Zeenat Shahzadi. PHOTO: Facebook.
UPDATE: Zeenat has been safely released!
By Syed N. Uddin
Zeenat Shahzadi, a Pakistani journalist for the Daily Nai Khabar and Metro News in Lahore, was kidnapped on 19 August 2015 when armed gunmen grabbed her from a rickshaw and threw her in a waiting car. The brazen, daylight kidnapping of a 24-year-old female journalist on a busy street of the capital city was the first of its kind in Pakistan. Shahzadi’s case highlights the danger faced by journalists who challenge the interests of the South Asian nation’s vastly powerful security agencies, and the near-total impunity enjoyed by those who target them.
Shahzadi’s family and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan believe Pakistan’s Special Forces are responsible, arguing that the politically explosive nature of the story that she was working on, and the brazen nature of her kidnapping, point towards the intelligence agencies’ complicity. Officials from the agencies deny any involvement.
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, was in the country for love. He 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. Deciding that he had to see her, Ansari reportedly entered Pakistan illegally via Afghanistan, failing to obtain a visa. 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 Hamid 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.
On the intervention of the court, Shahzadi’s kidnapping was included in the missing people’s file and a Joint Investigation Team is set to probe the case. The JIT is now meeting with Shahzadi’s family. To date, no warrant or FIR has been filed for her kidnapping.
Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has been known to target journalists. Law enforcement agencies exercise unrestricted powers under the Pakistan Protection Act of 2014. 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, 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, now investigating Shahzadi’s kidnapping, 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 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 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.
The family has appealed to the Chief of Army staff, Chief Justice , Prime Minister, Minister of Interior and Chief Minister of Punjab for Shahzadi’s safe recovery. They have yet to hear back.
Shahzadi’s family suffered another tragedy in March 2016 when her teenaged brother, distraught over the her kidnapping, hanged himself. Shahzadi’s mother, Kaneez Bibi, frequently visits the grave of her son as the only way to find solace. She keeps Zeenat’s belongings in order, waiting on her return.
How long she waits may depend on the willingness of the government to investigate, with courage and impartiality, the role of the special forces or military in Zeenat Shahzadi’s abduction. Given the impunity the Pakistan’s security forces have long enjoyed, she may be waiting for some time.
CJFE’s Campaign to End Impunity is part of a global call for accountability for crimes that silence the voices of activists, journalists, bloggers, artists and others exercising their right to free expression. To learn more visit the campaign headquarters.