A Pakistani journalist found apparently tortured to death this week had said he had been threatened by the country's intelligence service because of his sometimes scathing reports on the Pakistani armed forces and terror groups, colleagues and a Human Rights Watch official said today.
Syed Saleem Shahzad, the 40-year-old Pakistan bureau chief for Asia Times Online, was found dead on Tuesday a week after the news outlet published an exclusive report written by Shahzad that suggested al Qaeda had infiltrated the Pakistani navy ahead of a brazen assault on a naval base. Police said his body showed signs of torture.
Though militants are often suspected in the deaths of journalists in Pakistan, after Shahzad's death both a colleague of his and a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Pakistan came forward to say Shahzad had said in past months he felt threatened by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
A spokesperson for the ISI told The Associated Press any alleged link between the ISI and Shahzad's death was "absurd" and Shahzad's brother-in-law said "never was there any threat," according to a report by National Public Radio. Pakistan's Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, visited Shahzad's home to offer his condolences and told reporters it was possible the journalist was killed over a personal matter.
But in October 2010, Shahzad told his editor at the Asia Times Online he had been summoned to the ISI offices after publishing another exclusive report about Pakistan's release of a major Taliban figure. During the meeting, the ISI demanded Shahzad retract the story and reveal his sources, but Shahzad refused, prompting a veiled threat, according to a report today by Asia Times Online.
Shahzad described the ISI meeting in an email to Human Rights Watch researcher Ali Dayan Hasan and said, "I am forwarding this email to you in case something happens to me or my family in the future."
Asia Times Online reported Shahzad sent a similar email to his editor there. When the editor suggested Shahzad lay low a while following the ISI meeting, he reportedly responded, "If I hold back and don't do my job, I might as well just make the tea."
In a rare public statement, an unnamed ISI official told Pakistan's state news agency today the meeting with Shahzad was cordial and no such threats were ever made.
"It is regrettable that some sections of the media have taken upon themselves to use the incident for targeting and maligning the ISI," the report said, paraphrasing the official. "Baseless accusations against the country's sensitive agencies for their alleged involvement in Shahzad's murder are totally unfounded."
Shahzad's colleagues at Asia Times Online and his own biography posted there reveal a history of run-ins with the feared intelligence agency.
"More recently, I am known for writing bold stories about sensitive institutions like the apex court and the armed forces," Shahzad wrote in the biography when he was in his early 30s. "Exposing the role of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency in Pakistani politics landed me in trouble, but intervention at a very high level by leaders of the national press forced the state apparatus to take a step back."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned Shahzad's killing late Tuesday night after Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari ordered an immediate inquiry into the death.
"[Shahzad's] work reporting on terrorism and intelligence issues in Pakistan brought to light the troubles extremism poses to Pakistan's stability," Clinton said in a statement. "We support the Pakistani government's investigation into the circumstances surrounding his death."
However, in a pair of biting editorials, Shahzad's colleagues at Asia Times Online criticized the government for its investigations into the deaths of journalists in Pakistan.
"These are honorable and noble sentiments that will resonate around the world," one editorial said of Zardari's promise of inquiry. "The trouble is, like an echo, the words will quickly fade, and most likely nothing will be done... It will be business as usual in a country that had the most journalist deaths in the world in 2010 - 44 - and four prominent newsmen killed this year for simply doing their job. None of their killers has been brought to justice. Not one."
Pakistan ranks among the top ten most dangerous countries for journalists according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. The CPJ estimates 20 percent of the murders of journalists are attributable to "government officials."
After his visit to Shahzad's home, Interior Minister Malik said orders had been given that journalists should carry small arms in order to protect themselves, Pakistan's Geo News reported.
In another sarcasm-laced editorial, another of Shahzad's colleagues and "brother" directly accuses the ISI of being behind Shahzad's disappearance and death.
"After all, when a Pakistani journalist -- not a foreigner -- writes that al-Qaeda is infiltrated deep inside the Pakistani military establishment, one's got to act with utmost courage. So you abduct the journalist. You torture him. And you snuff him," writes Pepe Escobar. "Now they finally got him. Not an al Qaeda or jihadi connection. Not a tribal or Taliban connection... It had to be the ISI -- as he knew, and told us, all along."
Malik told reporters that should any evidence emerge connecting the ISI to Shahzad's death, he would investigate.
Shahzad was buried in his hometown of Karachi today as hundreds of friends, relatives and colleagues mourned, according to an AP report.