CJFE is overjoyed by the safe return of Zeenat Shahzadi, a 26-year-old Pakistani journalist who went missing two years ago from the streets of Lahore. Her recovery was confirmed this morning by retired Justice Javed Iqbal, head of Pakistan's missing persons commission.
CJFE held a rally in August 2017 on the second anniversary of Zeenat's kidnapping to bring greater attention to her case and call on the Canadian government to intervene with the Pakistani government. CJFE launched a petition and lobbied Members of Parliament and government officials to urge Pakistan to order a full investigation of Zeenat's kidnapping and to prioritize her safe return home. We also sent a letter to officials within the Pakistani government demanding that they take action on her case.
Zeenat Shahzadi was kidnapped off the streets of Lahore on August 19, 2015, and had no contact with the outside world until her release on October 18, 2017. The brazen, daylight kidnapping of a young female journalist was the first of its kind in Pakistan. Zeenat’s family and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan believe Pakistan’s Special Forces are responsible, because she fearlessly pursued a story the spy agencies didn't want told.
At the time of her disappearance, Shahzadi was working to find Nehal Hamid Ansari, an Indian citizen who disappeared in Pakistan in 2012. Sources suggest that Ansari, a 28-year-old engineer, had formed a relationship with a Pakistani woman over Facebook, and panicked when she told him that her parents were pushing her to marry someone else. Ansari reportedly entered Pakistan illegally via Afghanistan, failing to obtain a visa, in order to see her. By November 15, 2015, Ansari had vanished, leaving his frantic family desperately searching for information.
Shahzadi had approached the Supreme Court of Pakistan, the Peshawar High Court and the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances on behalf of Ansari’s mother, who had granted Power of Attorney to Shahzadi for the search. The Commission of Inquiry ordered the registration of a First Information Report (FIR), a missing person's petition, for Ansari in 2014.
In January 2016, thanks to the efforts of Shahzadi, the Deputy Attorney General of Pakistan finally admitted that the Ministry of Defense had detained Ansari pending his trial in military court. It was later reported that the court sentenced him to three years in prison on the charges of espionage and illegally entering Pakistan.
According to Shahzadi’s brother Latif, Shahzadi was repeatedly interrogated and threatened by security forces pressuring her to withdraw from Ansari’s case, but remained steadfast in her commitment to help the family. Shahzadi was due to appear before the Commission on Enforced Disappearances just days after she disappeared.
Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has been known to target journalists. Law enforcement agencies exercise unrestricted powers under the 2014 Pakistan Protection Act. Those powers were further strengthened in 2015 by the Pakistan Protection Ordinance (PPO), which offers greater power and the opportunity for impunity to the police, intelligence agencies, law enforcement authorities and military for acts like forced kidnapping, torture and extrajudicial killings.
According to the Asian Human Rights Commission, “[Pakistan’s] higher judiciary, including the Supreme Court, has on many occasions found personnel from the Pakistan army and paramilitary to be involved in [...] abductions, enforced detentions and later disappearances.”
The Commission on Enforced Disappearances works under the jurisdictions of the federal government and has no authority over the country’s security agencies. 1,300 out of a total 3,000 missing people’s cases remain pending before the commission. In addition to the missing persons’ crisis, Pakistan ranks sixth in the Committee to Protect Journalists' list of the 20 deadliest countries for journalists in the world, and as the ninth worst country in the world for impunity for crimes against journalists.
The government and the judiciary are aware of forced abductions and disappearances. On a number of occasions, the Supreme Court of Pakistan has found security, intelligence agencies and paramilitary forces directly involved in forced abductions. Despite repeated orders from the courts, tainted incumbents and inefficient establishment are impotent to enforce the rule of law. The arrest orders of the Supreme Court of Pakistan for an army brigadier who was directly involved in disappearances were never executed.
Shahzadi’s family suffered a tragedy in March 2016 when Shahzadi’s teenaged brother, distraught over her kidnapping, hanged himself.