By Rick Westhead, South Asia Bureau
NEW DELHI — The deadliest country to be a journalist in just got deadlier. Pakistan is reeling after news late Tuesday that journalist Saleem Shahzad’s body was discovered near his abandoned car in Islamabad. Shahzad, 40, went missing Sunday night, his family said, after he left his home heading for a local TV station.
Almost immediately after his disappearance, Human Rights Watch issued a release saying it had reason to believe Shahzad had been arrested by Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI. His body was found with signs that he had been tortured, according to local news reports.
“Shahzad went for scoops and must have annoyed someone in the process,” said Zafar Hilaly, a former aide to former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
Shahzad’s murder is certain to highlight schisms within Pakistan’s government, which is torn between its allegiance to the U.S. and other western governments, who provide aid that keeps the government afloat, and Islamic militants, who reportedly have winnowed their way into the ranks of Pakistan’s officer corps.
Osama bin Laden was killed earlier this month by U.S. special forces in a hideout close to Islamabad. His presence so close to the capital prompted speculation that he must have been under the protection of at least some senior military officers.
When Shahzad went missing, many locals feared the worst. Operating as an objective, honest journalist in Pakistan is like navigating a minefield.
Reporters Without Borders has noted news media freedom in Pakistan has plunged in recent years and it is now among the world’s most dangerous places to report from. Last year, 11 journalists were killed in Pakistan, the organization said.
Shahzad, who was married with two sons, 14 and seven, and a 12-year- old daughter, was certainly known to Pakistan’s ISI.
He vanished two days after he wrote a story for Asia Times Online that said Al Qaeda attacked a naval base in Karachi on May 22 because its negotiations with the Pakistan navy had collapsed. Shahzad wrote Al Qaeda orchestrated the attack as retribution for the arrest of naval officers who were suspected to have ties to Al Qaeda.
Human Rights Watch was told Shahzad would be returned home by Monday evening.
“The relevant people were informed that his telephone would be switched on first, enabling him to communicate with his family,” a Human Rights Watch official told Time magazine. “They were told that he would return home soon after.”
A Human Rights Watch researcher on Twitter released an email that Shahzad had forwarded him Oct. 18, 2010. The human-rights organization had instructions to release it if Shahzad disappeared.
Shahzad told Human Rights Watch he had been summoned to the ISI’s headquarters on Oct. 17, 2010, a day after he published another controversial story. He met with two ISI officials: Rear Admiral Adnan Nawaz and Commodore Khalid Pervaiz.
Pervaiz has just been appointed head of the naval base in Karachi that was just attacked, Time reported.
Shahzad’s October story for Asia Times Online alleged Pakistan had released the Afghan Taliban commander Mullah Baradar from custody.
Baradar was Mullah Omar’s deputy and Shahzad reported he’d been freed to negotiate with the Pakistan army.
The Oct. 18 email, purportedly from the ISI to Shahzad, was labelled “For future reference.”
“I must give you a favour,” the ISI officer wrote to Shahzad. “We have recently arrested a terrorist and recovered a lot of data, diaries and other material during the interrogation. The terrorist had a list with him. If I find your name in the list, I will certainly let you know.”
Journalists expressed horror at Shahzad’s murder.
“Shock, anger and grief are now our daily routine,” Feisel Naqvi, a lawyer and part-time journalist, wrote on Twitter.
A commentator in Lahore wrote on his blog, Kala Kawa, which he maintains anonymously, that “The ethos ingrained in our security high command is not ‘protect your people’, it’s ‘you can get away with anything’. And if getting away with something requires the murder of the citizens you have sworn to protect, so be it. Few things could be more repulsive.”
Not surprisingly, not everyone believes the ISI is to blame for Shahzad’s demise.
Imtiaz Gul, author of The Most Dangerous Place: Pakistan’s Lawless Frontier, called Pakistan “a society torn between various narratives, from hatred and dislike of the west to adoration by many of Al Qaeda ideology.”
Gul said in an email that Al Qaeda and its related terror groups “are apparently exploiting this flux of situation to stage false flag events such as Shehzad’s murder. It’s too obvious an act to believe ISI killed him, beyond my comprehension to be honest.”