Pakistani journalist given U.S. asylum tells of threats, disappearances in Baluchistan

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the university at which Siraj Ahmed Malik had a fellowship. It was Arizona State University, not the University of Arizona. This version has been corrected.

November 14, 2011

Siraj Ahmed Malik, an ambitious young Pakistani journalist, was enjoying a stint last fall on a fellowship at the Arizona State University when he started getting chilling messages from home.

One after another, his friends and colleagues were disappearing, he learned, and their bodies were turning up with bullet holes and burn marks. A doctor’s son from his home town was arrested and vanished. A fellow reporter was kidnapped, and his corpse was found near a river. A student leader was detained, and his bullet-riddled body dumped on a highway. A writer whose stories Malik had edited was shot and killed.

“These were kids I had played cricket with, people I had interviewed, younger reporters I had taught,” Malik, 28, said in an interview last week in Arlington County, where he now lives. The final straw came in early June, when one of his mentors, a poet and scholar, was gunned down in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan, Malik’s native province.

On Aug. 19, Malik applied for political asylum in the United States. In his petition, he said that his work as a journalist and ethnic activist in Baluchistan, where he had exposed military abuses, made him likely to be arrested, tortured, abducted and “ultimately killed by the government” if he returned.

Two weeks ago, his petition was granted. It was a highly unusual decision by U.S. immigration officials, given Pakistan’s status: a strategic partner in Washington’s war against Islamic terrorism; a longtime recipient of U.S. aid; and a democracy with an elected civilian government and vibrant national news media.

“I never wanted to leave my country, but I don’t want to become a martyr, either,” said Malik, a soft-spoken but steely man who spends his days hunched over a laptop at coffee shops in Clarendon, checking with sources back home to update his online newspaper, whose name means “Baluch Truth.”

“What’s going on in Baluchistan is like the dirty war in Argentina,” he said. “I need to be telling the story, but I can’t afford to become the story.”

Baluchistan is the Wild West of Pakistan — a remote desert province, larger than France, that is home to a mix of radical Islamic groups, rival ethnic and refugee gangs, rebellious armed tribes, and security agencies that have long been reported to kidnap, torture and kill dissidents with impunity.

Living under constant threat

Yet this ongoing violence and skulduggery receives scant international attention. Foreign journalists are banned from visiting the region alone, while headlines about Pakistan are dominated by a separate, high-stakes border conflict in which American drones and Pakistani troops are battling the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

As a result, a handful of local journalists such as Malik have been left to investigate and report the news without big-city patrons or visiting foreign delegations to give them cover.

“The threat of disappearance was always lurking in the back of our minds,” Malik wrote in his asylum petition. “My friends, colleagues and I lived with the knowledge that yesterday it was him that disappeared; today it is someone else; tomorrow it could easily be me.”

As Malik recounted over coffee, pressure and threats from unidentified intelligence agents were a daily hazard. According to his asylum file, agents accosted him in airports and hotels, detained and questioned him, and repeatedly threatened to “teach me a lesson.”

Malik acknowledges that as an advocate for the Baluch nationalist cause, his journalism is hardly neutral. The ethnic minority movement, which seeks autonomy from the central government, includes armed groups. Malik claims that he does not condone them, but he describes their stance as a “defensive” response to official abuse.

Still, his case for protection was bolstered by reports from human rights groups and letters from university officials in Arizona, who called him “nothing short of brave.” In a July report, Human Rights Watch described a “practice of enforced disappearances” of Baluch leaders and intellectuals, often by security agencies, and listed 45 abductions or killings since 2009.

Activists including Malik assert that more than 5,000 Baluch have vanished in the past decade, but the issue has never been seriously addressed, while the government has both co-opted and persecuted Baluch tribal chiefs. In 2007, Pakistan’s military president fired the head of the Supreme Court, who sought to probe the disappearances. In 2008, a civilian government took office and an investigative commission was established, but little action has been taken.

“The authorities have no answers because there is no accountability,” said one Pakistani diplomat, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject. He suggested that Malik had exaggerated his fear of persecution as a “ploy” to remain in the United States, but he also called disappearances “the tip of the iceberg” in a society where security forces hold sway behind the scenes. Even a chief justice, he added, “knows there are lines he cannot cross.”

Driven to speak out

Najam Sethi, a newspaper publisher and titan of Pakistan’s liberal media establishment, was Malik’s boss from 2006 to 2010, when he worked as a correspondent in Quetta. For the past few months, Sethi has been on his own sabbatical at the New America Foundation in Washington, partly to escape the pressure he faces at home.

At a public forum here last week, Sethi described Pakistan’s news media as free to snipe at politicians and expose financial scandals but said it remains cautious about reporting on military and intelligence institutions, partly out of respect and partly out of fear.

“The media are scared, because there is no one to protect them,” Sethi said.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, more than 40 Pakistani journalists have been killed since 1992. In May, a well-known investigative reporter, Saleem Shahzad, was abducted and found murdered. Shahzad had received threats after writing about al-Qaeda infiltration of the military, and a senior U.S. military official said his killing had been “sanctioned” by the government.

Asked about Malik, Sethi said he thought his former staffer had been too aggressive and outspoken. As Malik’s editor, he said, he had intervened several times with military authorities to protect him. “I wish he hadn’t gone so far,” Sethi said. “He crossed too many red lines.”

Malik, however, said he felt “betrayed” by such liberal media leaders, saying they have avoided speaking out against oppression in Baluchistan. He recounted how Baluch groups had been galvanized by the 2006 army slaying of the legendary tribal chief Nawab Akbar Bugti.

“For us, the killing of Bugti was Pakistan’s 9/11,” Malik said. After that, he said, he stepped up his exposure of the violence and abuses. His activities drew increasing attention from government agents, who, he said, called him a “traitor” and threatened to kill him if he did not stop.

Instead, Malik persisted. In early 2010, he attended a conference in India and denounced the disappearances. From his fellowship perch in Arizona last winter, and then while working briefly at the Center for Public Integrity in Washington in the spring, he wrote and spoke out at every opportunity.

But as the deaths of other Baluch journalists and friends began to mount, Malik said last week, he began to hesitate about returning.

“Baluchistan needs a messenger to the world,” he said, itching to get back to his reporting. “Here in the United States, I don’t have an office or money, but at least I can stay alive and get the message out.”

Pamela Constable covers issues related to immigration policy, immigrant communities and international figures and issues that crop up in our local and regional midst.
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