Rights activists, media persons welcome return of abducted Pakistani woman journalist

Islamabad, Oct 21: Human rights activists and media persons have welcomed the return of Zeenat Shahzadi, a Pakistani woman journalist who went missing two years ago while following the case of the alleged enforced disappearance of an Indian national, Hamid Ansari, in Lahore.

Retired Justice Javed Iqbal, head of the missing persons commission, confirmed Shahzadi's return while speaking to BBC Urdu. She was recovered on Wednesday night from near the Pakistan-Afghan border, Iqbal said.

Well-known Pakistani journalist and rights activist Beena Sarwar tweeted about Shahzadi being found: "Thrilled that the disappeared activist-journalist Zeenat Shehzadi is home safe."

Journalist Raza Ahmad Rumi tweeted: "Best news today. Young Pakistani journalist Zeenat Shahzadi ‘missing' for 2 years, is back. God knows what she went through. Accountability?"

Human rights advocate Mustafa Qadri posted: "Great, journalist Zeenat Shahzadi, first woman journalist I'm aware of who may have been subjected to enforced disappearance, has been released."

In Toronto, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) expressed happiness at Shahzadi's safe release.

The CJFE had held a rally on August 19 on the second anniversary of her kidnapping to bring attention to her case and call on the Canadian government to intervene with the Pakistani government for her release.

According to a Dawn report, the National Accountability Bureau chief said some "non-state actors and enemy agencies" had kidnapped Shahzadi and she was recovered from them and that some tribal elders in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa played an important role in her recovery.

Shahzadi's family has yet to issue a statement.

Shahzadi was reported to have been abducted by Pakistani agencies. She had filed an application with the Supreme Court's Human Rights Cell on behalf of Fauzia Ansari, Hamid Ansari's mother.

According to Zeenat's family, she had been receiving threatening phone calls asking her not to pursue Ansari's case before her alleged enforced disappearance.

The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) had mentioned Shahzadi's case in its report on August 30, 2017 titled - "No more ‘missing persons': the criminalization of enforced disappearance in South Asia".

Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) said that the "brazen, daylight kidnapping of a young female journalist was the first of its kind in Pakistan. Zeenat's family and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan believe Pakistan's Special Forces are responsible, because she fearlessly pursued an explosive story the spy agencies didn't want told.

"At the time of her disappearance, Shahzadi was working to find Nehal Hamid Ansari, an Indian citizen who disappeared in Pakistan in 2012. Sources suggest that Ansari, a 28-year-old engineer, was in the country for love. He formed a relationship with a Pakistani woman over Facebook, and panicked when she told him that her parents were pushing her to marry someone else. Deciding that he had to see her, Ansari reportedly entered Pakistan illegally via Afghanistan, failing to obtain a visa. By November 15, 2015, Ansari had vanished, leaving his frantic family desperately searching for information.

"Shahzadi had approached the Supreme Court of Pakistan, the Peshawar High Court and the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances on behalf of Ansari's mother, who had granted Power of Attorney to Shahzadi for the search. The Commission of Inquiry ordered the registration of a First Information Report (FIR), a missing person's petition, for Ansari in 2014.

"In January 2016, thanks to the efforts of Shahzadi, the Deputy Attorney General of Pakistan finally admitted that the Ministry of Defense had detained Ansari pending his trial in a military court. It was later reported that the court sentenced him to three years in prison on the charges of espionage and illegally entering Pakistan.

"According to Shahzadi's brother Latif, Shahzadi was repeatedly interrogated and threatened by security forces pressuring her to withdraw from Hamid Ansari's case, but remained steadfast in her commitment to help the family. Shahzadi was due to appear before the Commission on Enforced Disappearances just days after she disappeared.

"Pakistan's intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has been known to target journalists. Law enforcement agencies exercise unrestricted powers under the Pakistan Protection Act of 2014. Those powers were further strengthened in 2015 by the Pakistan Protection Ordinance (PPO) which offers greater power and the opportunity for impunity to the police, intelligence, law enforcement authorities and military for acts like forced kidnapping, torture and extrajudicial killings."

It quoted the Asian Human Rights Commission as saying that "[Pakistan's] higher judiciary, including the Supreme Court, has on many occasions found personnel from the Pakistan army and paramilitary to be involved in abductions, enforced detentions and later disappearances."

"The Commission on Enforced Disappearances works under the jurisdictions of the federal government and has no authority over the country's security agencies. 1,300 out of a total 3,000 missing people's cases remain pending before the commission. In addition to the missing persons' crisis, Pakistan ranks sixth in the Committee to Protect Journalists' list of the 20 deadliest countries for journalists in the world, and as the ninth worst country in the world for impunity for crimes against journalists," it said.

Shahzadi's family suffered a tragedy in March 2016 when her teenaged brother, distraught over her kidnapping, hanged himself.

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