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PAKISTAN: Reporter’s Death Rouses Calls for Media Freedom

Ashfaq Yusufzai

PESHAWAR, Jul 5 2006 (IPS) - Three weeks after Hayatullah Khan Dawar’s body was found, handcuffed and shot, his apparent death in custody has become a rallying call for those demanding an end to attacks on journalists in Pakistan’s sensitive tribal areas along the Afghanistan border.

Many in this frontier city believe that Dawar’s murder was related to photographs he took that seemed to prove that Egyptian-born al-Qaeda leader Abu Hamza Rabia and four others, who died in North Waziristan in an explosion on Dec.1, were hit by a U.S. army missile.

Dawar’s pictures, showing fragments from a laser-guided ‘Hellfire’ missile and published in the local press, contradicted the Pakistani army’s claim that Hamza and his associates had died while trying to manufacture a bomb. The fragments were marked ‘AGM-114′, the designator for laser-guided ‘Hellfire’ missiles, which are carried on the remote-controlled ‘Predator’ drones.

Pakistan’s cooperation with the United States in the ‘war-against-terror’ in Afghanistan has not gone down well in these parts and has become especially unpopular after the U.S. army began using drones and missiles against al-Qaeda suspects who have set up camp in Waziristan and other border areas.

Some of these attacks have missed in their targets but caused civilian casualties. The worst was a Predator strike in January in the Bajaur tribal agency that left 18 people, mostly women and children, dead sparking nation-wide anti-U.S. protests.

For political reasons, Pakistan publicly opposes U.S. military intrusions into its territory, especially in the semi-autonomous tribal areas where hundreds of militants, including al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, fled after U.S.-led forces overthrew Afghanistan’s Taliban government in 2001.

Dawar, who worked for the local newspaper ‘Ausaf’ as well as the European Pressphoto Agency (EPA), was picked up by masked men on Dec. 5 but his family had word since of his being in the custody of Pakistan’s shadowy Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). His elder brother, Ihsanullah Khan Dawar, said the handcuffs on his body were government-issue.

Although Dawar had received threats from Taliban militants for his writings, the religious group not only disclaimed responsibility but has also sworn to avenge his murder.

Urdu-language pamphlets distributed in the North Waziristan town of Miranshah town, a week after Dawar’s body was found, said he was ‘’murdered by the ISI and the pro-U.S. Pakistani military because he contradicted the stance taken by the military and published photos of U.S. missiles”. The pamphlets were signed by Abu Rashid, a Taliban leader.

Whatever the truth, Dawar’s disappearance and subsequent murder were shocking enough to spark a series of protests that have included a boycott of national assembly proceedings by journalists’ associations in Islamabad.

The boycott was called off two weeks ago after federal information minister Mohammad Ali Durrani made solemn assurance that the government would probe the slaying of Dawar and also set up a separate judicial commission under the Peshawar High Court.

But the secretive manner in which the judicial commission has been functioning has aroused suspicion among political parties, representatives of human rights organisations and journalists. Intikhab Amir, president of the local Khyber Union of Journalists said that the in-camera proceedings have cast doubts on the transparency of the commission.

The highly-respected Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) now plans to set up its own fact-finding committee, consisting of journalists, lawyers and representatives of human rights organisations, to visit the area where the journalist’s body was found and get statements about the murder.

HRCP chairman, A. R. Rehman said that journalists do not accept the so-called Safety Act or Special Laws. “We are only bound to the country’s laws under the constitution. Everyone knows who kidnapped and murdered Hayatullah,” Rehman said at a meeting here, last week.

Rehman rejected the compensation announced by the government for Dawar’s family. “We don’t accept the payment of compensation tax. There is no act passed by the assembly to kill innocent citizens and then pay for the killings.”

“We are proud that Hayatullah wrote facts for which he sacrificed his life”, his younger brother, Haseenullah Khan Dawar told IPS. The 19-year-old said his brother had established the Al Hayat Model School in Mir Ali, North Waziristan.

Dawar’s grieving widow told IPS says he was frequently called over telephone by officials of secret agencies. “On the day of his disappearance, he had received calls asking him for a meeting. I tried to stop him repeatedly, but he said he would get a story,” his wife recalled.

Hayatullah’s six-month disappearance had occasioned demonstrations by journalists in Peshawar and prompted international organizations such as the Journalists Sans Frontieres, the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) as well as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, to issue statements urging Islamabad to ensure his release.

Apprehensions are now growing over the fate of TV journalist Mukesh Rupeta who vanished in March while filming around an airbase in Jacobabad used by U.S. forces and the site of protests by groups opposed to Pakistan’s cooperation with Washington.

Geo TV, for which Rupeta worked, said military officials have admitted that Rupeta was detained for filming the airbase but, officially, the government has denied any involvement.

“The government has no information about Rupeta,” interior minister in Sindh province Rauf Siddiqui told journalists protesting in Karachi. “We will try to locate Rupeta’s whereabouts.”

“The Pakistani government must investigate Rupeta’s disappearance and ensure that the perpetrators of these horrendous crimes are brought to justice,” an IFJ statement said.

In the case of Dawar too the government had denied involvement. ‘’Had they (government agencies) been involved, the body would never have been found,” said Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan, the military spokesman.

But journalists in Peshawar believe that Dawar’s body, with handcuffs on, was disposed of in a manner as to warn journalists against meddling in Waziristan where the army has stationed some 80,000 troops to fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda which. In recent months, these groups have stepped up attacks within Afghanistan. Davar is the fifth journalist to have been killed in Waziristan over the last two years.

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