Pakistan, where disappearance and torture of people is not uncommon, a prominent journalist was tortured and humiliated after abduction by unidentified men from the capital, Islamabad, on Saturday, September 4. Umar Cheema, a reporter with The News International in Islamabad and the 2008 Daniel Pearl Fellow at The New York Times, was picked up by some unknown men in police uniforms.
"I was held in illegal captivity for 6 hours during which I was continuously tortured and humiliated in nude. They stripped me out of my clothes, hanged me upside down and shaved off my head and moustaches," the senior reporter of the country's leading English daily recounted. "You are filing anti-government stories. What is your agenda? You are working for a lobby which favored martial law," Cheema quoted the abductors as saying.
There are many speculations about Umar Cheema's abductors. Was it the unpopular government of President Asif Ali Zardari which is unable to help millions of people uprooted by the floods or any one of the several intelligence agencies such as Inter-Services Intelligence the most powerful spy agency controlled by the Army - or the Directorate of Intelligence Bureau (IB) a civilian spy agency?
A review of Cheema's recently published stories may provide some insight.
Cheema's last piece, on August 20, was about how some big businessmen would not
be attending a meeting called by President Zardari to raise funds for flood
relief. On July 8, he reported on the opposition parties' resolve to back the
judiciary in any stand-off with the government. On July 2, he reported that
some Turkish guides hired for Zardari's visit to Turkey
had not been paid and had gone to court against the Pakistan embassy. On June 19, he
reported about Law Minister Babar Awan chartering a Pakistan Air Force plane to
bribe bar associations in southern Punjab. On
May 16, he wrote a story claiming that General Musharraf's right-hand man Tariq
Aziz had become Zardari's close adviser. And on May 12, he reported about how Interior
Minister Rehman Malik's past was being whitewashed and the record of cases
against him was disappearing.
On the other hand, the army may not be happy with many of Cheema's stories. On August 5, a sensitive story about how the army is using up to 400 personnel of the Rawalpindi police to guard the army chief's house and the routes to it. On July 8, a story about the mishandling by intelligence agencies of high profile terror attacks such as that on Lt Gen Mushtaq Baig and ISI buses, which led to the acquittal of the accused. On July 7, a story detailing the Punjab government's condemnation of the army and its intelligence agencies for not cooperating in terror attacks investigations. On June 9, a story about how one of the commandos court-martialed for disobedience during the Lal Masjid operation was seeking Nawaz Sharif's help. On June 8, a story about how the two court-martialed commandos had not been provided the court-martial proceedings and had approached the Supreme Court for justice. On May 26, a report about the quiet arrests of an army major and his brother after the Faisal Shehzad incident in New York.
From these stories it looks that neither the corrupt US-installed government of President Zardari nor the powerful Army, which controls the strings of the government behind the scene, was happy with what Umar Cheema was writing. Hence it is difficult to pin point the blame on any one of the two parties. However, Cheema was fortunate that he was released after six hours of torture and not disappeared like thousands of innocent people of Pakistan. He was fortunate that he was not killed like the kidnapped Baluchi lawyer Zaman Marri, whose bullet-riddled body was found on Monday (September 6). Zaman Marri was kidnapped on July 19 by a group of armed men from the Baluchistan capital, Quetta, when he was returning home from his office.
The exact number of missing persons and victims of forced disappearance are difficult to independently verify, notably due to difficulties in access and security considerations in many parts of the country. However, different estimates by nationalist groups, religious organizations and different human rights organizations, claim that as many as 8,000 cases of missing persons have been reported since the start of the "war on terror" from different parts of the country. In Balochistan province alone, over 4,000 persons are reportedly missing and disappearances continue to be perpetrated, notably by paramilitary forces.
According to the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC) since the outset of the military operation against militants, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, formally known as North West Frontier Province (NWFP), has been the scene of heightened disappearances, including those conducted in connivance with foreign forces. Around 1000 persons belonging to religious groups are missing or dead. In Sindh province, over 100 Sindhi nationalists are thought to have been arrested, and remain disappeared but are believed to be being held in military torture cells. In Punjab, most disappeared persons reportedly belong to religious militant groups.
The phenomenon of disappearances and missing persons is multi-faceted, but is accompanied by a lack of effective, credible actions by the authorities and impunity across the board. "The country is beset by grave and widespread human rights violations by various State-agencies and institutions, notably by the notorious Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and the military. Thousands of persons are missing as a result of forced disappearances committed all across the country, in particular in conflict-affected areas, such as Balochistan province," the ALRC said in a press release on August 27.
Going back to the abduction and torture of Umar Cheema. This is an assault on the freedom of expression and freedom of speech. This is an attempt to silence the few courageous voices in the print and electronic media of Pakistan which remains fettered on the vital national issues such as the endemic role of army in the government and the killing of innocent civilians in the name of the "war on terror" by the army and the US drone attacks.