The Pakistan government has formed a judicial commission headed by a Supreme Court judge to probe the murder of Asia Times Online Pakistan bureau chief Syed Saleem Shahzad, after journalist organizations staged an unprecedented protest.
A commission headed by Justice Main Saqib Nisar, a sitting judge of the Supreme Court, has been formed to investigate the causes and circumstances of Shahzad’s death, according to a notification issued by the Law and Justice Ministry. The reporter’s battered body, bearing signs of torture, was discovered in a canal about 150 kilometers southeast of Islamabad on May 31, two days after he vanished in the capital as he drove to a television interview.
”The commission will inquire into the background and circumstances of the abduction, and subsequent murder of Saleem Shahzad,” said the ministry’s notification. ”The commission will also recommend measures to prevent the recurrence of such gruesome incidents against journalists in the future.”
Pakistani media on Wednesday boycotted parliamentary proceedings and began a 24-hour sit-in outside Parliament House to protest the murder, which has been widely interpreted as a threat to reporters covering the complex and covert ties between militant groups and the country’s security establishment. The protesters had demanded an independent investigation into the death of Shahzad and justice for 70 other journalists killed since 2000. They were also objecting to the government’s initial decision not appoint a Supreme Court judge.
The demonstration ended on Thursday morning after Information Minister Firdous Ashiq Awan told the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) leadership that Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani had signed documents at 3am to appoint Justice Nisar.
According to the Law and Justice Ministry’s notification, the commission was to start its inquiry immediately and submit its findings within six weeks. As well as Justice Nisar, the five-member panel will consist of Justice Agha Rafiq Ahmed Khan, chief justice of the Federal Shariat Court, two senior police officials from Punjab and Islamabad, and the president of the PUFJ.
However, the commission hit a legal snag as Justice Nisar said the appointment of judges to a commission should be at the discretion of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry prior to nominating him but he hadn’t been consulted. Justice Nisar also said that, although he hadn’t been asked before the commission was announced, he would be happy to serve should the chief justice agree to his appointment, in line with legal norms.
Dr Firdous responded that consultation with the chief justice was not required for setting up the probe commission. She cited the example of the investigation into the circumstances of the death of al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden in a United States raid in Abbottabad, where a sitting Supreme Court judge, Justice Javed Iqbal, was appointed without prior permission from the chief justice.
Analysts cited by the Nation newspaper said that by not consulting the chief justice, the government had deliberately tried to politicize the matter. The decision to form the commission had been taken under the pressure of protests by journalists, but the government was not serious in bringing the culprits to justice, they said.
Journalists have alleged that the Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency was behind the death of Shahzad, who went missing two days after he had published an article on the possible infiltration of al-Qaeda operatives into the Pakistan military (see Al-Qaeda had warned of Pakistani strike, Asia Times Online, May 27, 2011), saying the married father of three had been tortured in order to extract the source of his article.
Human Rights Watch cited a “reliable interlocutor” who said Shahzad had been abducted by the ISI. The ISI issued a rare rebuttal to what it described as “baseless” media claims that it had targeted Shahzad for assassination.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has welcomed the move by the government of Pakistan to accept PFUJ’s demand to appoint a judicial commission headed by a Supreme Court judge. “The IFJ is relieved that the government of Pakistan has agreed with the demands of the PFUJ and local journalists for the inquiry into Shahzad’s murder,” IFJ Asia-Pacific director Jacqueline Park said in a statement on its website. “We reiterate our position that the inquiry must be conducted promptly and transparently, and provide firm recommendations to bring to justice the killers of Shahzad.”
In a report released on June 1 titled “Getting Away With Murder”,  the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) ranked Pakistan as the 10th most dangerous country in the world for journalists. Iraq topped the list with 92 unsolved journalists’ murder cases between January 1, 2001 to December 31, 2010.
“The findings of the 2011 Impunity Index lay bare the stark choices that governments face: Either address the issue of violence against journalists head-on or see murders continue and self-censorship spread,” CPJ executive director Joel Simon said.
During their protests, senior media and union leaders in Pakistan openly called for the protection of the journalists from the ISI. Pakistan Muslim League leader Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif also criticized hidden forces torturing journalists when speaking at their demonstration this week.
Pervaiz Shaukat, the PFUJ president, warned the government of another sit-in protest if the Judicial Commission failed to get results and thoroughly investigate Pakistan’s unresolved journalist deaths.
Asma Jahangir, the president of the Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan, summed up popular feeling in Pakistan in a television interview last week, saying, “The intelligence agencies of Pakistan should now stop these tactics of torturing, harassing and killing of the innocent people because every one knows about the torture cell of ISI, even in the small localities of the various cities.”
Note 1. Getting Away With Murder, Committee to Protect Journalists, June 1, 2011.