Why Is A Pakistani Journalist’s Killing in Kenya Rattling Rawalpindi? – OpEd


An incredible account

The circumstances under which 49-year-old Pakistani journalist Arshad Sharif living in self-exile was shot dead in Kenya on October 23, has all the trappings of a whodunnit. Sharif was travelling in a car which allegedly jumped a police roadblock and this suspicious act prompted policemen manning the checkpost to open fire. Surprisingly, despite Kenya police accepting responsibility for Sharif’s death, suspicions of foul play and involvement of Pakistan army’s notorious spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence [ISI] in this killing still persist. 

The official statement of Kenyan police [as reported by the media] states that General Service Unit [GSU], a paramilitary wing of Kenya police, was put on high alert by Kenya’s Directorate of Criminal Investigations [DCI] after a case of child kidnapping was reported by a Kenyan national. The car used in this incident supposedly had a KDJ number plate, whereas the car in which Sharif was travelling bore a KDG number plate. So, the close similarity in car number plates has been cited as a possible reason for “mistaken identity.” 

What’s even stranger is that whereas the supposedly kidnapped child has since been recovered, the car with the KDJ number plate used in this crime remains untraceable. So, while Kenya police watchdog Independent Police Oversight Authority is investigating this incident, Kenya’s Nation newspaper has quoted an officer privy to the investigation who spoke on condition of anonymity saying, “the truth might be in what has not been documented”! [Emphasis added].

Contradictions galore

Unfortunately, rather than clearing the air, the Kenya police report on the killing of Sharif has only created more confusion, and its subsequent contradictions have cast a very serious shadow of doubt on the authenticity of the police claims. Some glaring contradictions noted by Nation media group’s senior investigative reporter Vincent Achuka: 

  • GSU officers had established a checkpost to intercept a Mercedes Benz car that had been reportedly stolen. However, the car in which Sharif was travelling was a Toyota Land Cruiser and the police are unable to explain how GSU officers involved in the shooting mistook a Toyota Land Cruiser for a Mercedes Benz.
  • The initial police report mentions that the GSU officers were forced to fire at the car carrying Sharif since it disregarded orders to stop at the checkpost despite being flagged down. However, Kenya police has subsequently claimed occupants of the car had fired at the checkpost party first, and it was only after one of their colleagues was injured that the GSU team fired back. 
  • In its initial report, the police contended that after hearing the gunshots, Kurram Ahmed who was driving the car in which Sharif was travelling, called his Pakistani friend living 26 km away. This man advised Ahmed to drive down straight to his house and it was only on arrival that they realised that Sharif was dead. The police later changed this version and alleged that the Sharif’s car had been driven for 12 km after being shot at and then abandoned in a village.
  • The GSU team that established the roadblock had a police vehicle at its disposal but yet they didn’t follow the basic police drill of pursuing and intercepting the car whose occupants had fired and injured one GSU officer. Kenya police haven’t been able to explain this humongous lapse.  

Finger of Suspicion

It’s thus abundantly clear that there’s much more than what meets the eye and the most damning allegation of foul play comes from none other than former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. He claims that on learning about a plot to assassinate Sharif, it was he who had advised the journalist to leave Pakistan. Khan went on to say that “He [Arshad Sharif] knew that his life was in danger. He was repeatedly receiving threats but he refused to give in… no matter what people call it, but I know that this was a target killing.” [Emphasis added].

What’s most amazing is the extraordinary interest that Rawalpindi is taking in this case and statements issued by the Director General [DG] of Pakistan army’s media wing Inter Services Public Relations [ISPR] Maj Gen Babar Iftikhar do provide a clue. By taking pains to apprise the public regarding its belated request to the government for setting up a high-level commission to investigate Sharif’s killing, Rawalpindi is obviously trying to portray that it has no nothing to do with this murder. 

This is surprising as no one has specifically accused the Pakistan army or ISI for being involved in Sharif’s death. So, doesn’t DGISPR’s appeal to the government that it should take legal action against those hurling allegations without any proof, sound rather odd? Sharif was killed on foreign land and Kenya police has accepted responsibility for his death. So, why is Rawalpindi so worried about being accused of involvement in this highly suspicious killing? Could it be because ISI has been frequently accused of orchestrating killings of dissidents in the past?

ISI’s extrajudicial killings

It was on May 27, 2011, when 40-year-old journalist Saleem Shahzad went missing while driving on a busy road in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad. Two days later, his battered body with gruesome signs of torture was fished out of a canal 150 km away from the place where he went missing. Islamabad conducted a ‘high level’ investigation but came out with the generic conclusion that “various belligerents in the war on terror which included the Pakistani state and non-state actors such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda and foreign actors” could have been responsible for Shahzad’s murder. 

However, New York Times reported that Washington had “reliable and conclusive” intelligence that implicated senior officials of ISI for orchestrating the death of Shahzad. Despite its outright denial, there’s enough evidence that conclusively proves that ISI was actively involved in Shahzad’s extinction. His fault? Refusing ISI’s diktat to withdraw his well-researched piece that exposed Al Qaida’s significant penetration into the Pakistan navy. 

Commenting on Shahzad’s murder, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, Brad Adams said that “The ISI and other military and intelligence-related agencies have long been beyond the reach of the regular criminal justice system. To ensure this investigation can follow the evidence wherever it leads, an extraordinary mechanism with the full support of all state institutions needs to be created.” [Emphasis added].

Seven months before his murder, Shahzad had sent an email to Human Rights Watch [HRW] in which he recounted how he was summoned to the ISI headquarters and threatened of dire consequences by a senior ISI officer of Rear Admiral rank. Shahzad had requested HRW to release this email in case something happened to him. Widespread accusations of its involvement in Shahzad’s murder forced ISI to take the unprecedented step of issuing a denial itself rather than route it through ISPR, but because of abundant evidence to the contrary, its rebuttal was of no avail. 

Sharif’s death in Kenya isn’t the only incident of a Pakistani journalist or dissident critical of the military establishment who had fled the country dying abroad under mysterious circumstances. Just two years ago, the dead body of a Pakistani journalist named Sajid Hussain Baloch was fished out of a canal in Sweden. Baloch had fled Pakistan in 2012 after receiving death threats for reporting on rampant human rights violations by Pakistan army and other paramilitary and intelligence agencies under its command in Balochistan as well as its involvement in drug smuggling. 

Barely eight months after Sajid Baloch’s death, another 37-year-old Pakistani human rights activist named Karima Baloch, was found dead in Toronto, Canada which was conveniently passed off as an accident or suicide. She was a vocal critic of Pakistan army’s brutal ‘kill and dump’ policy and abhorrent practice of forcibly disappearing innocent people in Balochistan. 

Karima’s named had figured in BBC’s annual list of 100 inspirational and influential women for her work as a human rights activist and she had made a fervent appeal to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi saying, “Hum apni jung khud lad lenge, aap bas humari awaaz bun jae [We will fight our own war, you just be our voice].” So, she was obviously a thorn in the flesh for Rawalpindi, and that’s why ascribing her death to accident or suicide doesn’t make much sense.  

A hypothesis

While the bullet that killed Sharif was undoubtedly fired by Kenya police, could it be that the entire incident involving a reported car theft and child abduction was craftily orchestrated by those interested in silencing a dissident, and GSU fell into the trap? Or, did the masterminds ‘buy over’ one or more GSU officers and use them to eliminate the target by making it look like legitimate police action? 

Such ploys aren’t uncommon, and if one goes by this hypothesis, then all glaring oddities like experienced policemen mistaking a Toyota Land Cruiser for a Mercedes Benz, the belated mention of having being fired at by the car occupant, and not pursuing the delinquent driver who had injured a policeman, will comfortably fall into place. 

Nilesh Kunwar

Nilesh Kunwar is a retired Indian Army Officer who has served in Jammu & Kashmir, Assam, Nagaland and Manipur. He is a ‘Kashmir-Watcher,’ and now after retirement is pursuing his favorite hobby of writing for newspapers, journals and think tanks.

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