Who Kidnapped Najam Sethi?

News Abroad

Mr. Khawaja, adjunct professor of philosophy at the College of New Jersey, is a columnist for Pakistan Today. The views he expresses here are his own.

The letters section of The New York Review of Books for February 12, 2004 contains a heated exchange between Bernard-Henry Levy, author of Who Killed Daniel Pearl? ( Hoboken , NJ : Melville House, 2003) and William Dalrymple, who reviewed Levy's book in the December 4 issue of the NYRB (“Murder in Karachi ”). As it happens, I have a document that settles a contentious issue between them. I reproduce it below.

First, some context: Who Killed Daniel Pearl? is Levy's controversial attempt to reconstruct the gruesome January 2002 murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl at the hands of Muslim militants in Pakistan . The standard story has it that Pearl was murdered by Al Qaeda sympathizers acting more or less on their own; Levy contends, somewhat speculatively and against the grain, that he was murdered with the connivance of Pakistan 's Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI). To bolster his case, Levy adduces three supposed examples of ISI kidnappings in the recent past:

Of course there have been other cases of journalists kidnapped in Pakistan by ISI agents suspected of being backed up by al-Qaida: Husain Haqqani (of the Indian Express ); Najam Sethi (of The Friday Times ); Ghulam Hasnain ( Time magazine). But none them was executed.(Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, p. 381)

Sethi, whom we'll meet in a moment, is the co-founder and editor of The Friday Times, a fiercely independent English-language newsweekly in Lahore, Pakistan .

Dalrymple had taken issue with Levy's assertion about the kidnappings in his review:

[T]here are numerous occasions where Lévy distorts his evidence and actually inverts the truth. While seeking to prove that the ISI and al-Qaeda were jointly responsible for abducting Daniel Pearl, for example, he cites three precedents in which journalists were "kidnapped in Pakistan by ISI agents suspected of being backed up by al-Qaida." In reality, in two of the cases he cites—Najam Sethi and Hussain Haqqani—both were arrested by the regular Punjab police as part of a campaign by Pakistan 's last civilian prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to intimidate the press. The case of the third journalist, Ghulam Hasnain, remains a mystery: he was picked up for a day and then released. He has never identified the agency that arrested him; but no connection has ever been shown—or, up to now, even suggested—with al-Qaeda. Lévy's misuse of evidence here is revealing of his general method: if proof does not exist, he writes as if it did. The ISI has been involved in many dubious activities, but there has never been any suggestion that it has abducted Westerners, least of all an American. This record is important evidence against any direct link between the ISI and Pearl 's abduction rather than the reverse. (“Murder in Karachi ,” New York Review of Books , Dec. 4, 2003 ).

In the most recent exchange of letters, Levy modifies his original claim slightly, responding to Dalrymple as follows:

How does one best defend the interests of this "other Pakistan ": by multiplying the intellectual contortions meant to prove that Pakistan 's military-mullah complex is not implicated in the kidnapping of journalists such as Najam Sethi, Hussain Haqqani, Ghulam Hasnain, and Daniel Pearl? Or by speaking clearly, and by taking a clear position in favor of those who, like them, fight for free and truthful journalism in Islamabad and Karachi ?

Obviously, Levy takes himself to be doing the latter.

Shortly after the publication of Dalrymple's review, I had an email exchange with Najam Sethi on precisely the issues discussed in Levy's book and Dalrymple's review, asking him (Sethi) to clarify at length and in print what had really happened to him during his kidnapping. He wrote me the following detailed note, giving me permission to publish it; it is unchanged except for minor modifications of paragraphing, grammar, and punctuation. The “Prime Minister” referred to throughout the note is Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan's last civilian prime minister, deposed in 1999 by General Pervez Musharraf. I've retained Sethi's somewhat pejorative-sounding (or is it affectionate?) references to “General Mush” as well:

My case was quite bizarre. An armed posse of the Punjab Police and the IB [Intelligence Bureau] smashed its way into my bedroom at 2:30 am on May 8th, 1999, beat up my wife and me, gagged me, blindfolded me, handcuffed me and dragged me away. I was in their custody for many hours. Then I was handed over to the ISI. The ISI kept me in a safe house first in Lahore and then in Islamabad . It investigated everything, found that the treason charges against me were trumped up politically by the Prime Minister (PM) and then confidentially told me that it was under pressure from the PM to court martial me. But it said that Gen Mush [sic] was against the idea of any military involvement in my case and was telling the PM that the civilians should handle it.

In due course, the ISI actually protected me from the IB which wanted to take me away for a few days and "fix" me at the behest of the PM and Saif ur-Rehman. The ISI general in charge of my case was Major General Ghulam Ahmad (deceased now) who came to see me in the ISI safe house three times and initally told me that he was giving me a clean chit of health because he would not be party to any wrongdoing. It was the ISI's clean chit of health that persuaded the Supreme Court (SC) to put pressure on the civilian government to release me. But within a day of releasing me, the government lodged a case of treason in a civil court against me and tried to arrest me again; but Justice Mamoon Qazi of the SC stepped in and judged that I could not be arrested in any case without the government's first showing the evidence against me to the SC. When I was released, I told the BBC in an interview that the ISI was largely responsible for my well-being.

Incidentally, the so-called "anti-Pakistan" speech that I was supposed to have made in India, which was the basis of the charge against me, was the same speech that I had made at the National Defence College in Islamabad earlier on the basis of which I had duly received a formal letter from the NDC commending me for having obtained the "highest marks ever" from the NDC for a presentation before the college.

The real reason why I was arrested by Nawaz Sharif had to do with a BBC documentary in which I had taken part, exposing the corruption of the PM. I was interviewed by the BBC in Pakistan two days before I left for India . The IB found out and informed the PM. Saif ur-Rehman called me and asked what I had told the BBC. I told him: "everything." "Negative or positive?" he asked. "Is there anything positive in your regime?" I replied. "We will get you," he warned.

That was that. They used the India thing to try and silence and discredit me so that my BBC testimony would be rejected by the people. Then they took the BBC to court in London for potential libel and threatened to close down its operations in Pakistan if the film was shown to Pakistani audiences. Then a “settlement” took place between the two parties--the BBC film was subsequently shown in the UK but never in South Asia . Before showing the film in the UK, the BBC asked me whether I wanted to censor or edit my statements against the PM in the film in view of what had happened. I said “no.” Everything I said was on the record and should be shown.

When Saif ur-Rehman was arrested in 1999 after the coup, he got his wife to phone me and ask for my "forgiveness." Later, Shahbaz Sharif called from exile and claimed he had never been a party to my ordeal and apologised on behalf of the Sharif family. Nawaz Sharif's son Hussain met me in London two years [later] and also apologised. Other members of that government have also apologised. But Nawaz is still silent.

Nonetheless, I remain committed to the view that military rule is not good for the country and that Gen Mush [sic] must compromise with the mainstream PPP and PMLN despite the many faults of their leaders. And I remain opposed to the continuing political role of the ISI in the internal and external affairs of Pakistan . In short, I propose a truth and reconciliation process in the national interest.   This is the truth.

Well, I wouldn't argue with that. Whatever one thinks of the larger issues discussed in Bernard-Henry Levy's book—and that is a complicated affair beyond the scope of anything I've said here—Sethi's note demonstrates beyond any shadow of a doubt that it is Levy who is guilty of “intellectual contortions” here, not his critic. The evidence is indisputable: Najam Sethi was not kidnapped by the ISI; he was effectively rescued and released by them. Anyone committed to “clear speech” and “truthful journalism” ought at this point to be able to acknowledge that. We may still not be certain of who killed Daniel Pearl-—but, for whatever it's worth, we can at this point be quite sure who didn't kidnap Najam Sethi.


William Dalrymple, “Murder in Karachi ,” New York Review of Books , Dec. 4, 2003 :


Bernard-Henri Levy and William Dalrymple, “Murder in Karachi : an exchange,” New York Review of Books , Feb. 12, 2004 :


Khalid Hasan, “Najam Sethi subject of exchange between author and critic,” Daily Times ( Lahore , Pakistan ), Jan. 29, 2004 :


I wrote to Sethi on December 1, 2003 ; he responded on December 2, 2003 , and gave me permission to go public with his “story” (his quotes) on December 3. Strictly speaking, our email exchange began before the print publication date of Dalrymple's review (Dec. 4), but I had read Dalrymple's review online, where it appeared in late November 2003.

Saif ur-Rehman was the head of the Punjab Intelligence Bureau.

Shahbaz Sharif was chief minister of Punjab and is a brother of Nawaz Sharif.

The “PPP” is the People's Party of Pakistan ; the “PMLN” is the Pakistan Muslim League, Nawaz Sharif faction.