A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission

PAKISTAN: Fingers point towards the armed forces for the murder of journalist Musa Khankhel

The world was reminded of the tragic paradoxes that take place daily in Pakistan, when a young journalist was kidnapped and executed last month while covering a march for peace. Mr. Musa Khankhel, journalist and correspondent of Geo Television disappeared on February 18, while covering a procession led by Maulana Sufi Mohammad, a religious leader in Swat, in the NWF province. The procession was to celebrate a peace agreement with the government which would see Islamic Sharia laws implemented in the valley. He was 28 years old and had been threatened several times by government security forces for his steadfast independent reporting. He had also been kidnapped and tortured twice before by security forces. As a journalist he was not popular among militant groups either, including the Taliban and the group lead by Maulana Soofi Mohammad, Tehrik Nifa-1Shariat Mohammadi (TNSM).

After his body had turned up in the Matta sub district, the government, TNSM and the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) announced the formation of probe committees into his death. No one laid claim to the murder. The government assigned the Inspector General of police in the province to investigate the incident, but neither he nor Maulana’s committee has reported any findings so far. Only the probe committee of PFUJ appears to have started a concrete investigation, and Mr. Mohammad Riaz, the chief of the PFUJ committee, has visited the area. He reports that the atmosphere there is tense and few civilians are willing to discuss Khankhel’s death; they are scared of harassment from both the sides, the militants and the security forces. The latter are known to brutally and often arbitrarily mete out punishment in the more remote parts of the country, and disappearances here are not uncommon. There are also no police in the area. Without committed government intervention – a high judicial commission – to probe the killings, Riaz says, it will not be possible to unearth the ‘truth’. Information gathered by the AHRC points, increasingly, at Pakistan’s wayward security forces for the murder.

On the day he was murdered, friends and relatives say that Khankhel mentioned hearing that ‘today one journalist may be killed’, through sources in the security agencies stationed in the war zone. Because of this he told prominent senior journalist and anchor person, Mr. Hamid Mir, to be extremely careful, should he choose to visit the area. Mir remembers Khankel telling him: ‘you will watch the scenes of destruction in civilian residential areas of Kabal. You will show live destroyed homes and mosques, and people will equate your coverage with the bombing of Gaza by Israelis. You will become a security risk and they will kill you in the name of national interest. And the blame will be placed at Taliban’s door.’ Tragically, Khankel had not realised that he was the journalist in question.

Khankhel had survived two assassination attempts last year, both times, he said, by the security forces. In November he was kidnapped and tortured for two days in custody, and was told that should he continue his investigations, his family members would be killed. He later told Mir, his colleague, that ‘some elements in the security forces want to eliminate me physically, due to my reporting’. The journalist’s younger brother, Essa Khankhel, also a journalist, told the AHRC that his brother had managed to record a death threat from one security officer in the past.

The AHRC has learned that the day before his assassination, Khankhel was stopped and threatened by security persons at a press conference held by Mr. Bashir Bilour, the senior minister of the NWF Province. Bilour was giving a briefing on the peace pact between the provincial government and TNSM. One Major Farooq, of Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), exchanged harsh words with Khankhel, and he was told to be careful when dealing with the armed forces.

Reports from eye witnesses in the area, particularly shopkeepers from Matta (the sub-district in Swat from where he was abducted) have pointed out that there were a good number of security personnel around when Khankhel was taken. In Matta, Musa had visited a few shops and proceeded to a spot along the route of the procession. He was trying to hail a taxi when three persons carried him forcefully away.

Provincial government ministers, including the spokespersons of Taliban Pakistan and TNSM, are all denying responsibility, and claiming that a ‘third force’ was involved. This ‘third force’, ministers concede quietly, means the armed forces. A top office bearer of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists has observed that when the Taliban kills, they claim it openly. Hamid Mir has written several articles suggesting that his colleague was the target of the army.

In the past year four journalists have been reportedly killed by the security forces in the Swat, twenty over the last two year period. Journalists, particularly reporting in the war torn NWFP on its destroyed houses, schools and hospitals, observe that security forces are generally hostile toward them, and each reporter has experiencing problems during investigations, some receiving death threats. The motive, as explained by the journalists, is to keep the reporters out of the area. Journalist Mr. Hameedullah’s house was bombed on his return to his village on 5 January, 2009. They and other residents had been forced to evacuate the area on 28 December, when the army launched an offensive against the Taliban.

Although there are conflicting reports about Khankhel’s killing; most of the reports point in the same direction. After the ‘war on terror’, the impunity enjoyed by security agencies saw a dramatic rise in cases of torture, abduction, disappearance and the murder of government opponents. There are more than 4000 persons disappeared for their resistance to military operations in different part in the country, and the AHRC last year determined the existence of 52 clandestine detention centres. Still, ‘unknown’ actors are publicly blamed for many of the area’s most violent crimes.

To specify a ‘third force’ and name it only in private, pays no tribute to the memory of Musa Khankhel, and to his family. Investigations into the torture and deaths of other journalists have sputtered and failed. Courage and an iron political will is needed from the government to tackle this blight in Pakistan: a corrupt, wayward and arbitrarily violent security force that has only been encouraged, rather than reined in, over the years. A high powered judicial commission must be formed to probe the murder, uncover the truth about the involvement of security agencies in the death of journalists, and to bring the perpetrators to justice. It must be shown that no one in Pakistan is above the law, in any part of the country.

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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

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