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The Killing of Arshad Sharif: One Year On, Justice Remains Elusive

The Killing of Arshad Sharif: One Year On, Justice Remains Elusive

23 October 2023 marks one year since the killing of prominent Pakistani journalist and news anchor for Pakistani broadcaster, ARY News, Arshad Sharif. Sharif was fatally shot at close range by Kenyan Police at a roadblock near Nairobi. To this day, a transparent, independent and effective investigation into the circumstances of his death has not been conducted and justice remains elusive.

Javeria Siddique, a Pakistani journalist and Sharif’s wife of 11 years, spoke to Media Defence about the urgent need for an impartial probe, the toll of the ongoing smear campaign against her, and ways in which the international community can help. 

The Case of Arshad Sharif 

Forced to Flee 

Sharif was a strong critic of alleged corruption within Pakistan’s ruling elite and military, and a vocal supporter of former President Imran Khan. After the vote of no confidence in April 2022 ousted Khan from office, Sharif, along with many other journalists, faced increased harassment by Pakistani authorities in retaliation to their work.

Over 16 legal cases were filed against Sharif across Pakistan, many of which were First Information Reports (FIRs), initiating criminal investigations. Sharif was accused of violating various sections of Pakistan’s penal code, including sedition, abetment or encouragement of mutiny, and publication of statements causing public mischief through his journalistic work. These offences are enshrined in Articles 124A, 131, and 505 of the penal code, respectively, and can carry serious sentences. Abetment of mutiny and sedition are punishable by up to life imprisonment and an unspecified fine. 

Sharif also received a series of death threats. The seriousness with which he regarded these threats is evident from a letter he sent to the Supreme Court in July 2022. In the letter he notified them of the threats and sought protection. As a result of these intimidation tactics and fears for his life, Sharif was forced to flee.  

Through the UAE to Kenya: The Events Leading to Sharif’s Killing Near Nairobi 

In August 2022, Sharif left for the UAE. However, the residence visa he applied for in Dubai was denied by Emirati authorities for “security reasons”. Siddique told us that Sharif was subsequently threatened by Dubai authorities with deportation to Pakistan if he did not leave the UAE within 48 hours. With this deadline severely limiting his visa options, Sharif flew to Nairobi – Kenya being one of the few countries where Pakistani citizens can obtain a visa on arrival.

On the 20th of August, he landed in Kenya, where he spent two months in hiding, fearing for his safety. He did not disclose his exact location to anyone, Siddique says, not even to her or his mother. Nonetheless, he continued his critical reporting through his YouTube channel.

On the evening of the 23rd of October, Sharif was shot twice at close range by Kenyan police at a roadblock in Kajiado County that was allegedly set up to search for a stolen vehicle. 

Contradictions in the Kenyan Investigations and Stalled Cooperation 

Kenyan police reported Arshad Sharif’s death as a “case of mistaken identity”, stating that officers fired at his car because they believed it was the stolen vehicle and it had failed to stop at the checkpoint. This explanation drew widespread criticism, as the vehicles had different license plates and bore very little resemblance. The stolen vehicle was a Mercedes-Benz delivery van, while Sharif’s car was a Toyota four-wheel-drive.

Autopsy reports also brought the mistaken identity narrative into question. Autopsies conducted by Kenyan police and later by the Pakistani Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS) raised suspicions that the killing was likely targeted, considering the proximity of the shooting and the bullet trajectories.

In the wake of Sharif’s killing, a Pakistani Fact-Finding Team (FFT), manned by Federal Investigation Agency’s (FIA) Athar Waheed and Intelligence Bureau’s (IB) Omar Shahid Hamid, travelled to Kenya to collect information into the incident.The FFT’s report, leaked in December 2022, stated that the version provided by “the Kenya police to portray the incident as a case of ‘mistaken identity’ is full of contradictions” and that the “transnational roles of characters in Kenya, Dubai and Pakistan in this assassination cannot be ruled out.” 

Further investigations were carried out by the Pakistani Joint Investigative Team (JIT), established in December 2022. However, the JIT reported to Pakistani state officials that by February 2023, Kenyan authorities denied them access to evidence and the crime scene, effectively halting their investigation.

Former Pakistani president, Shehbaz Sharif, tweeted that during a call, Kenyan President William Ruto promised “all-out help” in investigating the killing of Arshad Sharif. However, by early 2023 the Kenyan government allegedly told Pakistani officials that they had provided every possible help to investigative teams and that they were “very upset” by the conclusions drawn in the Pakistani investigators’ findings on the case. In March, Kenyan authorities released a new report, rejecting the FFT’s findings, reiterating that Sharif’s death was accidental. Following this, the Kenyan Government ceased all cooperation with Pakistani investigative teams.

Kenyan organisations and civil society leaders have expressed concerns about the credibility of investigative efforts by the Kenyan authorities in this case and the wider implications for the safety of journalists in Kenya. “If we cannot keep a journalist as prominent as Arshad safe [in our country], it will be difficult to keep ourselves safe” stated Churchill Otieno, president of the Kenya Editors Guild. 

Concerns about the Impartiality and Effectiveness of Pakistani Investigative Teams 

In addition to the FFT, Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial, head of Pakistan’s Supreme Court (SC), declared that he had taken ‘suo moto notice’ of the case in December 2022. In other words, he intervened in the case of his own volition, forming a panel of five judges to adjudicate on it. At the same time the federal authorities established the JIT.

The list of JIT members initially proposed was rejected by the SC just hours after it was announced. This rejection was based on concerns that the team may not be able to carry out an independent investigation. The SC ordered a new 5-member JIT to be established, which travelled to Kenya in January 2023.

However, doubts about the impartiality of this team were also raised. Some JIT members have direct ties to Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), a powerful Pakistani military intelligence agency. A report by Amnesty International detailed what they deemed “credible concerns” that journalists have repeatedly faced harassment, kidnapping and attacks at the hands of the ISI. An ISI member was originally proposed for the FFT team but was removed on account of widespread criticism about his selection.

Separately, the SC has also repeatedly voiced dissatisfaction with the JIT’s reports and the pace of its investigation. They noted that this indicated a concerning lack of consideration from the Pakistani Government towards the investigation.

No investigation to date has been able to provide sufficient clarity into the circumstances of Sharif’s killing. Instead, doubts about the independence of investigation teams and criticism about their limited access to, or engagement with, the crime scene, witnesses and other evidence have been voiced. As a result, no one has been held accountable in a fair judicial process. 

The Vicious Smear Campaign Against Javeria Siddique 

Since Sharif’s killing, Siddique, a columnist with Dunya newspaper and Independent Urdu, has been targeted by an organised online smear campaign. This campaign is aimed at discrediting her work and suppressing her efforts to raise awareness of Sharif’s killing.

Pro-government activists and trolls launched a pervasive disinformation campaign on social media. This campaign falsely accuses Siddique, a practicing Muslim, of remarrying within her late husband’s Iddat. This is a waiting period, often observed by women in Islamic cultures after divorce or the death of their husband, during which the woman should not remarry. The Human Rights Council of Pakistan, an independent, non-governmental organisation, commented on the online attacks that Siddique is experiencing, saying that they are ‘sad and condemnable.’

This premeditated effort to undermine Siddique’s reputation, credibility, and character could also have serious offline consequences. Siddique relayed her fears that online threats may result in physical intimidation or violence. She stated that she is “deeply disturbed” by the harassment she is facing online. Siddique also asserted that this is a retaliation for standing by her husband.  “His only crime,” she says, “was to speak and write the truth [about] the powerful.” 

Journalists Persecuted with Impunity in Pakistan 

Pakistan remains a challenging context for journalists, ranking 150 out of 180 on the World Press Freedom Index in 2023. Pakistan’s relationship with press freedom has been turbulent, oscillating between relative openness and restriction. In recent years, it has become increasingly repressive, with attacks on journalists on the rise and perpetrators often enjoying impunity. The Freedom Network’s Annual Impunity 2022 Report stated that there were “no convictions in 96% of journalist killings” in Pakistan in the past 10 years.

Online attacks against reporters in Pakistan have increased in the last five years. Women journalists are at particular risk of online harassment, including cyberbullying, intimidation, trolling and doxing. Doxing is the publishing of private or identifying information about a particular person online, typically with malicious intent. A study by Media Matters for Democracy stated that women journalists in Pakistan often “face the worst forms of online violence affecting their professional and personal lives”. It showed that 93% of women interviewed withheld their opinions online out of fear of such smear campaigns. The study also noted that argeted online campaigns in Pakistan are often politically charged – perpetuated or instigated by political party spokespeople or their followers. 

Far-reaching Consequences and the Need for International Support 

Given that the case spans three countries, Siddique has implored the international community to act as her “voice in this case and remind everyone that justice has not been achieved”.

State regulations and military harassment are known to curb media freedom inside Pakistan. However, the killing of Sharif, an exiled journalist, indicates that threats facing dissenting Pakistani voices may reach outside its borders. His case, as well as the smear campaign against Javeria Siddique, show the pressing need for Pakistan and Kenya to fulfil their international obligations to guarantee and protect fundamental human rights. Including the right to life and freedom of expression. The ongoing lack of adequate redress sets a worrying precedent. It allows impunity to persist and perpetuates a culture of silence.

To uphold freedom of expression and deliver justice owed to Sharif’s family, an impartial, effective and transparent investigation in line with international human rights standards needs to be expedited.

*Javeria Siddique has instructed her legal counsel in Kenya, working with Media Defence, to act to expedite an effective investigation into the circumstances of Sharif’s death.

If you are a journalist facing legal threats because of your work, apply for our support here.

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