Salamat Ali, recently cited for his service to journalism in Asia, is now on trial for his life on four charges of promoting separatism in Pakistan. The trial is being conducted by an army major acting as judge, prosecutor and court stenographer.
"I am the court," declared Maj. Munir Ahmed, dapper with his Ronald Coleman mustache, Sam Browne belt and two medals on his chest. "When I say the court, I mean myself. When I say myself, I mean the court."
He is the judge of summary military court no. 39, where Ali, 45, the Pakistan correspondent of the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review, appeared after having been arrested Nov. 13 for an article he wrote more than a month earlier reporting that tribal leaders in the province of Baluchistan want independence from Pakistan.
Ali has been held since his arrest in a large barrack-like jail cell with 63 common criminals who share two buckets for their toilet and who sleep on the bare earth floor.
He was brought to the court in shackles, chained to a policman, when the trial started Tuesday, and sat through the long hearing with the irons on his right hand. They were taken off only late Tuesday night, when he was given permission to write his statement to the court to save Munir the trouble of having to take it down.
"When you are too close to the truth, that's what hurts," Ali told reporters outside the court.
Ali's case has attracted worldwide attention, with journalist groups and governments opposing his arrest in cables to Pakistani authorities. Gen Mujibur Raham Khan, the martial law government's information minister, told the Far East Economic Review's regional editor, Rodney Tasker, to do something to "defuse" the international attention, Tasker says.
Khan reportedly said the messages from around the world do not do any good and may make things worse for Ali.
"Personally, if it was left to me, I would send him to the gallows," tasker quoted Khan as saying.
But since Ali is a journalist, Khan said, he recommended sending the case to a summary military court. That court does not have the authority to impose the death penalty, but can recommend it to a higher court that can impose it.
The trial, which was scheduled to start Monday, was clearly affected by the foreign journalists who came to cover it. After seeing the correspondents, Munir postponed the trial until yesterday morning. When they returned yesterday he left for a three hour meeting with Deputy Martial Law Administrator Sashir Hussian before convening the trial in the afternoon.
Munir was punctilious in seeing that all the forms were observed for the trial, which has held in what once was the drawing room of a private house here.
He opened the trial by swearing himself in twice -- once giving himself an oath to reach a fair and honest verdict and the second time promising to translate honestly the testimony of witnesses who spoke only Punjabi.
He also allowed Ali's lawyer, Zafer Ali Shah, to cross-examine witnesses even though under martial law rules he is only supposed to act as a "friend" of the accused and speak through him.
But Munir made no bones about his role after Shah tripped up the chief government witness -- police inspector Guereshi Mohammad Alyas -- on the parts of Ali's article on Baluchistan in the Oct. 19 Far Eastern Economic Review that in the government's view favored separatism and sowed hatred and discord.
Explaining that he was prosecutor as well as judge, Munir drew the police inspector's attention to paragraphs of Ali's article and asked if they were designed to promote unity or separation in Pakistan. He asked Alyas if one paragraph was not "pitting one province against another?"
Earlier, defense attorney Shah presented evidence that Ali's arrest had not followed proper procedures and contended that Alyas, who brought the charges, did not understand what the articles said.
Asked to define "independent growth," Alyas replied: "money benefiting a few but not the general public." Asked what that word xenophobic means in the article, Alyas said, "strong ideas which are held by the public and cannot be changed by any action of the government, favorable or unfavorable."
"This is not the correct explanation, I am quite clear on that word," said Munir.
Ali was charged with violating four martial law regulations, including one of having the magazine in his possession -- even though it is readily available at stores here. Alyas acknowledged that he had bought a copy and had not ordered the magazine banned in Pakistan even after arresting Ali. Ali said he gave his file copy of the magazine to police when they asked, leading to his being charged.
The most serious charge is of inciting the public to seek to split Pakistan along provincial lines -- a major issue in this country where Baluchis especially, but also tribesmen in othe provinces resent the domination of the Pakistan government and military by Punjabis.
That charge carries the death sentence, although Munir would have to refer the case to a higher court for it to be imposed.
The other charges each carry sentences of up to five years of rigorous imprisonment and as many as 50 lashes, although Ali is not likely to be lashed since no one over 45 gets whipped.
The Far Eastern Economic Review sells about a thousand copies in this country, most of them believed to be to foreigners at hotel newsstands.
Although the Pakistani press is heavily censored and some issues of daily newspaper appear with large blank spaces where articles and pictures were ordered out, both the government information officials and president Mohammed Zia ul-Haq have told reporters for foreign publications they are free to writer what they wanted.
Munir questioned whether that applied to Pakistani Nationals, such as Ali, as well as to foreigners.
The government today issued a decree making the publication of defamatory material, "even if true," punishable by five years in jail.
On Tuesday, papers here carried a short story about Ali winning the Mitsubishi award given by the Press Foundation of Asia for his services to Asian journalism.
Ali was diplomatic correspondent of the government-owned Pakistan Times until last year when he was asked to leave. He then became a staff member of the Far Eastern Economic Review.