Sunday, September 5, 2010

Who Was Behind Umar Cheema's Torture?

There is a lot to be said for journalistic instinct.

The moment one heard the shameful story of the abduction, humiliation and beating of The News' Islamabad-based investigative reporter Umar Cheema, something sounded too pat.

The News reporter Umar Cheema

For those who may not have followed it, this is the story as it broke earlier this evening: Cheema was waylaid on his way home early yesterday morning in Islamabad (around 3.30am) by people wearing police uniforms, bundled into a car, blindfolded and driven around for about 30 to 45 minutes, finally landing up in an unknown place where he was stripped naked, hung upside down and beaten severely before his hair and moustache were shaved off. After about six hours of this torture, he was taken and dumped on the Islamabad Motorway with warnings not to make the incident public. According to Cheema himself, the men beating him kept berating him for writing against the government and allegedly wanting to invite martial law, abused the chief justice of the Supreme Court and Cheema's parent organization, the Jang Group, and threatened his children as well as his immediate boss, Ansar Abbasi, with dire consequences if he and Abbasi continued to attack the government.

Anti-Mir Shakil grafitti on Zamzama (Photo: Huma Imtiaz)

Now recall that the Jang Group has been at loggerheads with the government recently (just a few weeks ago, parts of Karachi were plastered with abusive grafitti and banners against its chief executive Mir Shakilur Rehman obviously sponsored by the ruling Pakistan People's Party) and Ansar Abbasi in particular has been a sort of a thorn in the government's side with numerous investigative stories (and unfortunately, opinion pieces) detailing corruption and incompetence in the corridors of power. On the face of it, this seems a cut and dried case of governmental fascism.

So, why did the story seem too pat? Well, basically because of the obviousness of it. Which government could hope to pull off such a stunt against a high-profile media house and NOT see wall to wall coverage of it on its television channel and newspapers? And if I were a government out to commit such fascism, would I at least not ensure that it could not be easily traced back to me? That is, would I not at least send my thugs in civvies rather than police uniforms?

See from 0:30 onwards

I realize of course that these are merely assumptions of a certain amount of government intelligence and competence and are no proofs that the government was not itself involved. The counter argument would be that the government really is far dumber than even its worst critic believes. And certainly Imran Khan, interviewed on Geo for his reactions, is willing to believe that the two largest political parties, the PPP and the PML(N), have big enough 'dakus' in them to do something like this.

But it seems my gut instinct is shared by most journalists in Pakistan, including Ansar Abbasi and Umar Cheema himself. Both pointed out that the kind of operation it was, it was far too "professionally" handled for any "private" or "freelance" thugs, which basically leaves one of the three main intelligence agencies as the culprits. Umar Cheema went as far as saying that his own feeling about what his masked captors were saying to him was that it was meant as "deception", a smokescreen if you will, to make it seem that they were government agents.

There are some additional circumstances one must keep in mind. Umar Cheema claims that his abductors had told him that they were actually lying in wait for him in Gakhar Mandi, since he was due to travel to Gujranwala, but that when he had cancelled his travel plans, they had come to Islamabad to get him. Now, the only way they could have known about his plans was if they had the ability to eavesdrop on his mobile conversations. Who can do that in Pakistan but the intel outfits? Secondly, you might also recall a very similar incident in 2003 during General Musharraf's rule, when then Punjab deputy opposition leader (and current Punjab Law Minister) Rana Sanaullah had been similarly kidnapped, beaten and had his hair, moustache as well as his eyebrows shaved off. There is little doubt who was behind that incident.

Consider also why Umar Cheema would be targeted. What shocker has he written recently that would draw the ire of the government? Actually, having gone through Cheema's recent output, really not that much. His last piece, on August 20, was about how some big businessmen would not be attending a meeting called by President Zardari to raise funds for flood relief. On July 21, he reported about Zardari's rubbishing of claims by painter Laila Shahzada's daughter that he had helped her brother steal 93 of her mother's paintings. On July 8, he reported on the opposition parties' resolve to back the judiciary in any stand-off with the government. On July 2, he reported that some Turkish guides hired for Zardari's visit to Turkey had not been paid and had gone to court against the Pakistan embassy. On June 19, he reported about Law Minister Babar Awan chartering a PAF plane to go distribute monies to bar associations in southern Punjab. On May 16, he wrote a story claiming that General Musharraf's right-hand man Tariq Aziz had become Zardari's close adviser. And on May 12, he reported about how Rehman Malik's past was being whitewashed and the record of cases against him was disappearing.

On the other hand, many of Cheema's stories seem to be rubbing up the military the wrong way. Consider: On August 5, a sensitive story about how the army is using up to 400 personnel of the Pindi police to guard the army chief's house and the routes to it. On July 8, a story about the mishandling by intelligence agencies of high profile terror attacks such as that on Lt Gen Mushtaq Baig and ISI buses, which led to the acquittal of the accused. On July 7, a story detailing the Punjab government's condemnation of the army and its intelligence agencies for not cooperating in terror attacks investigations. On June 9, a story about how one of the commandos court-martialled for disobedience during the Lal Masjid episode was seeking Nawaz Sharif's help. On June 8, a story about how the two court-martialled commandos had not been provided the court-martial proceedings and had approached the Supreme Court for justice. On May 26, a report about the quiet arrests of an army major and his brother after the Faisal Shehzad incident in New York. On May 23, a story detailing a secret report that blamed the MQM for target killings. Etc, etc, etc. Of course it was Cheema who had filed stories against the army-managed National University of Modern Languages as well, which we had written about here as well.

In fact, remarkably, tonight's special edition of Capital Talk on Geo all but laid the blame for this incident at the feet of one of the military intel agencies - either the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) or the Military Intelligence (MI). It may not have been said in so many words or obvious reasons, but the participants, including Abbasi, Cheema and the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists' President, seemed to be quite clear in their minds who was behind it, and it was not the government-controlled Intelligence Bureau. If you consider the fact that this was Geo, the channel the PPP government has had the most issues with, the host was Hamid Mir and the participants included Abbasi, both of whom have been accused of carrying an anti-PPP agenda, you really have to give pause when all more or less absolve the government.

If true, this of course then begs the immediate question: what was the motive?

While Cheema's stories touching on sensitive military issues could be one reason, I really do not feel they warrant the kind of reaction this incident indicates. Plus his last story on the military was almost one month ago. It just does not make sense. There is also a body of opinion that believes that Cheema himself was only an unfortunate pawn (none of his anti-government stories have been major shockers) and the real motive was to send a message to Abbasi who is far more prolific and opinionated. This again would make more sense if indeed it was a PPP-sponsored attack. What message would the military want to send to Abbasi? Why would they not want him to expose corruption in the government? But Abbasi himself does not believe this was directed by the government.

No, I'm afraid the only thing that makes sense then is that this was someone's idea of psy-ops. To create a further wedge between the government and the media, particularly the Jang Group. To create the perception that the government is going out of control, to build a case that can be later cited as among the reasons it should not stay in power.

Unfortunately, what this incident has shown is that whoever was involved in this shameful, shameful incident cares not a whit for the real grave issues Pakistan is grappling with at this time. All this incident is likely to do is to blacken Pakistan's name further. If it was indeed the government, it is far more stupid than anyone imagined. And if it was the military, it is at least as incompetent as the politicians it moans about.


asma said...

Everyday I feel more hopeless and helpless than the last about Pakistan's dire conditions. Is there ANYTHING at all positive about our country's future?
Or is it all doom?

HH said...

I've got to say, you've made a very compelling argument here.

There are eerie comparisons with Rana Sanaullah's kidnapping in 2003.

HH said...

A couple of follow-up points:

1. Definitely watch Capital Talk. All the panel participants basically named the ISI/MI, without directly saying so.

2. I'm curious as to the manner in which Dawn covers this story. I've been getting increasingly concerned that they've become fairly cosy with the military's PR machine. Of late, they've started parroting the ISPR with suspicious frequency. I hope I'm wrong, but I have a feeling that this story isn't going to get much play there.

Zakintosh said...

This is shameful. Does anybody rise up against these things and others like them? No. Not even in death - if you recall the early days of the Ahmadi mosque killings. In Sialkot two people were killed and, finally, we got many people around Pakistan screaming ... but for a few days. If there's any justice to be had then we have to rise and write and shout every day ... many of us.

Umair said...

Brave journalist. To get tortured like that and be on TV after that takes a lot of courage. Kudos.

Magnum said...

Terrible. And childish, really, because only a blind man would not realize that this is typical ISI behaviour.
Their desperation is showing. Get hold of one of simpathizers, torture him and trow him away, thinking people would automatically blame the govt.


Magnum said...

Terrible. And childish, really, because only a blind man would not realize that this is typical ISI behaviour.
Their desperation is showing. Get hold of one of simpathizers, torture him and trow him away, thinking people would automatically blame the govt.


Unknown said...

If people are seeing through this as an establishment/intelligence ops, then it basically means that our "premier" intelligence agencies are too incompetent to even fool the local population. Which means that these clowns are incompetent beyond possible redemption.

Unknown said...

Oh, and Cafe Pyala, good job on introducing the local population to the concept of Psychological Operations. Keep up the good work.

karachikhatmal said...

umm... what about RAW? or Mossad? or the ECB?

please do some more research on the nefarious hidden hands trying to malign pakistan before peddling such half-baked theories aimed at discrediting our amazing intelligence agencies which have been named world no. 1.

Anonymous said...

@TLW: I was under the impression that the this high-brow blog is not meant for the "local population", and that it was rather targeted at london-palat newsroom-only subeditors.

Zeenia said...

Dear Cafepyala,
Just curious about the length of your hair... And also hope you have security support behind you. I have personally suffered at the hands of these elements in most disgusting ways. Wish you safety and security after this post.

Zeenia said...

Dear Cafepyala,
Just curious about the length of your hair. ;-) And also hope you have security support behind you. I have watched from close quarters how low they could stoop...
Wish you safety and security for the rest of your life.

Unknown said...

@ Anon 6:42

Hahaha, very funny.(/sarcasm)

Look, with the private media cat well and truly out of the bag, the establishment in Pakistan could resort to something along the lines of instigating a fight between a section of the media and the civilian government. If the establishment were behind this attack on Umar Cheema, then this means:

1) They used the intelligence agencies to carry out an active operation, which goes beyond the intelligence agencies prime directive, which is to gather intelligence on domestic or foreign enemies.

2) The use of an active operation was intended to create a psychological state, in this case, of conflict between a section of the media and the civilian government. The manipulation of events and simultaneous attempt at propaganda would classify this as some form of psychological warfare.

3) We already know that our regular intelligence services have civilian mouthpieces scattered throughout our domestic media. Unfortunately, we also know that our government services seem internally divided and are at some kind of lobbying conflict with each other, sometimes using their media mouthpieces. This last point only paints the larger context of the relation between our intelligence services and the local media.

What with the anti-American bent of some of our local media, and neutrality amongst most, it is not unlikely that our intelligence services did not go out and seek some knowledge on how a secretive government should deal with a loud and open-ish media.

YK said...

I don't buy this analysis. If the assumption is that the ISI/MI did this then I am sorry I don't agree with this. The present government does not need any help in discrediting itself. To begin, I don't think the Army/establishment really wants to destabilize this government they have nothing to gain from that. The present government has already left the establishment to run all the areas that they want to run and the Army knows that they are much better off running the country behind the scenes anyhow. Obviously the present calculus would not hold if the government was going to do something that will adversely effect the establishments interests.
As far as the Cheema beating; I think this is the shoddy work of the government. The fact that both Hamid Mir and Abbasi were absolving the government is more of a tact to buy time and see what move the government makes in reply.

Anonymous said...

I don't know, but everything seems like a conspiracy to defame Pakistan and portray it as a fail-ing state if nothing else. It is to create situations which will make it easier for powers like USA as an excuse to control us and use Pakistan (not that they aren't already). It could even be India or any organization being paid to do absolutely anything to defame Pakistan.
Maybe it's not even secret agencies...certainly not the Govt. because such things are working against them!

امر محبوب said...

Good analysis. You have tried to rigorously go through all possible scenarios. But as a number of commentators have pointed, you seem to have missed out one big possibility.

What if a well entrenched foreign agency is involved in it, like for example our non-Nato ally which is very active in the region these days. They seem to have the perfect reason to do something like this. That is, while keeping the civilian govt on the defensive, they have also successfully sent a strong message to the 'fauj', to not try anything funny these days as the Big Brother still has the resources to be even more funnier :)

Of course the 'lifafa' journalists of our esteemed current events TV shows always come in handy in such situation. As they can duly read the address on the lifafa and point in the right direction.

What could be the motives? Well obvious! they are in the most precarious situation in Afghanistan right now. And their only lifeline is the supply route through Pakistan. And under no circumstances would they tolerate a situation in Pakistan where this supply route could be put in jeopardy. Period.

PS: I wonder when is a NOTW (news of the world) like cluster-hit going to happen to the lifafa journalists of this country? ... Hamid Mir was under some stress recently, but he now seems to have make a comeback 'mukmuka'.

Unknown said...

Karachi Khatmal was parodying ultra nationalist defences of our intelligence agencies. He does not actually believe that non-Pakistani people kidnapped Umar Cheema, tortured and then released him.

Umar Cheema was either harmed either on the orders of our civilian government, or more likely, as CPM points out, some faction of our intelligence agencies.

Sign Post said...

Well, it is satire and sarcasm of the kind of karachikhatmal that confuses a lot of Pakistanis like Amar. As is obvious, this new generation of Pakistanis may be tech savy, but, man, the poor sods have absolutely NO CLUE how to detect sarcasm.

Don't worry Amar. I was like you, until I stopped watching news channels and listening to assholes lie Zaid Hamid on youtube.

mahnat kar hasad na kar said...

This whole episode, i'm sure is cooked up by Jang and is a bull shit. Imran Aslam should have been called in to weave a better plot. Consider what Chema says and ponder: How did he guess that there were twelve men in the room while blindfolded; why should his abductors abuse CJ and Punjab govt at the same time; they asked cheema not to tell media and threathened to put up the film on internet site. And finally, cheema says he was asked the address of Ansar Abbasi. Who would be so dumb as to think ISI/MI or any agency would not know where a person lived. The plot is loose; the story bad....if anyone wants to know how a journalist looks like after a night or some hours with these terrible agencies, look back at the case of Ghulam Hasnain. The boldest among the bold journalist was so terrified the night after that he sat in a corner of his house shivering for the whole day and has not until now opened his mouth to narrate what had happened to him. So jang group try and weave a better plot next time. good luck

امر محبوب said...

@Sign Post

Zaid Hamid may definitely be an asshole. But condescending attitude like yours dont make you any better. The "know it all" attitudes of our intellectuals, and people trying to imitate them, is the real bane of our society.

Please be a little humble and get a wider reading of world history, economics and politics. Dont just rely on our myopic press and pundits to understand wider trends and strategic directions. Please also learn the language to appreciate or criticize. Short of that you will always sound like a condescending pig, just like so many other "know it all" intellectuals.

Sorry to be in "lecture-mode", but your comment above made me realize that a bit of it was needed.

Anonymous said...


Your points make the most sense. Moreover, my intuition is to always go against what Geo says.

Another theory is that Geo is tarnishing the image of the establishment by doing this, but I don't see what they would gain from it.

امر محبوب said...

@anonymous 8:58

what they gain is that they get paid.

@Sign Post

I wrote a reply to you yesterday. But that seems to have, inexplicably, disappeared. Let me only say that what you are saying about Zaid Hamid is definitely true. But your own condescending style betrays the fact that you still carry a bit of 'Zaid Hamid' in you.

Now what happened to the comment I wrote yesterday. It was successfully posted, but then was gone within a few hours. Was that a blogspot glitch, or an editorial snip from Cafe Pyala. Living in the Land of The Pure, one cannot but get away from conspiracy theories and imaginations of behind the scene machinations. If it was indeed the later case then that would be very sad. Whatever happened to the journalistic freedom that we talk about so gloriously. Looks like zaid hamid style xenophobia and mqm style fascisim is prevading through the liberal lot. Alarming indeed...

I hope I get an explanation to the contrary from this blog's managers.