PARIS – Khawar Mehdi Rizvi is a Pakistani journalist. For almost a month he has been languishing – and most probably being tortured – in a Pakistani jail or safehouse somewhere in Pakistan. Nobody knows where he is. The co-director of the Federal Investigation Agency – which deals with white-collar crimes and passport and visa matters – has told Karachi’s High Court that he has no idea about Khawar Mehdi’s fate. Sources tell Asia Times Online that Khawar Mehdi may in fact be in the clutches of hardline sectors of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the Pakistani intelligence services.
Khawar Mehdi was first detained, along with two French journalists, Marc Epstein and Jean-Paul Guilloteau, working for the French weekly L’Express, on December 14, near the small industrial city of Hub, a 45-minute drive from Karachi in Balochistan province. The accusation was “violation of visa restrictions” – they had broken the law by traveling to Quetta, in Balochistan province, and then to the volatile Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Since early 2003, every Pakistani press visa contains a handwritten note: “Valid only for Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore.”
On December 16, police formally arrested the two French journalists in their Karachi hotel. This was also the last day that Epstein, Guilloteau or anybody for that matter saw Khawar Mehdi. Like the victims of the Chilean and Argentine military juntas in the 1970s, Khawar Mehdi became a “disappeared.”
The French journalists are finally back in Paris, thanks to the strenuous efforts of French diplomacy, as Epstein recognizes. After pleading guilty to the charge of visa-restriction violation, they were fined and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment. But the judge suspended the sentence, allowing their lawyer to file an appeal. High-level French diplomatic pressure paid off, and they were finally released early this week.
Khawar Mehdi, on the other hand, has been tried in absentia by PTV – Pakistani Television. In a December 24 news report, the state network accused the two French journalists of fabricating a video of a fake Taliban training camp, with the help of Khawar Mehdi. According to the news-report transcript by Reuters, “Abdullah Shakir, a Pakistani tribesman, claims he had impersonated a Taliban commander in a video allegedly prepared by two French journalists with the help of Pakistani accomplices.” In the report, Shakir says, in Urdu: “Khawar [Mehdi] Rizvi told me: ‘You come with us to Afghanistan. We will give you US$50 a day. Two French persons are coming with us. We are going to make a film there.'”
Epstein, a seasoned reporter, says he interviewed Abdullah Shakir for almost seven hours, and he struck him as a genuine Taliban commander, although not very high up in the hierarchy. Shakir unveiled a number of Taliban operations in great detail. He lives in Rawalpindi, near Islamabad, and operates in the tribal areas. There’s nothing suspicious about it: the overwhelming majority of Taliban graduated from Pakistani madrassas – in Karachi or in Haqqania, near Peshawar – and commanders’ families live not in Afghanistan but in Peshawar, Karachi and Rawalpindi.
On December 9, Shakir actually traveled from Islamabad to Quetta on the same plane with Khawar Mehdi and the two French journalists. The next day they were all driven to the Pakistani-Afghan border. Epstein had a global-positioning satellite – later confiscated by Pakistani police, along with his laptop, phones, and notebook and Guilloteau’s photo equipment – but he did not check at the time on which side of the border he was. The Pak-Afghan border, anyway, is totally porous.
According to PTV’s story, the whole setup was nothing but a fake movie: “Shakir said he was shown as a Taliban commander who was giving military training to Taliban in Pakistan, and giving an interview on his activities inside Afghanistan. However, he confessed that he was not aware that the documentary was being shot inside Pakistan.”
Although two cameras were on the scene, one with Khawar Mehdi and the other with Epstein, there was no documentary – as PTV claims. Epstein is adamant that Khawar Mehdi “never held the camera. He didn’t film anything. For the first time in my career myself, a print reporter, shot a few scenes, to use them later if they were any good. Moreover, the word ‘Pakistan’ is never pronounced in these images, and is not to be found anywhere in my notebook.”
When they were arrested, the French journalists were charged with a visa violation. But later, says Epstein, “we were also accused of having tried to fabricate a fake film designed to soil Pakistan’s image. We were never indicted, though.” The fake film was actually fabricated by Pakistani Television, using the images shot by Epstein: the tape on Khawar’s camera was blank because he didn’t shoot anything. Shakir, the alleged Taliban commander, saved his skin by telling a lie. And the indictment fell on Khawar Mehdi.
Any journalist familiar with the Pakistani beat – one of the most complex and dangerous in the world – has identified the Khawar Mehdi affair for what it is: a stark message. The Musharraf government, some hardline ISI sectors, or both are warning foreign journalists as well as Pakistani journalists working with foreigners: you are definitely not welcome if you insist on investigating links between the Taliban and the ISI, inside or outside the tribal areas or on any side of the Pakistan-Afghan border.
Khawar Mehdi remains “disappeared” in a black hole, and even President General Pervez Musharraf seems not to know what’s going on in his own back yard. Musharraf’s own remarks have also been far from helpful, when he insinuated on PTV that Khawar Mehdi arranged this film only for the money.
Khawar Mehdi has worked for the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, Le Monde, Liberation, French Television and this Asia Times Online correspondent, among others. Of course he was paid, but it was more a question of practicing good, investigative, independent journalism. It is almost essential for any foreign journalist in Pakistan to have a good fixer who inevitably becomes a friend. Khawar Mehdi is a prince among Pakistani fixers, as well as “a great journalist,” as Epstein and colleagues can attest. A support committee has been set up in Paris, with active help by the widely respected journalist body Reporters Without Borders. Amnesty International is also involved.
Early next week, the Sind High Court will hear an appeal filed by Khawar Mehdi’s brother for the clarification of his legal status, which in the best possible case might lead to his release from illegal detention and his appearance in a court of law.
Meanwhile, double standards apply. High pressure from France – a crucial player on the world stage – led to both French journalists being released. But Khawar Mehdi cannot count on his own government to get a fair hearing in his own country.