PAKISTAN: Mystery surrounds kidnapping of Waziristan journalist

Committee to Protect Journalists vows to keep pressure on U.S. and Pakistan for information about journalist missing since December; government officials deny involvement

By Ananth Krishnan
AsiaMedia Staff Writer

Monday, May 8, 2006

On Dec. 5, 2005, five masked gunmen kidnapped local journalist Hayatullah Khan in the tribal province of North Waziristan, along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Five months later, Khan is still missing, and reports of his disappearance have only grown more unclear.

Khan was covering the politics of the troubled mountainous province for two Islamabad dailies -- Ausaf and Nation -- and also taking photos for the European Pressphoto Agency (EPA).

North Waziristan came into the spotlight of the Pakistani media in 2002, when President Musharraf sent his army into this largely autonomous tribal region as part of Pakistan's growing role in America's so-called 'war on terror'. Since the U.S. attack on Afghanistan in 2001, most of the Taliban militia fled across the border into Waziristan; clashes with the Pakistani army have become commonplace since.

On the day of his disappearance, Khan was covering a demonstration in his hometown of Mirali, where college students were protesting an alleged missile attack on Dec. 1 that reportedly killed five people, including one senior Al Qaeda militant, Abu Hamza Rabia, and a seven-year old boy.

Khan had challenged the Pakistani government's official account of this attack right prior to his abduction; the government has insisted that accidental explosions -- and not a missile attack -- killed Rabia and the four others.

Khan took photographs of parts of an American missile at the site of the explosions, raising serious questions about the possible involvement of Pakistani and U.S. armies in the attack. One of these photos is published online by MSNBC.

Khan's brother Ihsanullah Khan told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that an unnamed Pakistani military colonel had informed him that Khan had been taken from a "secret government holding place" in Rawalpindi to Kohat, where he was then handed to the Americans.

"The colonel said Hayatullah has been in American custody since about the first week of February. He said he was being held by the FBI or the CIA, but he did not know which one," he added.

The Los Angeles Times reported on Mar. 26 that senior Pakistani intelligence officials had confirmed that Khan was now "beyond their jurisdiction." "He might be somewhere in Pakistan or the United States being grilled for his possible links with Al Qaeda," Ihsanullah Khan told the Times. "Earlier these [officials] told us that Hayatullah was fine and we should not worry about him. But now they say that Hayatullah might be in U.S. officials' custody," he said.

Bob Dietz, Asia Program Coordinator for CPJ, said in a phone interview that his organization wrote to Presidents Bush and Musharraf last month, urging both governments to help clarify the situation given the divergence of news reports.

However, Dietz told AsiaMedia that as of May 5 both governments have yet to respond.

"We're going to keep up the pressure on both governments," but CPJ is focusing on putting pressure on the Pakistani government, said Dietz.

"We are calling on [both governments] to, if indeed they are holding him, to simply admit that they are, just to relieve his family's tension," he added. "We are also calling on them to reveal the charges under which they are holding him [if they are] and bring these charges to the courts."

Dietz says that it is "unacceptable" for governments to silence journalists in this way, by simply holding them incognito, "without reason." "After all Khan was just doing his job, and he clearly even had a scoop," said Dietz.

The Pakistani government, however, insists that Khan is not being held by any agency associated with them. "We can assure you that this person is not in government custody," Nadeem Haider Khan, press officer at the Pakistani consulate in Washington, D.C, told AsiaMedia.
 
"I have also checked with Islamabad, where there is a journalist protection organization who has been in contact with us. Some people say he may even be deliberately in hiding, or even moved to another country. We are all concerned, and the government of Pakistan is using all its means to locate his whereabouts," Nadeem Haider Khan added.

The government's handling of Khan's disappearance has clearly rankled with Pakistan's journalist community. The Pakistani Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) and the All Pakistan Newspapers Employees Confederation (APNEC) have repeatedly called on the government to ensure the safe recovery of Khan.

Dr. Shahzad Wasim, the minister of state for interior affairs, promised these groups the day after Khan went missing that a report would be presented in the national assembly and the situation would be quickly resolved. Lahore-based Daily Times reports that both Pakistani officials and U.S. government spokespersons in Islamabad have frequently refused to comment on the story since Khan's Dec. 5 disappearance.

Journalists covering the Pakistani National Assembly in Islamabad staged a walk out on Dec. 6, demanding information about Khan and increased protection for journalists in tribal areas. Khan's disappearance was also central to the Mar. 21 launch of a PFUJ and APNEC month-long protest to protect freedom of expression and ensure the safety of journalists in tribal areas.

Much of the Waziristan province -- including Khan's hometown of Mirali -- has increasingly come under the influence of Taliban militia. Two journalists were killed in Wana in South Waziristan last February, while last month gunmen claiming to belong to the Taliban issued threats to journalists and torched regional newspapers, demanding that the Pakistani media show the Taliban greater respect. Ihsanulla Khan told CPJ last month, however, "Our family has a letter from the Taliban saying they have no enmity with our family and that they do not have Hayatullah."