Umar Cheema is an award winning investigative journalist for The News. He was kidnapped allegedly by the Pakistani intelligence officers and brutally tortured for seven hours due to his fearless reporting on the government, army and intelligence services.
It has almost been two years since the harrowing incident that scarred Umar Cheema’s life forever. Since then, he has received several awards for defending press freedom in Pakistan and recently became the 2012 winner of the Missouri Honour Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism. One would believe that after receiving such worldwide attention, Cheema wouldn’t still be searching for answers about his captors and the Pakistani government would have been successful in breaking the cycle of impunity. However, after speaking to Cheema, DCMF learns that this is not the case.
Charged for murder?
The night of September 4, 2010 was the last carefree night in Cheema’s life.
“It was the month of Ramadan and I was hanging out with my friends at a popular coffee shop in Islamabad. It was getting pretty late and around 2.30 a.m. we decided to head home to get ready for suhoor, a pre-dawn meal taken before starting the fast,” said Cheema.
On his way home Cheema noticed a Land Cruiser and a jeep following him at a very high speed with lights flashing.
“I thought they were racing so I tried to save myself by changing lanes but I did not know they were after me,” recalled Cheema. “But at one point the Land Cruiser stopped right in front of my car and the jeep blocked me from behind and I was trapped in between both cars.”
Two men stepped out of the car dressed in police uniform and said that a wireless message was sent out to them with Cheema’s car registration number. They had a murder charge against him because according to them, he had crushed a pedestrian while driving, and he was asked to come to the police station. Cheema decided to cooperate because they were in uniform and he did not want to exacerbate the situation.
“They told me that if I am found innocent, I will be released so I followed them into the car. I was not clear who they were as they had impersonated as policemen. At that time I was doing a story on the police chief so I thought maybe they are trying to harass me for that,” said Cheema in an interview with Doha Centre for Media Freedom.
Cheema recounted that so many thoughts were going through his head when he was getting into the car. He thought maybe he was being kidnapped for ransom but it was hard to believe that. The last thing running through his mind was that these men were from the Pakistani intelligence service, ISI.
“The scariest thought was being kidnapped by the ISI as I had heard many stories of people disappearing never to be heard of and only a lucky few being released,” said Cheema.
“If you can’t avoid rape, then enjoy it!”
As soon as Cheema was pushed into the car, they seized his glasses, cell phone and wallet. “They blindfolded me with a blanket and my hands were cuffed behind. This was the time I suspected that this wasn’t just a wireless message and they lied to me. I tried talking to them and told them I am a journalist and maybe they picked the wrong person. At one point, they pushed me into silence by slapping me on my face,” Cheema told DCMF.
Cheema recalls that he was driven for at least thirty minutes with around five or six men. “While they were driving me away, countless thoughts crossed my mind. My son was only two years old then and I thought what if he has to grow up as an orphan. I thought about my wife who was pregnant at that time and my parents. I felt so scared, weak and helpless but I realised that I am not in this car by choice. I told myself that this is not the right time to think about all this.”
According to Cheema, he was driven into a residential compound and was taken upstairs into a room. When he asked for the name of the principal investigator and the location of the police station to which he had been taken, he was slapped and asked to shut up.
“Two or three men came inside hurling abuse at me and one started tearing up my shirt. I was stripped naked and I was forced to lie down on the floor with my head and face covered with the blanket and my hands cuffed. They started beating with a leather strip and a wooden rod,” said Cheema.
After being brutally beaten for around 30 minutes, Cheema heard flash sounds and realised he was being photographed. “Also, I was asked to pose naked in different positions and they even forced me to smile,” he added.
“At one point, the investigator told me if you can’t avoid rape, then enjoy it! It was really insulting the way they treated me. I was also videotaped naked because I heard a man giving directions to film me from different angles,” said Cheema.
When Cheema questioned them the reason for his abduction and such awful treatment, his captor angrily replied “your reporting brought you into this position.”
At one point, the captors removed Cheema’s blindfold but he saw that their faces were covered. “A man was called in to shave my head, eyebrows and moustache. Later I asked them to lead me to the bathroom and I looked around my surroundings to see that it was a residential compound.”
“I requested them to leave me as I wanted to return home for suhoor and they asked me ‘what do you want to eat?’ and I replied ‘I don’t want to drink or eat anything from you’ but they got milk for me and I think they had mixed something in it,” Cheema narrated.
After being photographed naked, Cheema was helped to put his clothes back and he was taken out of the house. “We drove for around two hours and I was dumped 100 miles outside the city of Islamabad.”
“Silence was never an option”
After being held in custody for seven hours, Cheema did not drive home. Instead he went straight to his editor’s home.
“On my way to my editor’s residence, I had made up my mind that I have to speak up. I never thought of silence as an option and I knew that if I would go public with the story after 6 months, no one would believe so I had to do it now. I realised that it was risky but if I kept quiet they would continue blackmailing me every time I wrote a story.”
Cheema had received several indirect threats for his stories on the army, ISI and corruption within the government but he never expected to be kidnapped and tortured. However in 2004,while he was walking home, a car ran him over. Cheema suspects it wasn’t an accident instead a planned attack to suppress his writings.
“Whenever I did a story on ISI or any other party, I always gave them a chance to defend themselves. I would contact them, send questions and wait for their reply for a week or two. I felt I was reporting responsibly, so I thought I am not at any risk and I never granted them an opportunity to feel resented,” Cheema said.
Journalists’ murders go unaccounted
There is a history of journalists being killed for either exposing or speaking up against the government in Pakistan. Syed Saleem Shahzad, an investigative reporter for Asia Times Online was killed after writing an article on Al Qaeda’s involvement in the Pakistani army, while the killing of Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter, who was held in captivity for six days and then murdered, made headlines around the world.
Media groups often cite Pakistan as being among the world’s deadliest countries for journalists. Reporters Without Borders says that four journalists have already been killed this year and ten were murdered last year.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has ranked Pakistan as the tenth most dangerous country in the world for journalists for two consecutive years. Since 1992, 41 journalists have been killed in the country and only Pearl’s case received justice. Three men convicted of killing Pearl were given life sentences and one was handed the death penalty.
The rate of impunity is so high in Pakistan that Cheema believes that “local journalists never receive justice because they don’t have passports from powerful countries that push for investigation. Pearl’s murderers were convicted and the government responded quickly because he was a US citizen and Washington wanted results.”
Even after two years, Cheema has no information about his kidnappers. “Nothing has been done about my case. Soon after the attack, I received a call from the Prime Minister and he told me that they started a judicial and police inquiry,” Cheema said. Judicial inquiries in Pakistan require statements from the victim, witnesses and people who are being accused of the crime. The judicial inquiry doesn’t have the power to punish criminals and in Cheema’s case it was completed but he has yet to see the report. “Their findings have never been shared with me and not even with the parliament,” said Cheema. “The police inquiry never took place and the police and the government did not take any action against my captors.”
Despite no protection and continued attacks on members of the press, Cheema still manages to speak up. “I know if I am ever picked up again, I won’t be sent home but nevertheless, I decided to speak up,” said Cheema, who hasn’t received direct threats since the 2010 attack, but whose phone is constantly monitored by intelligence services.
“Who knows? When I am driving home, someone can approach me and shoot me point blank. If that has to happen, it will happen and no one can avoid it, but as long as I live, I can’t be intimidated,” he added.
Cheema like many others is pushing hard for a change to happen in the Pakistani media so that journalists no longer have to risk their lives in order to report.