. Shahzad disappeared two days after he wrote a story for Asia Times Online that said al-Qaeda had committed the 17-hour attack on a Karachi naval base on May 22. Shahzad reported that al-Qaeda attacked in retaliation for the arrest of naval officers suspected of links to the terrorist group.
The abduction took place in a tony neighborhood of Islamabad as Shahzad drove to a news studio to discuss the naval base attack. At 5:45 pm, Shahzad answered a phone call from Dunya News to say he was on his way. He never arrived. The following day, Human Rights Watch stated, ""We were informed through reliable interlocutors that he was detained by the ISI."
Being a journalist in Pakistan is dangerous work. Take the case of Umar Cheema, a political correspondent for The News in Islamabad. Last September, Cheema was abducted by men in police uniforms while he was driving through a suburb of Islamabad. He recounted, "I was held in illegal captivity for six hours during which I was continuously tortured and humiliated in the nude. They stripped me out of my clothes, hung me upside down and shaved off my head and moustaches."
In March, the Guardian's Declan Walsh wrote about the abductions and murders happening in Balochistan, where human rights groups like Amnesty International have recorded over 100 victims. "Lawyers, students, taxi drivers, farm workers," reported Walsh. "If you have not heard of this epic killing spree, though, don't worry: neither have most Pakistanis. Newspaper reports from Balochistan are buried quietly on the inside pages, cloaked in euphemisms or, quite often, not published at all."
Blogger Ahsan Butt, who has been closely following this story, e-mailed this to us:
I never thought the ISI would kill him b/c their standard M.O is detain, threaten, beat, kick, and torture for a couple days. Very rarely do they actually go out and murder non-Balochis. Moreover, Shahzad's abduction was front page news, so it's not as if his disappearance flew under the radar. If had turned up alive, beaten and bruised, most people would have written it off as "ah, same old ISI -- up to its tricks again". But to actually show up dead, that's an unusual occurrence, even for the ISI.
As for confirmation it was them, well, obviously we don't have legal proof at this point. What we do know for a fact is the following:
a. He has been picked up and threatened by the ISI before, back in October, for another story he wrote. b. The story he wrote four days ago was incredibly damaging to the military and ISI. c. Journalists don't just disappear like he did; most observers of Pakistani society are well aware of the role "the agencies" play in intimidating and threatening journalists when they go over their red lines. d. He approached Human Rights Watch and told them the ISI was threatening him. e. His injuries and bruises bear all the hallmarks of an "agencies" attack; if it was al-Qaeda or their ilk, he most likely would've just had his neck sliced off, not been tortured the way he was.
2. Lord knows what message the ISI is trying to send. The message that is received, however, is that no one is allowed to provide evidence for, or investigate, the extent of the partnership between members of our armed forces on the one hand and anti-state militants and terrorists on the other. Shahzad was doing extremely valuable work and by all accounts had excellent sources, and now he has been silenced.
This should raise further questions about the Faustian bargain the US appears to have made in the war on terror. As Butt points out, "Remember, [the ISI's] job is to protect us. But they torture and kill us, and protect Osama bin Laden and Hafiz Saeed instead."
But, as Christine Fair, an expert in Southeast Asian politics and military (and featured source in our 2008 election series), opined via Twitter: "Sadly, the US has to work with the ISI even though it's the fireman AND THE arsonist. The way in A'stan leaves the US no choice."