Pakistan’s Supreme Court Tuesday began scrutinizing an apparently lackluster government investigation into what the top court said was “the brutal killing” of a highly regarded investigative journalist while in self-exile in Kenya.
Arshad Sharif, 50, was fatally shot in the head under mysterious circumstances by police officers at a checkpoint outside Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, last October in what was swiftly declared a case of “mistaken identity” for a carjacking.
A panel of five judges, led by the chief justice, at an initial hearing, asked Pakistan’s foreign and interior ministries, as well as federal investigation agencies, to submit their responses Wednesday when the court reconvenes.
“The journalist community and the public at large are deeply distressed and concerned about the death of the senior journalist and are seeking the court’s scrutiny of the matter,” said a Pakistani Supreme Court statement.
Sharif spent years hosting a popular prime-time television political talk show for ARY News before fleeing Pakistan for Kenya in July, citing threats to his life after the government registered a treason case against him.
His killing caused an uproar in Pakistan, with demands for an impartial investigation to determine who was responsible for his death.
In a report, Kenyan police said they had established a roadblock to intercept car thieves and opened fire on Sharif’s vehicle when it drove through the roadblock late at night without stopping. The report noted that one of the nine bullets fired at the car hit Sharif in the head.
But Pakistani investigators, after visiting Kenya last month, disputed the police claims, saying Sharif was the victim of a targeted killing, not an accidental shooting.
“Arshad Sharif’s death is not a case of mistaken identity – I can say, and on the evidence we have so far, this prima facie is a target killing,” Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah told reporters in Islamabad while sharing initial findings of the government-led probe.
The minister said the journalist’s body bore bruises and torture marks. The government, however, has since been largely silent on the status of the probe while journalists and family members of the slain TV host have consistently called for Supreme Court intervention.
The sedition charges filed against Sharif stemmed from accusations he had used his show to magnify an opposition politician’s interview, which purportedly was instigating the Pakistani armed forces into mutiny.
The politician in question, a close aide to former Prime Minister Imran Khan, and the slain journalist, denied the allegations.
Khan has maintained in his speeches and media interviews that Sharif had been murdered for his journalistic work, leading calls for a judicial probe to bring the perpetrators to justice.
The Pakistani military and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have both denied allegations they had anything to do with the killing.
There are still questions regarding more than a dozen cases instituted against the murdered journalist in various Pakistani cities on treason charges, which many see as phony. The cases forced Sharif to flee the country.
International media freedom advocacy groups list Pakistan among the most dangerous countries for journalists.
Reporters Without Borders, a France-based global watchdog, said in a statement Monday that an average of five Pakistani journalists have died every year in the South Asian nation since 2012 because they were journalists. The rate of impunity for killings of journalists in Pakistan is more than 96%.
“Action is urgently needed,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, after visiting Pakistan. “A democracy cannot function when journalists literally risk their lives doing their job.”
Pakistan is ranked 157th out of 180 countries in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index.