By Alex Rodriguez, Los Angeles Times 12:36 PM PDT, May 31, 2011 Reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan
A Pakistani journalist who vanished after writing about alleged links between Al Qaeda and Pakistan's navy was found slain Tuesday. Colleagues said the reporter had complained of receiving threats in recent months from members of the nation's powerful intelligence community.
Syed Saleem Shahzad had been missing since Sunday evening, when he failed to show up at a television studio in Islamabad where he was scheduled to appear on a program. His body was found near the town of Mandi Bahauddin, about 75 miles southeast of the capital. His friends said the body showed signs of torture.
Shahzad, the Pakistan bureau chief for the Asia Times Online news website, had recently written a story that claimed Al Qaeda had infiltrated the ranks of the navy. The story, which appeared on the website after militants carried out a 17-hour siege on a naval base in Karachi on May 23, also asserted that the attack was meant as retaliation for the military's refusal to release a group of naval officials suspected of having militant links. Ten security personnel were killed in the siege.
The attack also proved deeply embarrassing for the military, which already had been facing strong criticism from within the country for allowing U.S. helicopters to slip into Pakistan undetected during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden on May 2.
In recent months, Shahzad, 40, had told colleagues that he had been warned by intelligence agents to stop writing about sensitive matters, and that he feared for his life. In October, Shahzad told Ali Dayan Hasan, South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, that he had been summoned to the headquarters of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, where he received what he saw as a veiled threat from a top official.
Shahzad forwarded to Hasan a set of notes from the meeting, adding that he was doing so "in case something happens to me or my family in future."
"After that, I spoke to him a few times," Hasan said Tuesday during a phone interview. "He told me he was under surveillance, that he would get calls, and that people would stop him and threaten him a couple of times. But as it is with people who live their lives with these kinds of threats, you factor it in. He factored it in and carried on with his business."
Hasan said he had "confirmation from credible sources that he probably was being held by the ISI."
A senior intelligence official who spoke on the condition of anonymity vehemently denied any ISI involvement in Shahzad's disappearance and death. "We don't know anything about it," the official said, calling the allegations "rubbish."
The Committee to Protect Journalists listed Pakistan as the world's most dangerous country for reporters in 2010, with eight journalists killed there during the year. Shahzad was the third reporter slain in Pakistan this year; a television reporter was gunned down in Karachi in January, and a journalist in the northwest city of Peshawar died May 10 when his car exploded.
Especially at risk are journalists who report on militant groups, the intelligence community and the links between the two.
Last fall, Umar Cheema, an investigative reporter for The News, a daily newspaper, was abducted for six hours and beaten before being dumped on a road outside Islamabad. He accused the ISI of being behind his kidnapping, theorizing that the agency was retaliating for several articles he had written that angered the military. Intelligence officials denied the charge.
Hasan said the government investigated Cheema's abduction but "nothing happened."
"It's essential that an independent investigation take place into the murder of Saleem Shahzad," Hasan added, "and that those responsible are held accountable."