Nation special feature
In Pakistan, kidnapping and missing of ‘non persona grata’ has become a matter of routine. Last week, a female journalist Zeenat Shahzadi, who went missing in Lahore in 2015, has been recovered by security forces. Retired Justice Javed Iqbal, head of the missing persons commission, confirmed Shahzadi’s return. She was recovered on Wednesday night from near the Pak-Afghan border, Iqbal said.
The newly appointed National Accountability Bureau chief said that some non-state actors and enemy agencies had kidnapped her and she was recovered from them, adding that tribal elders in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa played an important role in her recovery.
Shahzadi, who raised her voice for disappearance of victims, went missing in August 2015 while on the trail of an Indian citizen Hamid Ansari reported to have been caught by Pakistani agencies. She had filed an application with the Supreme Court’s Human Rights Cell on behalf of Fauzia Ansari, Hamid’s mother.
According to one version, Hamid was pursuing a Pakistani woman whom he had befriended on the Internet. The application was accepted and forwarded to the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances. A few months later, news surfaced in a section of the media, saying that Hamid had been sentenced to three years’ imprisonment on charges of espionage.
According to some rights campaigners, Hamid has served his sentence and ought to be set free now. Human rights activist Hina Jillani, in a 2016 interview with BBC Urdu, alleged that Shahzadi had once told her family that she had been “forcibly taken away by security agencies”, detained for four hours and questioned about Hamid.
The disappearance of Shahzadi hit headlines once again in 2016 when her brother, Saddam Hussain, committed suicide in March that year. His elder brother, Salman, had said that the teenage boy was emotionally attached to his missing sister and very much disturbed by her mysterious disappearance.
Media has genuinely displayed the news of her missing and later recovery prominently.
Editorially commenting on her recovery, Dawn reported that the first reaction to the return home of Zeenat Shahzadi on Thursday after two years is of course one of relief.
The young Lahore-based journalist was abducted by armed men on Aug 19, 2015, while on her way to work. At the time, she had been pursuing the case of an Indian national, Hamid Ansari, who had gone missing in 2012 after being arrested for crossing illegally into Pakistan from Afghanistan.
After getting in touch with his family in Mumbai, Ms Shahzadi had filed a habeas corpus petition in the Peshawar High Court as well as applications with the Supreme Court’s Human Rights Cell and the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances.
It was rather ironic – although not unprecedented in Pakistan – that she herself soon became a ‘missing’ person. According to CoIoED, Ms Shahzadi was recovered from the Pak-Afghan border and that “anti-state elements and anti-Pakistan secret agencies” had been involved in her disappearance.
However, following relief over her safe recovery, there should be a groundswell of anger. Anger that apparently the most that the public and the authorities – specifically the courts and CoIoED – can now hope for is that the missing return unharmed. Disregarding all protests of civil society, the theatre of enforced disappearances has not only expanded from Balochistan to the rest of the country, especially Sindh, but it has also become more brazen, with abductions taking place even in broad daylight in urban centres. Journalists, rights activists, social workers – anyone it seems is a viable target. Several still remain missing. There is no doubt that Pakistan, like most other countries, must remain vigilant against subversive elements, but the state, in complete violation of constitutionally protected rights, has evidently expanded the definition of ‘subversion’ to include any citizen critical of its policies or seeking for it to be held accountable. The circumstances of Ms Shahzadi’s disappearance and ‘recovery’, the threats she had received prior to her abduction and the fact there was no ransom demand during her captivity, raise questions that lend themselves to but one conclusion.
Meanwhile, the CoIoED, set up six years ago by the government as a “landmark achievement” has proven a toothless and ineffectual body with neither the resources, inclination nor power to do more than document cases of enforced disappearances. In not a single instance has it held the perpetrators to account. Last but not least, Ms Shahzadi’s case has also highlighted the suffering of the families of the missing in a particularly tragic way. Her brother, unable to cope with her continued absence, committed suicide last year.
That is a loss she can never be compensated for. Moreover, a journalist like this young woman, committed to actually seeking out the truth rather than acting as a passive observer, would be an asset in a civilised society. But then, Pakistan would have had to be a different country. In March last year, Xari Jalil wrote a report for Dawn on missing Zeenat Shahzadi. Her brother Salman tries to speak about what his family is going through but words fail him. That is the impact of suicide of his brother Saddam.
“He (Saddam) seemed to miss Zeenat a lot that particular day, and we tried to comfort him and say she would come soon,” says Salman. “He was a heart patient and wasn’t used to handling stressful situations. Then he went out after prayers and did not return. It was not until I went to the roof when I saw his body dangling from a tree in a plot next to our house.”
The case of disappearance of journalist Shehzadi hit the headlines when her brother, Saddam, committed suicide. Mr Salman says the trauma has left his parents so ill, they could barely walk. “If only Zeenat returns our family may receive a little comfort, but we’ve not been given any indication of where she is and why she has been kidnapped.”
He spoke to Dawn at a press conference. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan arranged the event where the disappearance of Ms Shahzadi, a journalist, was discussed. IA Rehman, Hina Jilani and Nazish Ataullah spoke. Ms Jilani condemned the disappearance of Ms Shehzadi, calling it “shamelessness” that a 24-year-old woman was picked up without a warrant.
Publishing the report of her recovery, Daily Times said that Shahzadi has been ‘returned’ to her family in Lahore, as suddenly as she ‘disappeared’ some two years ago. She is said to have been recovered from along the Af-Pak border area; possibly held across the other side by the Afghan Taliban; with tribal elders from Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, as well as Pakistani intelligence agencies, playing a prominent role in her recovery.
This is about as much as any of us know right now. The family most likely wants to be left alone at this time; and even if they haven’t said as much we, the media, should respect this. There is a difference between investigation and intrusiveness. And we would do well to remember which is which at this time.
Zeenat’s case straddles two important spheres that pose risks to ordinary Pakistanis: missing persons and journalist safety. Yet first and foremost Zeenat is a journalist. And it was her investigation into what had happened to an Indian gentleman who had crossed over the border illegally to prevent his Pakistani paramour from marrying someone else that led to her abduction. He was reportedly picked up and charged with espionage. Zeenat was said to have been approached by members of the security apparatus, who told her in no uncertain terms to back off. She didn’t. This raises several questions. The first being, who picked up this young woman and why? Reporters Without Borders (RSF) have long included our agencies in its list of ‘press predators’. If she was kidnapped by a militant group, then surely a ransom demand of some kind would have been made. Or maybe not. Maybe even terror groups understand how cheap we and the rest of the world consider Pakistani lives. But it is important that we know so we can at once raise the cry for accountability.
In the meanwhile, this incident once again throws under the spotlight the question of journalist safety. Naturally, this is the state’s responsibility as part of the social contract. Yet we have said it before and we say it again: editors need to share the burden, especially when it comes to women reporters.
The ‘field’ is not safe and that’s a reality that needs to be acknowledged by media outlets. Pakistan may have crawled up another 8 places on the RSF World Press Freedom Index 2017 – we now enjoy a ranking of 139 out of 180 nations – but it doesn’t mean that it’s a safe place to practice journalism.
As for the new NAB chief’s assertions that Zeenat was picked up by non-state actors and enemy agencies – this sounds all fine and dandy but we still need proof to precipitate the accountability process. To speed things along he could, perhaps, call upon one of our recently ‘reformed assets’ to spill any remaining beans. It’s just a thought.