Thousands of people arrived in Islamabad on Thursday for the funeral of a highly regarded investigative journalist killed under mysterious circumstances while in self-exile in Kenya.
The funeral was held amid allegations that his death stemmed from a crackdown on media in Pakistan.
Arshad Sharif, 50, was fatally shot in the head by police officers at a checkpoint outside Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, last Sunday in what was declared a case of “mistaken identity” for a carjacking. A police statement expressed regrets over the “unfortunate incident.”
The award-winning reporter, a fierce critic of the Pakistani government and the powerful military, had fled the country in August complaining of death threats and more than a dozen cases against him on controversial sedition charges as part of a government crackdown on media.
His killing shocked and outraged many in Pakistan. He was a household name for anchoring the popular political talk show “Power Play” for years on the private ARY News channel before fleeing the country.
An estimated 20,000 mourners, including journalists, politicians and ordinary citizens, attended the funeral services in Islamabad’s grand Faisal Mosque. The crowd chanted “Revolution!” and some accused the Pakistani military of plotting his slaying.
Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, who is unrelated to the slain journalist, has already ordered the formation of a two-member inquiry committee to visit Kenya, seek out the facts of the journalist’s death and submit their report to the Pakistani government.
Military spokesman Lieutenant General Babar Iftikhar on Thursday backed calls for an “impartial and transparent” investigation into the circumstances leading to Sharif’s death in Kenya.
In a televised news conference, Iftikhar urged the public to desist from finger-pointing and allow the inquiry commission to reach a conclusion.
Speaking alongside Iftikhar, Pakistani spy chief Lieutenant General Nadeem Ahmed Anjum said his agency and the military had nothing to do with Sharif’s death, nor were they behind any crackdown on journalists. Anjum said he was in contact with his Kenyan counterparts regarding their probe into the incident.
“Perhaps we and the government are not fully convinced. That’s why the government has formed a team that will head to Kenya,” Anjum said.
This was the first time in Pakistan’s history that a chief of the country’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), had addressed a formal news conference.
“We had no personal enmity with him,” Anjum said, referring to the slain journalist. “Other journalists also say they received calls [from ISI officers]. This is a lie.”
Anjum’s remarks came amid widespread allegations that Pakistani civilian and military officials have been cracking down on media freedom and political dissent to stifle criticism of the army.
Hours after the top military officials spoke, the Federal Investigation Agency arrested another ARY prime-time political show anchor, Chaudhry Ghulam Hussain, in the eastern city of Lahore.
An agency statement alleged the veteran journalist was “wanted” in connection with a bank fraud case dating to 2003. Hussain, who is known for his strong pro-military views, has lately become a fierce critic of the security institution. His family confirmed his arrest, saying he had been apprehended “in a baseless case.”
During his news conference on Thursday, Anjum also rejected charges that the military and ISI had violated the constitution by meddling in politics and had played a role in the toppling of former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government.
Khan was removed from office in April through a parliamentary vote of no confidence, a move the cricket star-turned-politician rejected as illegal. He has since accused the United States of orchestrating his ouster in collusion with Pakistan’s military and Sharif, the then-opposition leader. Islamabad and Washington reject Khan’s allegations.
Anjum and Iftikhar stopped short at the news conference of acknowledging that the Pakistan military until last year had been playing a role in national political affairs.
“The army had an intense internal discussion, and [last year] we reached the conclusion the country’s interest lies in us restricting ourselves to our constitutional role and remaining out of politics,” Anjum said. He also accused Khan of pressing the military to support his government, but he shared no evidence.
Critics saw the military news conference as an attempt to malign and deter Khan from going ahead with his planned protest march on Islamabad starting Friday. The deposed populist prime minister said he would march from Lahore to the capital with a “sea of people” to call for fresh elections.
“First the Pakistani state tried to sideline Imran Khan. Now it tried to shame him by having the country’s two most powerful institutions go before the cameras to shatter his narrative,” Michael Kugelman, a South Asian affairs expert at the Wilson Center in Washington, said on Twitter. “But Khan will likely double down. A long, ugly political crisis may soon reach a crescendo.”
Election authorities recently forced Khan out of parliament on controversial charges of corruption. His opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Party rejected the ruling as politically motivated and orchestrated by the government.
Authorities have deployed thousands of police and paramilitary forces in Islamabad to prevent Khan’s rally from entering the city. The former prime minister held an anti-government march on Islamabad in May, but security forces broke it up with heavy tear gas. Several protesters were killed, and scores of others were injured.