x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Reporter forced to flee Pakistan after filming boys' deaths

After video of vigilantes beating two brothers accused of robbery to death was shown on TV, journalist who made film was himself beaten and hospitalised.

In late August, two men on a motorcycle drove up to the home of a Pakistani television reporter named Hafiz Muhammad Imran in the city of Sialkot.

They were angry because of a video he had taken of two teenagers, accused of thievery, being beaten to death and hanged from metal poles, that had been shown on national and international television.

They waited for him to come out of his family house. When he did, they beat him. He was hospitalised with injuries to his shoulder.

Last year, for the first time, Pakistan topped the Committee to Protect Journalists's annual list of countries where journalists were killed.

Of the 44 journalists killed worldwide, eight died while reporting in Pakistan. Five were killed in Iraq, which was, up until now, considered the deadliest country for journalists.

Mr Imran, who fled Pakistan in October, said he is convinced that if he had stayed in his home country he would have been another number on the CPJ's list. "If I had stayed in Pakistan, I would have become the ninth to lose my life last year," he said.

The first fortnight of 2011 shows the situation in the country is not improving.

On January 13, Wali Khan Babar, 28, a reporter for Geo News television, was killed in Karachi. He was one of more than 10 people shot and killed in sectarian violence that broke out in the densely populated metropolis after an attack on a local leader of the Awami National Party.

Imran's saga started on August 15, when he received a call he had been waiting for.

For years the reporter for a local station had been keen to uncover cases of police brutality he suspected existed in and around the city of Sialkot, which is nestled at the foothills of snow-capped Kashmiri peaks in Punjab province.

The caller told him there had been a "citizens arrest" of two brothers, named Mughees, 18, Muneeb, 16, who had been accused of robbery in the village of Buttar.

He arrived at the scene five minutes later and found a group of men had surrounded the teenagers. Men started to beat the boys as about 20 policemen watched.

"There was no other media there so I started taking the clip. Some people tried to stop me from taking the video," he said. "In my first clip, that I took as soon as I arrived, the police were there picking up the boys from the floor by their arms. It appeared that the boys had died."

In fact, the torture had just begun.

"When I started the second clip on my camera, police moved back and you could see that they were both alive. Mughees, the older one, was definitely alive and the younger one's hand was moving. The police moved away and the public started hitting the two boys again. The police made a circle around the people who were beating the boys. Nobody could get in and the police just observed," he said.

The villagers beat the brothers to death. Their bodies were first hanged from metal poles and then thrown into a trolley and discarded near a mortuary.

Video footage of the beatings confirms the journalist's account.

Several days later police said the boys were the victims of mistaken identity.

Mr Imran's footage was broadcast first on Pakistani television and then by international stations such as Al Jazeera and the BBC. Western newspapers including the UK's Daily Mail also published the story and stills from the footage.

Later the same month, Imran was summoned to court as prosecutors built a case in the killings.

A district police officer named Waqar Chohan, effectively the local police chief, who was one of those who allegedly watched the murders, tried to bargain with him before the hearing.

"The DPO said, 'say what you like, just don't mention my name,'" Mr Imran said. But the officer also left him with a warning that the video "could cost you".

A few days later, the motorcycle showed up at his house.

Government officials offered to provide him with security after he was released from hospital but he did not trust them. He started to formulate a plan to leave Pakistan. He flew to the UAE in October.

"My family of six is in Pakistan. I protected my family by leaving them," he said. "I was certain they were going to murder me. That's why I left."

On August 23, 28 people, including seven policemen and the district police officer, were arrested in connection with the case. Their trial is ongoing.

Mr Imran still felt a chill from his home country, however.

He said officials at the Pakistani Consulate in Dubai offered to help him find work in the city "but they told me not to be a writer or tell any local press about my story".

"They offered me a job in a school with housing and the opportunity to stay in the UAE, but they said I had to give up my writing," he said. "But I am not leaving this job. I want to see justice for these kids. I didn't sleep then. I don't sleep now. I am not ashamed of fulfilling my duty to these boys. I have to see justice."

He struggled for more than two months to find a job, without success. He sought help at several embassies in Abu Dhabi, but only the Americans responded. They advised him to appeal to the UN Refugee Agency, but his visit visa expired before he could make any headway.

He once again borrowed money from friends and travelled to another country, where he remains in self-imposed exile. He requested that his new country of residence not be disclosed.

Mr Imran finds it ironic that when a Pakistani senator, Rehman Malik, visited Sialkot, he praised his reporting. The government has also offered him a journalism prize, but Imran says he is not interested.

"I don't want an award until these boys get justice. Even if I was invited into a political debate, I don't want to participate in something by the government who sway between giving me an award and accusing me of a crime."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae