Pakistan spy agency faces more heat after reporter’s


Speculation that Pakistan’s military spy agency had a hand in the death of a prominent journalist has further discredited the organisation already facing one of its worst crises after the killing of Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil.

Saleem Shahzad, who worked for Hong-Kong based Asia Times Online and Italian news agency Adnkronos International, disappeared from Islamabad on Sunday and his body was found in a canal with what police said were torture marks.

Suspicion immediately fell on the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, bringing more bad publicity after the killing of bin Laden by US special forces near the capital.

The US raid opened the agency up to international suspicion it was complicit in hiding bin Laden, and to domestic criticism for failing to detect or stop the US team.
“The ISI’s image had already been tarnished and it is under so much pressure,” said a former ISI officer. “It’s never been as bad as this before.”

Shahzad was investigating suspected links between the military and al Qaeda, a highly sensitive subject at a time when Washington is wondering how bin Laden was able to live for years in a town about a two-hour drive from ISI headquarters.

The military denies any collusion with al Qaeda. Human Rights Watch said Shahzad, a 40-year-old father of three, had voiced concern about his safety after receiving threatening telephone calls from the ISI and was under surveillance since 2010.

The ISI rejected suggestions of its involvement and criticised the media for jumping to that conclusion.
“Baseless accusations against the country’s sensitive agencies for their alleged involvement in Shahzad’s murder are totally unfounded,” the ISI said in a statement.
“In the absence of any evidence and when an investigation is still pending, such allegations tantamount to unprofessional conduct on the part of the media.”

Analysts have not ruled out the possibility that he may have been killed by militants. Shahzad often wrote about al Qaeda and other groups.

He was buried on Wednesday in his hometown of Karachi, where suicide bombings have killed hundreds and security forces face some of their toughest battles against militancy.

Shahzad’s wooden coffin was lowered in a graveyard as relatives, journalists and politicians looked on.
“It’s cruel. My brother is gone. How will I live without my brother?,” asked his sister, Maryam, after prayers were said.

Pakistan has a vibrant press which often attacks the government over everything from corruption to poor services and economic stagnation.

But criticism of the ISI or military is rare.

Reporters say Shahzad’s death raises troubling questions about freedoms in Pakistan, which receives billions in aid from ally Washington and describes itself is a democracy.
“It means we are being pushed to the wall and losing space to tyranny if the ISI carried this out,” said Umar Cheema, a journalist who knows all about the risks of investigating Pakistan’s security establishment.

Last year, he was picked up by suspected intelligence agents, driven to an unknown location, stripped naked and whipped with leather and a wooden rod, he said.
“Pakistan is my beloved country but nobody is safe in Pakistan. I live in what I call self-imposed house arrest because I am scared to go out,” said Cheema.

Shahzad was killed after he wrote a story that claimed al Qaeda attacked a naval base in Karachi last month after negotiations with the military to release two naval officials accused of militant links broke down.

That assault further humiliated the Pakistani military.

Some believe that with its loss of credibility after the bin Laden fiasco, and the naval base siege, the ISI may come under more public scrutiny for its apparent failure to tackle militancy and ease suicide bombings.
“Fewer people believe that the ISI is this powerful agency. People will start asking tougher questions,” said Rifaat Hussain, head of the Department of Defence and Strategic Studies at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.
“They may be more willing to ask why the ISI is tapping the telephones of the opposition when it should be providing more security for the country.”

But equally likely is that journalists will think twice about writing hard-hitting stories after Shahzad’s death.

Others have died in similar circumstances in Pakistan, the world’s most dangerous country for journalists, according to Reporters Without Borders.
“It is a death. The death of expression,” said Matiullah Jan, a correspondent with Dawn News television.
“There is an apprehension in certain quarters that it’s meant to send a shut-up message.”