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Prior to his death, Shahzad had been investigating alleged ties between Pakistan's security services and militant groups

Credit: David Davies/PA
Press freedom and human rights groups have criticised a Pakistan government commission report on the murder of a journalist in the country after it concluded there was no evidence – direct or circumstantial – to single out a culprit, despite widespread suspicion that the country's security forces were involved.

Syed Saleem Shahzad, who was Pakistan bureau chief for Asia Times and South Asia correspondent for Italian news agency Adnkronos International, went missing from the capital Islamabad in May last year. His body was found two days later and, according to the report, bore evidence of torture.

Prior to his death, Shahzad had been investigating alleged ties between Pakistan's chief security agency, the ISI, and militant groups including al-Qaeda.

The commission's report, published on Friday, acknowledged that in the wake of his death Pakistani citizens "were alarmed since the net of suspicious [sic] was cast, amongst others, on institutions of the state itself", but ultimately concluded that, "from what is available on the record, unfortunately, the culprits cannot be identified".

The commission, which was made up of a judge of Pakistan's Apex Court, the chief justice of the Federal Shariat Court, inspector generals of police for Punjab and Islamabad, and the president of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), spent six months investigating the murder and claimed it had conducted an "extensive inquiry" and done "everything in its capacity to discharge its burden".

But press freedom and human rights groups have heavily criticised the inconclusive findings of the report. Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division, told Journalism.co.uk that the commission had "further muddied the water instead of clarifying it".

"The report failed to deal with what Pakistanis and Pakistani journalists expected it to, which was to at least narrow down who was responsible, including what institutions.

"Instead it made some ridiculous statements, one of which was that the killing could have been carried out by anyone. They simply went though the list of all of those that could have killed him and further muddied the water instead of clarifying it."

Human Rights Watch was the recipient of an email sent by Shahzad in October 2010, in which he detailed a meeting with the director general of the media wing and another official from the ISI. According to Adams, Shahzad told HRW that the meeting had included a "veiled death threat" and asked the rights group to make the details public "in case something happens to me or my family in future".

The commission's report did acknowledged that suspicion had been levelled at the ISI both inside and outside the media community, and argued that: "All and sundry agreed that such blatant violations of the fundamental right to life, particularly when attributed to state agencies, cannot be tolerated. A vociferous demand emerged that the matter be inquired into and those found responsible be punished."

The failure to bring anyone to justice over the crime was criticised by Benjamin Ismail, head of the Asia Pacific desk at Reporters Without Borders, who told Journalism.co.uk it was "sad that the investigation was so inconclusive and has led to so few results".

But despite the apparent failings, Ismail did say that the report had, in some ways, been "a positive step".

"The findings are not very conclusive but we still approve that an investigation was conducted, it's a first in the history of journalist assassinations in Pakistan. This is a positive sign.

Echoing Ismail's comments, Adams said that the report had "not been a complete whitewash".

"It did a couple of good things. It repeated the testimony of witnesses and some of those statements are quite devastating for the ISI. It indicates that the commission had a little bit of courage, but not a lot."

Barring the few positive outcomes he identified, Ismail said Reporters Without Borders was "not satisfied by the results and wants the investigation to continue."

He said that the commission had failed to speak to a number of high-ranking government figures, "including those in the security agencies, and especially the ISI which is already widely suspected by the majority".

According to the commission's report, Zahid Mehmood Khan, a ISI brigadir stationed in Islamabad, was interviewed on several occasions during the investigation, as well as two other ISI officials. The ISI denies any involvement in Shahzad's death, and Khan denied that the meeting mentioned by Shahzad contained any kind of death threat. He also contended that Shahzad's continued contact with the agency over clarifications and other issues – which according to the report continued for seven months after the alleged death threat – was "reciprocal and cordial".

Reporters Without Borders intends to comment officially on the report soon, Ismail said, and will respond to it "in several steps". One of those will be to send a team to Pakistan to meet with as many of those involved in the compiling of the report as possible.

Bob Dietz, asia programme director for the Committee to Protect Journalists, says the problem was the decision to prioritise a commission inquiry over a proper police investigation.

"I know a lot of Pakistani journalists were disappointed in how inconclusive this report was," he told Journalism.co.uk today, "what with the ISI being the major suspect".

"Our feeling is that these panels, these inquiries, are all well and good but very often they're very inconclusive. What was needed in this case was a proper police investigation, not an inquiry led by judges interviewing people.

"Police going out and gathering facts and building a case, and arresting people and bringing them to justice and making sure there is a fair trial. But we don't see that in Pakistan in any case."

Dietz flagged up the commission's recommendation that the government pay compensation to Shahzad's family as odd, given the lack of identification of any culprit, but said that otherwise, apart from "a lot of hints being dropped and a lot of names thrown around, there was no conclusive evidence from anyone".

Pakistan ranked as the most dangerous country for journalists and media workers in 2011 on several international reports. The International Federation of Journalists reported 11 journalist deaths in the country over the course of the year and Reporters Without Borders 10.

Pakistan also topped Reporters Without Borders' 2010 list, with 11 deaths, and was second in 2009 only to the Philippines after the a massacre in the country claimed the lives of 32 journalists in one day.

As well as outlining the details of Shahzad's death and its investigation, the commission recommended the strengthening of legislative control of the media industry in order to make it "more law-abiding and accountable".

Adams criticised the recommendation, saying it was "inexplicable to call for more regulation of the media" and was "in effect blaming Shahzad for sloppy journalism".

"The last thing the journalists in Pakistan need is the calling for more regulation. It has nothing to do with this case."

The environment the commission was working in needed to be taken into consideration, Adams said. It is one in which it is "dangerous to accuse the ISI of anything". But, he added, "if it did not have the courage to do so, it should have declined the offer to undertake the investigation".

"What Pakistan needed at this time was someone with the courage to call a spade a spade".

Despite calls from these groups and others for the investigation to continue, Dietz said he thought the report was likely to draw it to a close.

"Typically this is the end of the matter. Usually these reports aren't even made public, and I don't think we'll see much more action. You're not going to see any arrests made.

"More journalists have been killed in Pakistan than anywhere else in the last two years and it remains a target country for us. I don't see that changing.

"Saleem Shahzad was one step in this situation. We will remain focused on Pakistan for some time to come."

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