Strange case of Zeenat Shahzadi, who is still in ISI custody

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Pakistan may soon have a new name internationally– Ghaibistan, or the land of the disappeared. Here is why.

She was as patriotic a Pakistani as any Punjabi in Lahore, capital of Punjab– stronghold of Pakistan army– can possibly be. On August 15, 2015 she posted on Facebook: “Military Courts starts working actively. Army Chief Gen. Raheel Sharif approved the death sentences of seven hardcore terrorists Well done.”

But this did not prevent Pakistan’s CIA called the ISI to think that she is anti-Pakistan. According to the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), Zeenat Shahzadi was kidnapped off the streets of Lahore on 19 August 2015, and had no contact with the outside world until her release on 18 October 2017. “The brazen, daylight kidnapping of a young female journalist was the first of its kind in Pakistan,” said the CJFE Thursday.

A global coalition of press freedom organizations are calling upon Pakistan to immediately allow freedom of movement to journalist Zeenat Shahzadi, who was recently released after two years in captivity, said the CFJE. “The 26 year old Pakistani journalist was recovered from her kidnappers last month after having vanished from the streets of Lahore, yet she has not yet been released from government custody. There is no justification for this delay. For the sake of her safety, Shahzadi must be immediately released to her family and allowed to seek counsel and treatment from qualified professionals,” said the CJFE.

The teenage brother of Shahzadi, Saddam Hussain, who was distraught over her disappearance, committed suicide by hanging himself from a tree on March 24 last year.

Journalist bodies in Pakistan, afraid that they may themselves become the next target if they speak out, kept mum over Shahzady disappearance.

Houston based Tanvir Arain, a Pakistani journalist who repeatedly faced gun attacks by the ISI, had petitioned against Pakistan spooks to former premier Nawaz Sharif in May last year for the release of the young journalist.

“I feel sorry to about the state of rule of law in Pakistan that on 19 August 2015, Ms. Zeenat Shahzadi, a journalist working for the Daily Nai Khabarand the Metro News television channel in Lahore, Punjab, disappeared while on her way to work in an auto-rickshaw. She was to appear before the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances on August 24, but before that she was disappeared by plain-clothed persons. Police registered an abduction case against “unknown men”.

Arain said Shahzadi was pursuing the safe recovery of a young Indian engineer Hamid Ansari , resident of Andheri West in Mumbai, who was forcibly disappeared by Pakistani intelligence agencies in November 2012.

The story can be made into a hit Bollywood movie. Arain said Hamid Ansari fell in love with a Pakistani girl in the Khyber Pashtunkhwa province whom he met on Facebook. The parents of the girl wanted to get her married against her wish.

“As Ansari was denied a Pakistan visa, he came to Afghanistan and then crossed in Khyber Pashtunkhwa to meet the love of his life but was abducted by the ISI,” Arain said. He said though he never met Shahzadi, he became interested in her case as she was a fellow journalist.

Shahzadi had moved applications with the Supreme Court’s human rights cell and the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances after securing special power of attorney from Fauzia Ansari, mother of Ansari and a college lecturer in Mumbai. (Ansari’s father Nihal Ansari is a retired bank official). She also filed a habeas corpus plea before the Peshawar High Court.
“The ISI boys asked her to back off, but she refused,” said Arain.  According to Latif, a brother of Shahzadi, she had received threats from unknown people who asked her not to pursue the case. “We too asked her not to put her life at risk, but she said she wanted to help Ansari out of humanity.”

In his letter to Sharif, Arain wrote that in February 2016 a military court is said to have jailed Ansari for three years on the charges of illegally entering Pakistan and spying.

Arain had urge the authorities to prosecute those military officials who abducted Hamid Ansari and kept him in illegal detention for more than three and a half years without producing him before the court. “The young Indian must be compensated,” Arain demanded.

People like Arain are sitting ducks in Pakistan. He is now filing for asylum in the United States.

Najeeb Khan, who lives in Albany and is director of the American Friends of Balochistan, had interacted with Shahzadi on Facebook. Khan too received ISI bullets in his body in Quetta, capital of Balochistan, for siding with the Baloch struggle. He recalls that though she used to be super patriotic when they come into contact, there seemed to have been a change in her ideas about Pakistan some months before her abduction.

The CJFE said 1,300 out of a total 3,000 missing people’s cases remain pending before the Commission on Enforced Disappearances. It said in addition to the missing persons’ crisis, Pakistan ranks sixth in the list of the 20 Deadliest Countries for journalists in the world, and as the ninth worst country in the world for impunity for crimes against journalists.

“It is unconscionable that Shahzadi’s family be delayed from reuniting with their daughter and sister any longer. The Pakistani government must immediately release Shahzadi to her family,” the CJFE demanded.

Zohra Yusuf, chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, on a query by this writer said, “As far as I know she is under treatment at a private hospital in Pindi. We have not been able to meet her.”

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