Reporters Without Borders voiced shock today at Pakistan’s arbitrary arrest and expulsion of three European documentary film-makers, who were held secretly for 16 days (15 in solitary confinement) and finally deported on 3 August. The film-makers are Leon Flamholc and his son David Flamholc (Swedish nationals residing in London) and Tahir Shah, a British writer of Afghan origin.
"This case is riddled with illegality, ill-treatment and lies," the organisation said in a letter to Pakistani interior minister Aftab Khan Sherpao. "The Pakistani authorities seem to think the laws do not exist any more and that they can detain foreigners with complete impunity. We are shocked by the absurdity of these arrests and the conditions in which the three men were held."
The letter added: "Instead of claiming that these respected film-makers were filming a military base - which is completely false - we recommend that you undertake a thorough investigation into their detention and thereby show that you, too, understand that there is good reason to be angry."
Reporters Without Borders also urged the Swedish and British authorities to follow up on the case, saying it was puzzled that the Swedish government said nothing for two weeks although he was not even allowed consular visits.
The three film-makers were arrested by military police on 18 July 2005 in the northwestern city of Peshawar as they were filming the home of a friend of Shah’s. Accused without evidence of filming a military base, although they nearest was more than 500 metres from the house, they were blindfolded and taken to military installations.
After several initial rounds of interrogation, first by military police, then by military intelligence agents, they were placed in solitary confinement in dark and dirty cells. During the next 15 days, they were regularly interrogated in rooms described by David Flamholc as "living museums of medieval torture instruments."
Leon and David Flamholc were questioned about their personal history and their Jewish origins. As a British Muslim, Shah, who has written extensively about Afghan culture, was questioned about possible links to the recent London bombings.
Their interrogators never hit them, but David Flamholc said they were treated inhumanely and suffered moments of anxiety. After his return to London, he told Reporters Without Borders their cell walls were spattered with blood and excrement. "When we asked if we were going to be released, they laughed in our faces," he said. "In their eyes, we had to be guilty."
The military never tried to understand why they were in Peshawar, a stopover on their way to Afghanistan. They were researching on behalf of their production company, Caravan Film, with a view to making a documentary about the treasures of the Mogul empire.
The Pakistani authorities said they broke the law by filming while in the country on tourist visas. And to justify their expulsion, the authorities accused them of filming a military installation. "This is false," David Flamholc said. "They returned absolutely all of my video cassettes to me and they confirmed to me they found no sensitive footage."
All the time they were held, the Pakistani military refused to let them contact their embassies or their families. Although informed that two of his citizens were detained, the Swedish foreign minister appears not to have intervened.
This is not the first time foreign journalists have been arbitrarily detained by the Pakistani authorities. Two French reporters and their Pakistani fixer were imprisoned in December 2003.