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Threatened Pakistani Journalist Seeks Asylum in Australia

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A Pakistani minority journalist being held at the Curtin Immigration Detention Centre, 40 kilometers southeast of Derby in West Australia, says he now feels "protected" from Islamic terrorist groups that had threatened to kill him in his home country. Amjad Hussain, 38, a print and broadcast journalist, was the only reporter from the often marginalized Hazara ethnic community working in Pakistan's mainstream media in Islamabad, the nation's capital. In less than a decade, extremist groups have killed nearly 600 Hazaras for practicing a Shia version of Islam in Sunni majority Pakistan. Hussain describes himself as a Hazara modernist, a secular professional who has come under attack for his ethnicity and for highlighting the human rights abuses committed by extremist groups and certain segments of the Pakistani security forces.

Hussain was a journalist with two respected Pakistani media organizations. In October 2001, soon after the American invasion of Afghanistan, he joined the Associated Press of Pakistan (APP), the state-run news agency, to work as a reporter in Quetta, his birthplace and the capital of the troubled southwestern Balochistan province. As a correspondent with the official wire service, Hussain provided exclusive coverage on the visits of Pakistan's top officials, including the president, prime minister, army chief of staff, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court. In March 2007, he left his job at the APP to join Dawn News, a highly reputed private news channel.

As a reporter for Pakistan's first English-language independent news outlet, Hussain began to explore critical issues with more freedom. He reported on sectarian and extra judicial killings, enforced disappearances, and human rights abuses targeting the Baloch and Hazara communities. This coverage, however, cost him a heavy price. He began receiving threatening phone calls urging him to stop reporting on the killings and kidnappings of Hazara and Baloch political activists.

"I was deeply perturbed to see the ruthless murders of my fellow journalists and the Baloch political activists for their difference of opinion with [the] Pakistan Army," he recalls. "This situation was intolerable for me and I felt obliged to report these excesses."

On April 16, 2010, Syed Arshad Zaidi, a banker and one of Hussain's "dearest friends from college days," was target killed in Quetta. On the same day, Hussain received an anonymous call warning, "you escaped this time. Next time you won't." In response to these threats, Hussain began to regularly change the route and timing of his office trips as a self-devised strategy to escape a potential assassination attempt.

"My wife was undergoing an unbearable agony and had virtually turned into a psychic patient as she used to spend all her days sitting on [a] prayer mat, praying for my safety till my getting back home from duty," he remembers.

Threats from extremist groups were not the only problem that Hussain had to contend with. He says he was under constant pressure from the media wing of Pakistan's Army, the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), to not file any news stories on human rights abuses committed by the military and paramilitary forces against Baloch nationalist. For almost a decade, Pakistan has brutally suppressed the Baloch nationalist movement that seeks maximum internal autonomy and control over the mineral wealth of the province, hence propelling an armed resistance by certain segments of the nationalist movement.

In 2006, for example, the Pakistan army had taken Hussain and several other journalists to the conflict zones to cover the anti-Baloch (nationalist) military operation. "The army and the Frontier Corps [a paramilitary force] forced us to report in their favor. They did not allow us to ask questions of our choice from military officials." Hussain said that he "was shocked to see that even many senior journalists in Quetta and Islamabad were on the payroll of the Pakistani military."

As a Shia Hazara journalist, Hussain remained under persistent threat: "My community people have been bearing the grudge of these actors both in Afghanistan and Pakistan for the last two decades."

"These threats turned my life into a hell," he confides. As he continued to receive death threats, Hussain decided to leave his birthplace, Quetta, to go to Islamabad which he deemed less risky. "I, as director News of Dawn TV, authorized his transfer," confirms Syed Mubashir Zaidi, editor of Dawn News and Hussain's former boss. "Hussain was shifted to Islamabad from Quetta in 2009 on his request after he reported of feeling threatened."

While in Islamabad, Hussain was unable to frequently visit his family in Quetta due to threats on his life and the constant attacks on Hazaras in Pakistan's southwestern province.

Furthermore, he was surprised to learn from conversations with credible sources about the close "nexus between [the] Pakistan Army and the sectarian groups." The extremist groups, he says, receive funding from the intelligence section of the Pakistan army and, as a result, enjoy impunity from law enforcement agencies for their actions.

Hence, even though he was far from Quetta, he continued to experience a lack of safety while working for Dawn News in Islamabad. "I was under constant fear of being kidnapped or targeted while moving around the capital," he recollects. "I continued reporting against the murders of the Hazaras and the Baloch." Here again, Hussain received another anonymous call warning him that he would not be able to find safety anywhere in Pakistan, including Islamabad, and to prepare for the "worst consequences." He believes the caller was alluding to murder as the "worst consequence" for his continued reporting.

The phone call instantly alerted Hussain and brought back memories of the killing of Saleem Shahzad, a fellow journalist from the Asia Times, who had been kidnapped and killed in May 2011, allegedly by Pakistan's Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), a wing of the national army. Hussain had known Shahzad very well. In 2003, he had traveled and worked with Shahzad in the Pakistani-Afghanistan border town of Chaman to investigate a story on the Taliban.

"I did not want to become another Saleem Shahzad. I was not ready to move to a third city and still meet Shahzad's fate." Hence, on Oct. 15, 2011, Hussain resigned from his position at Dawn and later applied for political asylum in Australia.

"My wife and children are still in Pakistan. I am very much concerned about their safety and livelihood," he says while appealing to Australian authorities to help him reunite with his family without delay.

Hussain says that the Australian government has generously embraced at-risk Hazaras at this critical time when "many nations of the world have turned a deaf ear to our people's appeal for protection."

Life as an asylum-seeker is nevertheless hard. Looking back, he says he had earned a very good name and fame after years of hard work in Pakistan. "I had a prestigious job and a happy life with my wife and kids. But, now all is gone. It may require me another 38 years of my life to regain all that professional prestige in Australia. I am a complete stranger to this environment and I have to start my life afresh. In fact, the life in asylum has no match with the life in one's own country," he says.

Hussain has written letters to Australia's former Premier Kevin Rud and Immigration Minister Chris Evans seeking their help on grounds that his life remains threatened in his home country. Though the immigration minister expressed sympathy in a personal communication with
Hussain, Mr. Evans noted regret at not being able to directly offer any personal assistance.

Hussain sees no hope of returning to Pakistan and still remaining alive there. "A country where one's survival is at stake and where the guardians of your life have turned into your killers is not worth living in."

"Life is granted once. It is too precious to be eliminated by a bullet of terrorists," he concludes. "I have a fundamental humanitarian right to live and ask for asylum."

How the Australian government responds to his call remains to be seen.

The views expressed in his article are personal and do not reflect the policy of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) where the writer is currently a Regan-Fascell Democracy Fellow.