Moderates killed in Pakistan’s ‘soft coup’
(NOTE: The internationally acclaimed war correspondent Christina Lamb of the Sunday Times, London, interviewed me for her following article about the increasing attacks on moderate and progressive elements in Pakistan.
I am reproducing the piece here for your reading as you will have no access to the original article until you are a subscriber to the Sunday Times. A shorter news version of this story appeared in Pakistan’s The News International on January 23, 2012.)
By Christina Lamb for the Sunday Times, London. Published: 22 January 2012
Mukarram Khan Atif was praying in his mosque near Peshawar just after sunset last Tuesday when two gunmen walked in, dragged him outside and shot him dead.
The murder of the radio journalist by the Pakistan Taliban was shocking in its brutality and brazenness.
It was the latest killing in what many describe as a deliberate campaign by the country’s military intelligence arm (ISI) and militant groups to silence moderate voices amid a growing crisis between government and the country’s powerful military.
MK, as he was known, who worked for Voice of America and was shortly to remarry, had been receiving death threats from militants who did not like his reporting and demanded space on his radio programmes, according to his colleague Babar Baig, but was “very bold and active”.
“We’re definitely seeing a deliberate attempt to silence people,” said Bob Dietz, Asia director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. “Scores of Pakistani journalists have asked for asylum, wanting us to arrange fellowships. Frankly, we’re overwhelmed by it.”
Not only has Pakistan been the deadliest country for journalists for the past two years but the last year has seen the killing of Salman Taseer, the Punjab governor, and Shahbaz Bhatti, a government minister. Taseer’s son Shahzad has been missing since he was abducted last August.
Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to America, is in hiding in the prime minister’s house, facing trial for treason on charges widely regarded as trumped up. He says his life is in danger.
His wife, Farahnaz Ispahani, President Asif Zardari’s spokesman, has fled to Washington amid fears that ISI might kidnap her to force her husband to sign a confession and implicate the president.
“What we’re seeing is the systematic killing or silencing of anyone who stands up to the institutionalisation of a militarised Islamist state, who advocates positive relations with the West or stands up for tolerance,” she said.
“I’m scared. The government can’t even protect itself.”
Tensions have grown since the killing of Osama Bin Laden in May. The raid on the town of Abbottabad by US Navy Seals left the Pakistan military a laughing stock, pilloried at home for failing to detect four American helicopters carrying out a 40-minute commando operation a mile away from the main military college.
ISI, in turn, was furious at what it saw as the government’s failure to defend it.
When Mansoor Ijaz, a Pakistani businessman based in America, claimed he and Haqqani had concocted a memo calling for American help in reining in ISI, the army seized on it. It demanded that Haqqani, who had once written a critical book about the military, be sacked as ambassador.
Haqqani denied involvement and flew home to clear his name, only for his passport to be seized. The so-called Memogate scandal has prompted a crisis that many have described as “a soft coup”.
Last week Yousuf Raza Gilani, Pakistan’s prime minister, was charged with contempt of court for not pursuing a court order to reopen old corruption charges against his boss, Zardari. Yet, while the courts pursue such issues, there has been impunity for those who kill journalists. A few weeks after Bin Laden’s death, a reporter called Saleem Shahzad, who was investigating links between the military and Al-Qaeda, was abducted by ISI. A few days later, the 40-year-old father of three was found in a ditch, beaten to death.
An international outcry prompted a rare commission of inquiry, which released its report last week. It apportioned no blame but stated: “The commission is convinced that there are sufficient reasons to believe that the agencies, including ISI, have been using coercive and intimidating tactics in dealing with journalists who antagonise the agency’s interest.”
It is not just journalists who are at risk. Ali Dayan Hasan, the Pakistan director of Human Rights Watch, had to move his family to Britain last year after threats to them.
Using children is another tactic of intimidation. One journalist who reported on Kashmiri militants had his teenage son abducted as he left school more than a year ago. He says ISI is holding him, and his wife has been allowed a 10-minute visit. They are scared to go public in case the boy is killed.
Malik Siraj Akbar, editor of an online newspaper in Baluchistan, which is in the grip of bloody insurgency between the army and nationalists, won asylum in America last November to escape threats.
“It’s very difficult when you’re constantly followed, your phones are tapped and you get all these threatening phone calls,” he said. “I’d come out of the barber’s and they’d immediately call and say ‘Nice haircut’.”
He believes far more journalists are being killed than reported. “At least eight of my journalist friends were killed last year,” he said.
He decided to move to America and continues to publish his newspaper, although it is blocked in Pakistan. “I never wanted to leave my country, but I don’t want to become a martyr,” he said.
Among those who have publicly raised the issue are Najam Sethi, editor of The Friday Times and host of a popular political television show, and his wife and co- editor, Jugnu Mohsin. After years of threats, the intimidation became so severe last year that they were forced to move to Washington for a couple of months.
“In the old days you’d get picked up, thrown into prison for a couple of months, maybe roughed up, then let out. But now it’s a whole different ball game — there’s no second chance,” said Sethi.
The couple returned home to Lahore a month ago after his employers built a studio in their house so they would not need to go out, and the local government gave them eight round-the-clock police guards.
After a wave of accusations on social media sites that he and his daughter were CIA spies, Sethi decided to go public, describing the threats as “from both state and non-state actors, including extremists”. He said he had given specific information to media watchdogs at home and abroad “so if we were harmed they would know who had done it”. (Courtesy: The Sunday Times, London)