Journalist who feared Pakistani spy agency found dead

McClatchy NewspapersMay 31, 2011 

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The tortured corpse of a prominent Pakistani journalist, who'd told friends he feared that the country's military intelligence agency would kill him, was found Tuesday, two days after he disappeared.

With unparalleled sources among Islamic extremists, including al Qaida, Syed Saleem Shahzad, 40, often produced stories that embarrassed Pakistan's military and its Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency. But he also could have angered a faction of the increasingly fractured Islamist movement in a country where journalists are often targeted by both the government and extremists.

Shahzad's last story, intended to be the first of a two-part series, detailed al Qaida's infiltration of the Pakistani navy and said that a recent attack on a naval air base in the city of Karachi was al Qaida retaliation for the navy's detention of several suspected al Qaida sympathizers in its ranks. He also reported that the navy was in direct talks with al Qaida over its concern that the arrests would lead to a backlash. Shahzad was killed before the second part of the series was published.

Shahzad, who reported for Asia Times Online, an online newspaper based in Hong Kong, and the Italian news agency Adnkronos International, disappeared Sunday evening as he was on his way from his home in an upscale neighborhood of Islamabad to a television studio where he was to take part in a show. His body was recovered from the banks of a canal in Mandi Bahauddin, a town about a two-hour drive south of Islamabad, said Daar Ali Khattak, the local police chief.

Pakistani news channels showed pictures of his badly swollen face, covered in wounds. Reports said that he had 15 "torture marks" on his body and that he appeared to have died of a blow to the chest.

Shahzad, who often interviewed Taliban and al Qaida leaders in their hideouts, told a McClatchy reporter earlier this month that he was visited by officials from the ISI every second or third day, asking about his stories. He was buoyed, at the time, by the launch of his book, "Inside Al-Qaeda and The Taliban," published this month by Pluto Press.

In October, Shahzad had sent an email to the group Human Rights Watch, "in case something happens to me or my family in future", detailing how he was called into the offices of the ISI after publishing a story saying that Pakistan had quietly freed Mullah Bahadar, the deputy leader of the Afghan Taliban who was arrested in February 2010.

"Human Rights Watch is clear about the fact that Saleem Shahzad was under threat from the ISI," said Ali Dayan Hasan, of Human Rights Watch. "Given that Shahzad alleged in his lifetime that he had been threatened by the ISI, and given that we believe that the allegation was credible, the onus is on the ISI to prove that it was not holding him in illegal detention, and that its personnel were not responsible for his death."

An official of the ISI, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, described the allegations as "rubbish" but wouldn't elaborate.

Reporters Without Borders, a nongovernmental organization, said that Shahzad's murder brings to 15 the number of journalists killed since the start of 2010 in Pakistan, which is ranked at 151 out of 178 countries in the latest Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. The Committee to Protect Journalists, another NGO, found that Pakistan was the most dangerous country in 2010 for reporters.

"A terrible sickness has permeated our society. Saleem Shahzad was a friend, colleague and intrepid reporter. Answers are needed," said Farahnaz Ispahani, a member of parliament for the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party.

In his book, Shahzad claims that the 2008 attack on Mumbai, India, by extremists from Pakistan, was a plot hatched by the ISI that was later secretly taken over by al Qaida and turned into a much bigger operation. The attack killed 166 people.

Shahzad brought Ilyas Kashmiri, a Pakistani militant associated with al Qaida, to world attention in 2009 when he interviewed him in Pakistan's tribal area. It was Kashmiri, according to Shahzad, who hijacked the Mumbai attack, ensuring that it was so serious that it could have brought longtime rivals India and Pakistan to war. Kashmiri is now recognized as a senior al Qaida military commander.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

ON THE WEB

Shahzad's last story

Shahzad's web page

Website for Shahzad's most recent book

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