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Thursday, January 31, 2019

Threatened for exposing scandals, Pakistani journalist seeks refuge in Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR: A journalist from Pakistan has been forced to seek refuge in Malaysia after getting into trouble with authorities there over his damning exposure of scandals involving powerful individuals.
Syed Fawad Ali Shah, who wrote for The Nation, an English daily published from Lahore, said his life was threatened in Pakistan, a country where 27 journalists were murdered between 2011 and last year according to the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
Fawad’s troubles began in 2008 when he decided to investigate cases of missing persons. His work eventually led him to believe that the authorities were involved in the disappearance of these individuals, many of whom were accused of everything from spying for the Americans and Indians, to working for the Taliban.
“In 2008, I interviewed four to five families and I continued this till 2010 as I moved on to other news organisations.
“I found similarities in their stories,” he said.
Three years later, on Jan 10, 2011, while waiting for a bus from Allahabad to Peshawar, he was confronted by four men claiming to be from the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), a powerful intelligence body under the interior ministry. They forced him into an unmarked vehicle and drove off.
He said he was detained in a small basement for three months and 18 days, and tortured with various methods including electrocution.
“I was in a total mess after all the beatings. Till this day, I have no idea how I survived,” he said.
He said during his detention, officers were carrying files of the Pakistan secret service, the Inter-Service Intelligence, and not of FIA.
They accused him of working with the “enemy of the state”, which could either be Indians, Americans or the Taliban group from Afghanistan.
Fawad was eventually released with a warning: stop writing about missing persons, and give up journalism.
So he did. He started doing odd jobs instead.
“But I couldn’t keep silent over the massive injustice happening in the country. So I left for Thailand in August 2011 with US$2,500 that I had saved.”
From Thailand, he travelled to Penang where he worked at a company monitoring CCTVs, earning RM1,100 monthly.
After a month, he approached the United Nations High Commission For Refugees (UNHCR) where he was interviewed 18 times, with each interview lasting four to five hours.
In 2014, he was recognised as a refugee and issued a UNHCR card.
When contacted, a senior police officer based in Peshawar, who wanted to remain anonymous, said Fawad had written about topics that stepped on the toes of corrupt officials, including terrorism, money laundering and the mafia.
“Journalists here often face death threats, especially those who write about the mafia and crime among the top echelons,” he told FMT.
In 2017, Reporters Sans Frontieres ranked Pakistan at number 139 out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index.
‘I want a normal life’
Today, Fawad, 37, awaits news of his application for asylum in the US.
He said his frustrations grow each day, and there is nothing he can do in Malaysia which does not recognise refugees.
“I can’t work legally. I cannot get married. I am left hanging. All for what? For fighting for my country,” he said.
But Fawad still does what he likes best: exposing the scandals by Pakistan’s powerful elite. He continues to write for a bilingual English-Urdu news portal, Hamariweb.com.
The downside is that the “secret service” will harass his family members on his whereabouts, he said.
Fawad hopes that the US, or any other country for that matter, will consider his application so that he can start a new life.
“I don’t want to live as a refugee. I want to work. I have so much to offer but my life is at a standstill.”
When contacted, UNHCR refused to comment, saying it is not their policy to share the individual details of refugees.

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