U.S. Detains Voice of America Journalist Fleeing Threats at Home in Pakistan

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By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 14, 2009

U.S. immigration officials have detained a Pakistani journalist employed by the U.S.-sponsored Voice of America news service who was hoping to find refuge in the United States after Islamic militants in Pakistan destroyed his house and threatened his life.

Rahman Bunairee, 33, was taken into custody Sunday afternoon upon arriving at Dulles International Airport, according to VOA officials.

It is not clear why Bunairee was detained.

Joan Mower, a spokeswoman for VOA, declined to comment on the particulars of Bunairee's detention other than to say: "VOA is obviously extremely concerned. We're really upset about what's happened to this guy."

Cori Bassett, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, confirmed that Bunairee is in the agency's custody but said she could not release further details because of privacy reasons.

Bunairee, in addition to filing reports for VOA's Pashto-language radio service, is a popular reporter with the privately owned Pakistani broadcaster Khyber TV. He is usually based in the southern port city of Karachi, but he is originally from the Buner district of Pakistan's embattled North-West Frontier Province near the Afghanistan border, where the Taliban and other Islamic militant groups are active. He recently returned to that region to cover a series of major offensives against the militants by the Pakistani military.

In the past, the militants enjoyed a measure of support, or at least tolerance, among many Pakistanis. But the public mood shifted markedly against the militants this spring, partly because of local media reports about their cruel practices in Buner and other districts then under their control.

On July 7, Bunairee participated in a VOA call-in radio show in which he discussed the Taliban's continued presence in Buner despite a major campaign by the Pakistani military to oust them last May, Mower said.

Two nights later, several dozen armed militants went to Bunairee's family compound in Buner.

Bunairee was not there. The militants told his father that because Bunairee was "speaking against them," they had orders to destroy the house. The men allowed Bunairee's family, including his wife and four children, to leave, then ransacked the house and leveled it with explosives.

That night in the Buner district, militants bombed the home of another journalist, Behroz Khan, a reporter for Pakistan's English daily, the News.

Most recently, Taliban militants flattened the houses of at least six journalists in the neighboring district of Swat before fleeing advancing Pakistani forces, according to Bob Dietz, Asia program coordinator for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Soon after Bunairee's home was destroyed, gunmen scaled the wall surrounding Khyber TV's bureau in Karachi, several hundred miles south of Buner, and announced that they were looking for him, Dietz said.

Alarmed, officials at VOA arranged to bring Bunairee to the United States on a J-1 visa, often used by research institutions to bring in scholars and experts on temporary visits.

"We're expanding our Pashto broadcasting, and he was going to be working on that," Mower said.

Dietz stressed that Bunairee was not seeking to relocate to the United States but wanted to spend some time outside Pakistan until matters cooled.

He added that he was particularly concerned about the message that Bunairee's detention sends.

"It's mortifying," he said. "Here's a journalist who has performed a valuable service by reporting from an area critical to U.S. security. And our country is slamming the door in his face."


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