Light must be shed on Pakistani journalist’s murder in Kenya three months ago

Although Pakistan has appointed a new team of investigators, much is still unclear about ARY News TV anchor Arshad Sharif’s execution-style murder in Kenya in October. After retracing his movements in his final months, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urges them to pursue all leads and offers some recommendations.

On 23 October, a shot fired at close range hit Arshad Sharif in the head as he was in a car near Nairobi, while another went through his chest. The autopsy report released on 4 November contradicted the account of his death provided by the Kenyan authorities and raised many questions about the real course of events. 

“Three months after Arshad Sharif’s brutal murder, the mystery surrounding the circumstances of his death is more impenetrable than ever. After managing to retrace his movements during the three months preceding this tragedy, we ask the investigators to leave no leads unexplored regarding the motives for the murder and to coordinate better with the Emirati and Kenyan authorities manifestly involved. The reliability of the results of the investigation and, therefore, the credibility of Pakistan’s civilian institutions are at stake.

Daniel Bastard
Head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk

RSF has been able to retrace Sharif's movements during the three months prior to his murder on the basis of official documents and the accounts of those close to him. He left Pakistan from Peshawar airport on 10 August and flew to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.

Hunted journalist’s itinerary from August to October

He left as a result of the death threats he had received, coinciding with the filing of around ten complaints against him in the wake of the fall of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government in April. In July, RSF had expressed alarm about intimidation by military-related agencies, including the charge of “spreading hate against the military and the state’s institutions” brought against Sharif in May.

The mystery deepens after his arrival in Dubai. He should have been granted a residence visa within a few days but, instead, the Emirati authorities refused to give him one “for security reasons.” According to documents verified by RSF, a Dubai official visited Sharif at his hotel, to warn him that he had 48 hours to leave the UAE or else he would be deported to Pakistan.

After considering flying to Azerbaijan, Sharif quickly settled on the Kenyan option, as Kenya is one of the world’s few countries to which a Pakistani citizen can travel and obtain a visa on arrival. He landed in Nairobi on 20 August and then spent two months in hiding, without even daring to tell his wife and his mother which country he had fled to, for fear of being tracked down. But his precautions were in vain. He was slain on the evening of 23 October, with a total of nine shots fired at him.

Multiple investigations into “planned and targeted assassination” 

The commission of enquiry created by the Pakistani government immediately after Sharif’s murder was quickly criticised – including by RSF – for its lack of independence, especially with regard to the military. It nonetheless concluded that Sharif was the victim of a “planned and targeted assassination” and it criticised the Kenyan police for initially reporting that he was killed when police opened fire on his car by mistake. Otherwise, it shed little light on the circumstances of his death.

The head of Pakistan’s supreme court, Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial, announced in December that he had “taken suo moto notice” of Sharif’s murder – meaning that he was intervening in the case on his own initiative. He went on to form a panel of five judges to adjudicate on the case’s various aspects.

The federal authorities responded by naming a new team of investigators, called the Joint Investigation Team (JIT), but doubts were again voiced about the independence of its members. Headed by Islamabad Police Deputy Inspector General, it has representatives from Inter-Services Intelligence (Pakistan’s most powerful military intelligence agency), Military Intelligence (the military’s counter-espionage agency), the Federal Investigation Agency (an interior ministry offshoot) and the Intelligence Bureau (the main civilian counter-espionage agency). 

On the basis of its own research, RSF offers the following recommendations to the JIT with the aim of ensuring that its investigation is fully independent and leaves no lead unexplored:

  1. Part of the JIT investigation should focus on the possible motives for Arshad Sharif’s murder, which have until now been neglected. An analysis of the TV shows hosted by Sharif and the investigations he was carrying out before leaving Pakistan will enable the investigators to identify potential suspects. On the basis of the timetable it has reconstructed, RSF draws the investigators’ attention in particular to the “Woh Kon Tha” show broadcast by ARY News on 31 May, following which Sharif received the first death threats. Investigators should keep in mind the murder’s significance for freedom of expression. 
     
  2. The governments of Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Kenya should sign a memorandum of understanding on cooperation with regard to this case, so that the investigators have complete freedom to track how Arshad Sharif spent his time, to identify those he spoke to, and to assess the pressures to which he was subjected in the weeks leading up to his murder.
     
  3. The JIT should interview former Prime Minister Imran Khan about his role in this affair. In particular, clarification is needed with regard to Khan’s statements that he advised Arshad Sharif to leave Pakistan after he received death threats.
     
  4. The JIT should also interview ARY News CEO Salman Iqbal, Arshad Sharif's former employer, in order to establish what information was in his possession and what was or was not done to protect Sharif after he had been the target of legal proceedings and death threats.
     
  5. Echoing a statement on 5 January by a judge who is a member the panel set up by the supreme court, RSF supports the idea of assistance by the United Nations, whose experience with international cooperation could help the JIT’s investigation.
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