Refugee Journalist Resurfaces in Pakistani Jail Months After Being Deported


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When Syeda received a phone call last month to say that her husband, Syed Fawad Ali Shah, was in a prison in Pakistan, she thought it was a trap.

For nearly six months, Syeda had been trying to get answers after Shah abruptly disappeared from his home in Kuala Lumpur. It wasn't until January that Malaysian authorities admitted they had deported the journalist at Pakistan's request.

And when Syeda - who asked to be identified only by her first name - first pressed Pakistani officials for details, she said officials told her that Shah was not in Pakistan.

Syeda said she also has been receiving threats for speaking out about the case, which is why she was suspicious of the February phone call.

But the call was not a trap. And on February 9, Syeda was finally able to see her husband.

The reunion was bittersweet.

"When I saw my husband in jail, I have lots of tears in my eyes. And I [couldn't] speak that time because of my emotions," she told VOA, adding that Shah too was emotional. "At that time, my heart wanted that I hug my husband," she said. But a barrier was between them.

The couple had last spoken on August 22, 2022 - one of their regular calls because Shah had been living in exile in Malaysia since 2011 and Syeda was still in Pakistan.

Now that Shah has been located, his wife and lawyers are starting to learn details of what happened to him.

The journalist has said that he was transported out of Malaysia on a stretcher, and believes he was drugged. Since then, he has mostly been held in various dark cells and tortured, Syeda says.

Pakistan has detained the journalist on accusations of "defamation," "intimidation" of officials, and posting "false, frivolous and fake information" online, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Shah's lawyers and press freedom advocates say the charges are baseless and in retaliation for the reporter's critical coverage of Pakistan's powerful intelligence agencies.

And when Pakistan requested that Shah be deported, Malaysia says that authorities claimed he was a police officer wanted for disciplinary proceedings. His wife says he never worked for the police.

When asked about Shah's case and claims of abuse in detention, Pakistan's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mumtaz Zahra Baloch told VOA that the case is before the courts.

Because of that, Baloch said, "I would not like to pass judgment on any statement made by Mr. Shah or anybody else, including the media. The courts will hear the evidence and justice will be done in this case."

Lawyer calls complaint process 'abusive'

Imaan Mazari-Hazir, an Islamabad-based lawyer representing Shah, said the journalist is dealing with several legal complaints filed across multiple jurisdictions.

"The actual process in and of itself is an abusive process, and that's what the purpose of these proceedings is. It's not actually to convict him. It's to make him run from pillar to post," Mazari-Hazir told VOA. The whole process is designed "to financially, emotionally, physically exhaust you."

Despite Shah being in Pakistan since August, police have not yet taken the steps to move to trial, Mazari-Hazir said.

Pakistan had been trying to have Shah repatriated since the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees granted him refugee status in 2014, according to RSF.

In deporting him last August, it seems the Malaysian government believed Shah was a police officer facing disciplinary charges in Pakistan, Mazari-Hazir said.

"This is at the very least negligence on the part of the Malaysian government," she said.

Amna Baloch, the High Commissioner of Pakistan in Kuala Lumpur, told VOA this week she did not have any details about the case.

The Malaysian Embassy in Washington did not reply to VOA's email requesting comment.

After speaking with Shah's lawyers and wife, RSF has concluded that Shah was held incommunicado for five and a half months in various cells of Pakistan's Federal Investigation Agency.

He was officially transferred on February 8 to Adiala Jail, the main prison in the city of Rawalpindi, before being moved to a jail in the city of Peshawar 10 days later.

The Pakistani Embassy in Washington did not reply to VOA's email requesting comment.

'His whole body was shaking'

Syeda was allowed to visit her husband again in the Peshawar prison on February 21.

"My husband's health and mental condition is not very good at this time," she told VOA. "He has become very weak, and his whole body was shaking."

When she first saw him in early February, she said it looked like he had been tortured.

"Lots of black marks on his face," she said but did not specify what had happened to him.

Shah's lawyers and advocates want him released and moved out of Pakistan.

"The overall objective is to just get him out of the country because obviously he's not safe here," Mazari-Hazir said. International pressure will be crucial to accomplishing that goal, she said.

The persecution of journalists has been typical in Pakistan for many years, but targeting journalists outside the country is growing more common, according to Daniel Bastard, head of the Asia-Pacific desk at RSF.

Shah's situation is dire, and it underscores the broader threats to critical journalists in and outside Pakistan, but this development is still an encouraging step, Bastard told VOA.

"It was a relief when we found him in the end," he said.

Taha Siddiqui, an exiled Pakistani journalist living in France, agreed.

"Within the larger picture of the bad news, this is a very good development," Siddiqui told VOA from Paris. "But we must not forget that the good news will be when he is completely free."

Syeda still worries that she could face retaliation. "I am not secure in Pakistan," she said. When her husband is released, she said they want to go to "any safe country."

"In Pakistan, journalists have no right to freely write," she said. "Journalists who write freely are treated like my husband."