- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 5, 2001

LAHORE, Pakistan — Rehmat Shah Afridi, once one of Pakistan's most strident and critical newspaper editors, is now in jail in Lahore, convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to hang.
Many Pakistani journalists and human rights organizations suspect Afridi's biggest crime was to cross paths with the authorities, particularly the powerful Anti-Narcotics Force (ANF).
In a letter smuggled out of his cell, the former editor of the Frontier Post said he was tortured and insisted his recent conviction was politically motivated.
"I spent a good 17 days in ANF custody. They gave me electric shock, physical and mental torture," he wrote.
The trial at a special anti-narcotics court heard that Afridi was arrested in Lahore in April 1999 and more than 12 pounds hashish were found in his green Mercedes.
Prosecutors said he then confessed he had left a truck filled with hashish parked in a nearby town. ANF officers found nearly 400 pounds of hashish inside.
"Since the principal accused is a well-educated, wealthy man who is supposed to behave more responsibly than an illiterate and needy person, therefore he is awarded capital punishment," ruled Judge Kasim Raza Shamsi. "He shall be hanged by his neck till his death."
He was also fined $33,000.
Afridi complained that the only witnesses in the case were ANF undercover officers and said audio and video tapes used to convict him had been tampered with. He insisted the case was triggered by critical stories in his newspaper and is appealing the case.
Many members of the large Afridi tribe of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, from which the convict takes his name, have long been suspected of drug smuggling. But human rights groups criticized the lack of prosecution evidence in this particular case.
The Paris-based journalist watchdog group Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) said Afridi's trial was politically motivated and unfair.
"RSF fears that the journalist was punished more for his critical coverage of Anti-Narcotics Force activities than for supposed drug trafficking."
Amnesty International said Afridi was a "prisoner of conscience," and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists called on the military regime to hold an inquiry.
Five months before Afridi's arrest the Frontier Post ran a report, headlined "In cahoots with smugglers, ANF bosses give narco trade a new boost," which claimed the force was making money from drug trafficking.
Similar reports followed in the paper although the ANF denied the allegations.
"I know the ANF bosses are angry and annoyed with me because I published a few big stories with 100 percent proof against them," Afridi said.
His paper also accused the then-prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, of massive corruption, a claim now widely acknowledged as accurate. Sharif was overthrown in a military coup in October 1999, convicted of corruption and sent into exile in Saudi Arabia.
Even after the fall of Sharif's government, journalists in Pakistan question the impression that the military has loosened the state's grip on the press. Reporters say they remain under pressure to curb their criticism of the regime and censor their own work.
"There is a fear around us," one senior Pakistani journalist said. "You have to be so careful what you write and the way you write it. Being objective is very difficult.
"There is indirect and direct bribery. Journalists are given favors, special permissions for writing certain stories. Sometimes it's as blatant as money changing hands."
There are frequent examples of the pressure on reporters, particularly in the widely read, Urdu-language press.
Masood Malik, the chief reporter of the Urdu-language Nawa-i-Waqt, was demoted by his paper last month after asking the military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, an awkward question at a news conference after his failed summit with India at Agra.
Mr. Malik asked Pakistan's self-appointed president whether a politician might have fared better in representing the country at the negotiations. "You must be joking," a clearly irritated Gen. Musharraf replied.

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