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The Hunt for Daniel Pearl

Christina Lamb, a reporter for London’s Sunday Telegraph, is well-known in Pakistan’s sociopolitical circles. She wrote “Waiting for Allah,” an examination of the 1990s, our decade of turmoil. A few days before Kabul fell to anti-Taliban forces, she was staying at the Hotel Serena in Quetta. During the night, a half-dozen plainclothes agents forced their way into her bedroom and ordered her and a friend to leave. They spent the night in a police holding cell; in the morning, they were escorted to Islamabad and put on a plane and flown out of country.

She had been working on a story about continued Taliban influence in Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency. The message was clear to foreign journalists pouring into Pakistan to cover the ongoing war in Afghanistan: Stay away from matters sensitive to Pakistan.

It seems this message was ignored by Daniel Pearl, The Wall Street Journal reporter who has been missing since January 23, after he sought an interview with Sheikh Mubarak Ali Shah Gillani, head of a spiritual organization named in connection with the so-called Shoe Bomber case by U.S. authorities.

Pearl had been in Pakistan for about a month, working on complex stories and traveling to various nooks and crannies. He was seen in Peshawar doing his best to interview fugitive Taliban leaders who sought refuge after their regime collapsed in Afghanistan. His guides could not help, since such interviews would have been very embarrassing for Pakistan.

He also went to Bahawalpur, a small city in the southern province of Punjab, the headquarters of a banned militant outfit called Jaish-e-Muhammad. Despite a government ban on such militant activities, Jaish-e-Muhammad conducts business openly and avoids the government’s freezing of outlaw organizations’ accounts. “Police left behind enough cadres to run the office,” a Jaish-e-Muhammad worker boasted to him about outfit’s ability to keep operating despite government crackdown.

One of the suspects in Pearl’s kidnapping is Muhammad Arif, a bodyguard for Jaish-e-Muhammad chief Moulana Masood Azhar.

The word in Pakistan is that Pearl was kidnapped because he probed issues considered to be off-limits. “I am surprised as to why Pearl worked on a shoe bomber story, which was already finished after the arrest of the principle accused who is now facing trial,” said Pakistan’s interior minister Mionuddine Hyder in an interview with a local TV news channel.

A day before Pearl was kidnapped, a local journalist, Ghulam Husnain, who freelances for CNN and Time magazine, was reported missing. He was last seen at a Karachi press club. His wife, also a journalist, alerted authorities and press organizations demanded his release. It was no secret why he got in trouble. Five months earlier, he wrote the cover story for Newsline, an outspoken news magazine in Karachi, which covers activities of the Karachi-based underworld. His piece alleged connections between organized crime and the country’s powerful intelligence agencies.

He wrote that an operative of India’s underworld, Don Daud Ibrahim, lived in Karachi, and received preferential treatment from officials. Daud Ibrahim is on India’s Top 20 wanted list for questioning in connection with a series of bomb blasts in the Indian city of Mumbai in 1982 that killed more than two hundred people. India wanted him back and Pakistan denied that he lived in Pakistan.

In support of its claim, India referred to the Newsline story. Four days later, when Ghulam Husnain returned to his family, he was a broken man and refused to utter a word about his ordeal. It does not take a Sherlock Homes to figure out what might have happened to him.

“He has consented not to stand by his story on Daud Ibrahim,” one of his close friends confided, when asked about the reason behind his disappearance and return.

It’s a dreadful fact, but the press in Pakistan knows its limits. Every journalist practices strict self-censorship when dealing with matters the state considers sensitive. If a journalist dares to cross the threshold, the editor usually puts the story in the trash and advises the keen reporter to stop taking prohibited paths. Whoever dares to continue is likely to be harassed and persecuted, depending on the “severity of crime.”

I know of other journalists who have paid the price. One is the owner of the vocal English language daily The Frontier Post, Rahmat Shah Afridi. He has been in jail three years on a fabricated charge of drug possession.

A few days before his arrest, he had published a report alleging that some higher-ups in a Pakistani anti-narcotic task force were involved in the drug business.

Another is the editor of the weekly English-language paper, The Friday Times, who was arrested on a treason charge after he wrote that Pakistan was having an identity crisis.

In this atmosphere of fear and hypocrisy, Daniel Pearl tried to unveil truth. It was akin to putting one’s hands in a hornet’s nest.

On December 15, three days after President Pervaiz Musharraf vowed to curb Muslim extremism and a few hours after the Interior Ministry banned five militant organizations, the Interior Ministry’s 16-story-tall building was gutted in a mysterious fire. The ministry’s records were lost, including lists of militant groups. Civilian authorities no longer have any details of how many trained militants freely roam the streets of Pakistan. The only government agency with such records is Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency, Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), which created and reared these militants in line with the state agenda. Some people in Pakistan point fingers to this agency in the Pearl case. But others insist the ISI could not afford such a mistep, given the close involvement of U.S. agencies in the region.

It’s hard to know what forces are to blame in Pearl’s disappearance. Maybe the kidnappers are out to ruin Musharraf’s political fortune, but one thing is certain, they are hurting their self-professed cause of national sovereignty of Pakistan.

Pearl’s wife, Marianne, who is six months pregnant, on Saturday sent an open letter to the Pakistani people.

“What will they get by torturing an innocent man, who is invariably a sympathizer of all neglected people? The people who are keeping Danny are crying for justice. This I know. But this I also know — they hold my husband. My husband is my life. I am six months pregnant, and he is father of my unborn child. I appeal to these people to release him.”

I suspect his kidnappers want to keep truth in chains so that their ugly faces will not be revealed to world.