Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières) has expressed deep shock after the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) again denied before two judges at the Sindh High Court that it was holding Pakistani journalist Khawar Mehdi Rizvi in custody.
The deputy director of the FIA Sarwar Khan, as well as the deputy prosecutor for Pakistan, made the denial on 13 January in response to a habeas corpus petition lodged earlier by the lawyer for Rizvi’s family, Abid Saqi. However both Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and the foreign ministry spokesman have recently said that the journalist was being held for "investigation", said Reporters Without Borders.
French journalists for the weekly L’Express, Marc Epstein and Jean-Paul Guilloteau who were working with Rizvi on a report on the Taliban at the Afghan border saw a six-month jail term cut to a fine on 12 January and were free to leave the country.
The international press freedom organisation said it was very shocked at the obvious flouting of the law. On one hand the highest authorities said the security services were holding the journalist for "investigation", while on the other the courts had no access to the person detained nor to his file, it said.
As the two judges in Karachi said on 13 January, it is offensive to see a Pakistani journalist held in secret while his French colleagues are released and allowed to leave the country. The judges said they were very displeased with the response from the authorities and called on the federal government to appear before them on 20 January and explain Rizvi’s situation and the official reasons for his detention. The international press freedom organisation also fears that Rizvi has been subjected to maltreatment since his arrest.
Speaking about Rizvi to the press on 12 January in Islamabad, the foreign ministry spokesman said of him, "He is not a poor chap. We found a faked report on him and the investigation is going on."
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf personally cast doubt on the professional qualities of Rizvi on 29 December. He told representatives of the All Pakistan Newspapers Society: "This freelance journalist has done terrible harm to the national interest in making this fake film on the taliban and for only 2,000 dollars. If he had come to me I would have been able to give him 3,000 dollars not to make this film."
Rizvi, a freelance journalist who regularly works with foreign journalists, is supported by the French newspapers Le Monde and Libération, French TV channels TF1 and France 2, and US newspapers The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune.
Epstein and Guilloteau meanwhile have had their passports returned and were due to leave Karachi on 13 January. Epstein told Agence France-Presse, "I am very worried about Khawar because we have no news of him."
The three journalists were arrested on 16 December 2003 in Karachi just after completing a report on taliban groups at the border with Afghanistan.