26 hours in Pakistani torture chamber

By Mustafa Malik

(Published in the Daily Star, Lebanon, June 10; Islam and the West, June 10; and the  Asia Times, Hong Kong, June 6, 2011)

I’M SADDENED but not surprised by news of the slaying of Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shehzad. He didn’t have an American passport or other credentials that apparently had enabled me to come out in one piece from a dungeon run by Pakistani intelligence.

Shehzad’s “killing bears all the hallmarks of previous killings perpetrated by Pakistani intelligence agencies,” says Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistan representative for Human Rights Watch.  The Asia Times correspondent had antagonized Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate by exposing the Pakistani navy’s links to militant groups.  Dedicated to his profession, he had defied the ISI’s warnings against digging too deep into military matters.

I have known about the travails of numerous other journalists, including myself, who incurred the wrath of Pakistani  intelligence and military services; the lines between the military and intelligence are blurred. On Aug. 21, 1989, I was interviewing retired Pakistani army general Khalid Mahmud Arif at the Rawalpindi offices of then army chief of staff Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg.  I was on a research trip to Pakistan. I told the general that I had heard complaints from Pakistani politicians about Pakistan’s huge military budget, 36.7 percent of the total national budget outlays the previous year. And I inquired if it wasn’t time to seek peace with India against which “Pakistan can’t expect to prevail” in any armed conflict.

Visibly angry, Arif asked what made me think “Pakistan can’t prevail” in a war with India.  I reminded him that the Pakistan army had lost all their three earlier wars with the Indians, and that in the 1971 conflict 93,000 Pakistani soldiers had been taken prisoners to India. Were the continual Pakistan army coups d’etat, I inquired, affecting its morale and professionalism? I would learn later that my interviewee had been deeply involved in the military coup led by the late Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq.

His eyes blazing in rage, the general ambushed me with a series of rapid-fire personal questions including one about whether I was a practicing Muslim.  When I refused to answer some of them and wanted to leave, he ordered me to “wait” and left the room. Two armed guards prevented me from getting out. About 20 minutes later three plain-clothes men barged in; arrested, handcuffed and blindfolded me; placed a hood on my head; and drove me off to an unknown location. In a basement room with spooky images on the wall and smudges of dry blood (or perhaps red dye) on the floor, I was interrogated by two angry men. I realized it was a Pakistani intelligence torture chamber. Sporting wooden staffs, they harangued me about the quality of my upbringing as a Muslim, any links I could have with Indian intelligence, the reason for my “snooping” in Pakistan’s army headquarters, and so on.

During six years I had worked as a journalist in Pakistan, I had known how the Pakistani  intelligence and military harassed, tortured and killed journalists. Now desperate to calm down Arif’s demons, I hastened to tell them that I had served as press secretary and speechwriter for their late Prime Minister Nurul Amin; that I was scheduled to interview then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto three days later; and that I was an American citizen and wanted to contact the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad. The interrogation gradually became more civil, even though I had to wait for long hours before being released.

The U.S. Embassy vice consul Michael Gaye investigated the incident and told me Sept. 9, 1989, that my 26-hour ordeal had occurred at the hands of Pakistan’s Military Intelligence service. He promised to get back to me with his follow-up action but never did.

I wasn’t surprised. The United States traditionally ignored the Pakistani armed forces’ brutality to journalists and others and, of course, their recurrent coups against democratic governments. America needed their help during the Cold War and the Afghanistan war against the Soviets. To please Pakistani army generals, the Reagan administration even called off an FBI investigation into the 1988 plane crash that killed the American ambassador to Pakistan, along with the dictator Zia ul-Haq.  The Pakistani army brass had indicated to their U.S. interlocutors that the blowing up of the C-130 aircraft had been an inside job, and that digging into it would “create problems” for them.  Today America needs the help of Pakistan’s military and intelligence services to fight anti-American militants, and I don’t expect the Obama administration to review the U.S. policy of overlooking their excesses.

I’m hoping, however, that Pakistanis themselves would eventually “create problems” for their power-drunk military and intelligence authorities. A new, politicized generation and highly motivated news media appear to be in no mood to endure the military’s repression and usurpation of political power.  In Pakistani streets and living rooms, Pakistani intelligence and army officers are excoriated, as never before, for their hubris, corruption and incompetence.

The Shehzad killing has been among the recent events that have highlighted this trend. It has rallied Pakistan’s journalist community, civil society groups, political activists and students behind the demand to bring his murderers to justice.  I don’t know of an earlier death in Pakistani intelligence or military custody that triggered similar outrage throughout Pakistan. Shehzad has paid the ultimate price to help galvanize Pakistanis to reform the instruments of their repression, in this case the rogues in their military-intelligence establishment.

Reining in these vain men in arms will not be easy, especially because Pakistani armed forces have never known civilian control. I don’t believe, however, that they can remain immune to the driving winds of democracy and freedom that are swirling in Pakistan and its neighborhoods.

  • Mustafa Malik is the host of the blog Beyond Freedom: http://beyond-freedom.com.