ISLAMABAD: The Judicial Commission on the Saleem Shehzad case has not exonerated the ISI of the murder though a recorded conversation between militants has raised questions about the likely involvement of the militant group of Ilyas Kashmiri in the gruesome murder.
Given the pattern and sophistication of operation, suspicions do go towards the intelligence agencies but the recorded conversation between Kashmiri group militants with one saying “a bad man has met his fate” with reference to the slain journalist opens up another dimension.
The Commission has noted with concern an admission made by DPO Mandi Bahauddin and SSP, Islamabad, that they did not interrogate the ISI in their interim investigation and has directed them to continue their criminal investigation dutifully and diligently.
Contrary to what has been reported and editorialised, terming the Commission report a mere ‘eyewash’, a thorough reading found that well placed ISI officials were examined more than once and their alleged harassment and intimidation of journalists was taken into serious account. The officers examined were Admiral Adnan Nazir, Brig Zahid Mehmood Khan, Naval Commodore Khalid Pervaiz and Brig Iftikhar Ahmad. The former two were examined more than once while a majority of the journalists who recorded statements complained against Adnan Nazir. Owing to this reason, the Commission recommended oversight and proper legislation for intelligence agencies, holding them accountable.
ISI’s Brig Zahid Mehmood also urged his own department to stop patronising journalists. “The ISI/ISPR and other agencies should stop patronising and protecting ‘favourite’ journalists.” Although the report has left many journalists disappopinted, responsibility could not be fixed since there was no tangible evidence available to indict any individual or institution.
While journalists mostly consider that the murder was committed by the ISI, none from the family or close friends have pointed a finger at the agency. Also, the email record of Saleem Shehzad concluded that he remained in contact with the ISI seven months after the purported threatening email and the tone and tenor of electronic correspondence found relations to be cordial. The last contact was made a day after Osama bin Laden’s murder. The Commission relied on the statements, documents and other evidence to reach its conclusion. It could not have fixed responsibility on any individual or organisation on the basis of perception and without any tangible evidence, though the Commission took serious note of alleged harassment of journalists by ISI officials.
The most vital statements for investigators were those collected from the family and close friends, neither of whom said a state agency was involved in the murder. The complainant in the murder case, Saleem’s brother-in-law, Hamza Ameer, for instance, didn’t even “remotely or indirectly mention the involvement of ISI or any other agency in the matter.
Anita Saleem, the widow, didn’t point fingers towards any agency or individuals, saying her husband never apprised her in this respect. Asked if she was threatened from any quarter, Anita said: “There has been no pressure on me since the day of incident from any corner whatsoever and this is true for myself and also from my children and other family members.” She went to state that her decision of intimating to Human Rights Watch (HRW) about the abduction of Saleem was not under the direction from husband as he never advised her regarding this. Instead, she was asked to do so by a foreign journalist friend of Saleem’s.
As the complainants, Hamza and widow, Anita, didn’t nominate any organisation or individual, the Commission noted: “These were the two most important persons who should have indicated the motive.”
Saleem’s brother, Fawad, only said that slain journalist had once told him of threats from the ISI and that he had conveyed them to Hameed Haroon. Fawad further explained: “I do not have any clue who is responsible for this incident; there may be someone other than the ISI who has done this to benefit and serve their own purpose.”
One may argue that the family might be too afraid after the tragic killing to speak against and earn the ire of the ISI by blaming it directly however, Saleem’s friends also didn’t say anything that could establish that he was facing from the spy agency.
Two of Saleem’s close friends, Sheikh Zafar and Faizan Ahmad, were not categorical either. Zafar in fact told the Commission that Saleem’s writings were sometimes damaging to national interests. While acknowledging that Saleem had annoyed the Taliban/al-Qaeda and ISI, Zafar said the slain journalist had in past received death threats specifically from Taliban and the 313 Brigade of Ilyas Kashmiri but successful backdoor efforts had helped in resolving this conflict. He was not clear who could have killed him, but was clear “state institutions wre not involved in the incident.”
Faizan, another close friend of Saleem, told the Commission that Saleem’s articles had annoyed the ISI, but threats, if ever, issued from the agency official to the slain journalist, were never shared with him.
Contrary to what Saleem’s close ones told the Commission, other journalists recorded their statements strongly suspecting the ISI for its involvement in the murder, given the agency’s history of hostility towards dissenting elements, its patterns of teaching lesson to such people and personal experiences of the journalists. However, majority of them, when asked, told the Commission they didn’t have any close relationship with the slain journalist, hence were unaware of the nature of threats he was facing from different quarters.
Nevertheless, the Commission has not absolved the ISI of responsibility as four senior officers were examined; two of them were summoned more than once, namely, Rear Admiral Adnan Nazir and Brig Zahid Mehmood Khan. The other two summoned were Naval Commodore Khalid Pervaiz and Brig Iftikhar Ahmad.
Rear Admiral Adnan Nazir could not convince the Commission why Saleem took his (Adnan) famous “I must give you a favour....” as threats. It was also revealed that when Saleem had passed this email to his magazine editor and HRW as a reference in case something untoward happens to him, he also cc’d this email to Adnan. “The Commission thus has reason to believe that these words were indeed uttered by Rear Admiral Adnan and were accordingly perceived by Saleem to be a threat.”
A subsequent email wherein Saleem requested a meeting over a cup of tea with Adnan was accepted with the latter putting a condition: ‘a cup of tea will be a cup of tea, no minuting’. ‘Minuting’ was with reference to the previous meeting followed by the most crucial email of Saleem Shehzad.
As the ISI produced a record of a number of email exchanges after October 17 meeting, a fact verified from Saleem’s computer data, the Commission noted that the tone and tenor of the emails didn’t suggest any tense relations afterward as the last contact between them took place on May 3, 2011, a day after Osama bin Laden’s killing.
“The Commission has no reason to discard the perception of Saleem in construing such words as a threat and showing his reaction...However, there is evidence available on record which shows that in the subsequent seven months, Saleem and Admiral Adnan Nazir kept interacting with each other, and the tone of the interaction is absolutely normal, decent, courteous, friendly and cordial, as if no threat was ever given to or perceived by Saleem. This dilutes the effect of the crucial e-mail. This threat, after the lapse of seven months, cannot singularly be taken as a sufficient circumstantial evidence to conclusively hold that ISI is responsible for this incident on that account.”
Nevertheless, the Commission has not ruled out the strong perception among the journalist community that the ISI harasses and intimidates journalists.
Rear Admiral Adnan Nazir was the most sought after ISI official by the journalists recording statement as everybody complained of him, including Hamid Mir, Absar Alam, Imtiaz Alam and others.
Imtiaz Alam, SAFMA secretary general’s piece of advice was quite plausible: “The ISI must deflate its larger-than-life image, focus on its mandated job and evolve a transparent policy in its relationship with the media. It should drastically rethink its media-engagement policy, he goes on, and “dispense with the army of pseudo-journalists that it keeps on its payroll and who have proved to be good for nothing.”
Although threats and acts of intimidation are denied by the ISI, “yet from the statements of the above named, the Commission cannot hold that their understanding and perception about the threats etc. extended to them are misconceived, simply for the reason that it had been refuted by the ISI official.” When so many senior and respected journalists have come forward to record their perception, noted the Commission, that they found certain words, gestures and acts of ISI officials as intimidating and threatening, then it is hard to dismiss it lightly, “merely on account of a bald denial by ISI.”
“Therefore, from the overwhelming material available on the record, the Commission is convinced that there are sufficient reasons to believe that the agencies, including ISI, have been using coercive and intimidating tactics in dealing with those journalists who antagonize the Agency’s interest.”
Brig Zahid Mehmood from the ISI demanded action against journalists leveling baseless allegations against the Agency and called for an effective media regulatory policy. But credit goes to him for not sparing his own organisation though he also said that “ISI/ISPR and other agencies should stop patronising and protecting ‘favourite’ journalists.”
Keeping in view such harassment incidents, the Commission has recommended accountability of the agencies through bringing them under parliamentary oversight and taking such other measures.
The Commission also noted that the strong perception in journalist community that the ISI has had a motive to kill Saleem Shehzad may hold some weight, but there is no tangible evidence to establish that fact.
“The motive in law is not a substantive piece of evidence, but it can only be used in support of substantive evidence; motive is not an evidence of crime; at the best, it can corroborate the evidence of crime; that too, if there is direct, substantive, convincing and proved evidence.”
The Commission has also noted with concern that Mandi Bahuddin Police and Islamabad Police while conducting preliminary investigation into Saleem’s murder had not interrogated the ISI and directed them do so.
As for the role of militants in killings of Saleem is concerned, the Commission agrees with the journalist community that modus operandi was of intelligence agency, given the sophistication of the operation and experience of journalist community. However, geo-fencing and recorded conversations produced by the ISI lend suspicion towards the 313 Brigade of Ilyas Kashmiri.
A recorded conversation played before the Commission indicated that Nawaz (a militant presently in Adiyala Jail and a source of Saleem) spoke to a front man of Kashmiri after the murder . While Nawaz expressed sorrow over the killing of Saleem, the front man of Ilyas Kashmiri cursed Saleem for the damage he had done to their network and remarked that a bad man had met his fate. The Commission, according to report, verified the tape and voice testing conducted through the Punjab Police chief who confirmed that the voice of Nawaz, presently in Adiyala Jail, is genuine.
It was also transpired through geo-fencing that Saleem interacted with one Qari Ismail, a militant of Ilyas Kashmiri, at his number 0323-9332210 who was in Islamabad on May 27. Qari Ismail had also contacted Meher Bokhari, anchorperson, on April 19, 2011. The Commission wanted to examine Meher Bokhari who refused to cooperate in this respect.