CIVICUS speaks with Syed Fawad Ali Shah, a writer and journalist from Pakistan, about the situation of journalists in his country and his experience of persecution, exile and deportation.
In retaliation for his reporting on terrorism, crime, drugs, corruption and human rights, in 2011 Syed was kidnapped and tortured by Pakistani intelligence officers, forcing him to seek asylum in Malaysia. He remained there until August 2022, when he was deported back to Pakistan, allegedly because the Pakistani authorities falsely identified him as a police officer subjected to disciplinary proceedings.
What is the situation for journalists in Pakistan?
It is too easy to kill, kidnap or torture journalists in Pakistan. Many Pakistani journalists have sacrificed a lot for press freedom, which the Pakistani government has strangled. Journalists working for most newspapers and TV channels in Pakistan have not received their salaries for several months because critical newspapers do not receive government advertising, putting pressure on journalists.
Why did you flee Pakistan in 2011?
In 2011, I was kidnapped in Islamabad by the Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), precisely for raising my voice for the freedom of people forcibly disappeared by the ISI. I was also exposing corruption in the police and bureaucracy and reporting on terrorism and the Taliban.
The ISI kept me in a secret, black hole-type jail for three months and 18 days. They released me on the condition that I quit journalism, leave the country, or work as a spy for them. I told them I would quit journalism, but it was impossible for me to leave the country or spy for the ISI.
To save my life, I kept my word. The ISI freed me in April. In June, I was wounded in a bomb blast in Peshawar. After my name was published in a local newspaper, the ISI called me threateningly, accusing me of starting journalism again. I told them that I had not; I just happened to be there. In August, I reluctantly left my country. I travelled to Thailand and a few days later I arrived in Malaysia, where I was granted refugee status.
What was your experience as a refugee?
As a refugee registered with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), I experienced many hardships. UNHCR cardholders are sometimes arrested in Malaysia, so I lived in fear of being deported back to Pakistan. During my 13 years in Malaysia, I moved from place to place to avoid arrest. I wrote for various newspapers and websites, reporting mostly on refugee issues and immigration policies.
In 2016, UNHCR Malaysia referred my resettlement case to the United States Refugee Admissions Program through the International Rescue Committee (IRC). However, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) refused to resettle me in the USA due to alleged security issues. They gave me a series of reasons I could not be admitted as a refugee in the USA. I applied for reconsideration in 2016 but did not hear back from the DHS until June 2022.
From 2016 to 2022, I waited for a response from the US government that never came. I finally asked the IRC to send my case file back to UNHCR Malaysia, which they did. I wrote hundreds of times to UNHCR Malaysia requesting resettlement in a safe country but got no response, although I sent them copies of the threats I received from the Pakistani government, the police report and the letter written to Interpol for my arrest. Other who became refugees after me were resettled by UNHCR, but I was stuck there. Pakistani intelligence officers stationed at the Pakistani High Commission in Kuala Lumpur often spied on me.
How did your arrest and deportation happen?
On 23 August 2022, at 9pm, I was abducted by Malaysian immigration officials in a joint operation with the Pakistani ISI in the Bangsar area of Kuala Lumpur. They took me to the Immigration Headquarters in Putrajaya, where they locked me up in the basement. On 25 August they put a black hood over my face and took me to the airport. Before taking me to the airport, they gave me a drug, saying it was for COVID-19, after which I fell unconscious. At the airport they removed the black hood and put me on a Pakistan International Airlines flight to Islamabad, with two ISI officers at either side. More than 30 people from Malaysian Immigration and the Pakistani diplomatic mission saw me off at the airport.
When I arrived, the ISI sent me to an unknown prison in Islamabad without entering my data in the Federal Investigation Agency’s immigration system. I was detained for six months, during which time the Pakistani government did not acknowledge I was in Pakistan. But in March 2023, Malaysia’s Home Affairs minister finally acknowledged I had been deported and this was reported by international media.
The authorities couldn’t hide me for longer and eventually handed me over to the Federal Investigation Agency’s (FIA) cybercrime wing, who slapped me with two fake charges under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016. After I received temporary bail, the judge was pressured by FIA’s cybercrime wing to fabricate further cases against me, so I am constantly afraid that the court will send me to jail. The ISI often oversteps its authority and kidnaps and disappears innocent people, which has led to thousands of cases pending in the Supreme Court of Pakistan without any result.
What are your requests to the international community?
I urge organisations working for the rights of refugees and journalists around the world, as well as the heads of all states that have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, to provide me with protection and immediately relocate me to a safe country under special circumstances.
I also urge the leaders of democratic states to put pressure on the Pakistani government regarding my situation and to provide me with a way to leave the country safely, as was done for Asia Bibi, who was resettled in France in 2020.
Due to pressure from Pakistani security agencies, my passport has been blocked for 10 years, and my name has been added to the Integrated Border Management System of Immigration, forcing me to change location every day. I am unable to sleep due to fear. Every time there is a knock at the door I panic. My heart beats fast all the time and I have fallen ill many times.
Follow @SyedFawadAli303 on Twitter.