Robert Fisk: Please release my friend Daniel Pearl

'I don't know if Osama bin Laden is alive. I suspect he is. I want him to do everything he can to secure Daniel's release'
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The Independent Online

Daniel Pearl should not be a hostage. The photograph released by his kidnappers, manacled and awaiting execution, was profoundly shocking for me, because he and his young French wife were the last Westerners I saw in Islamabad before I returned to Beirut last December. I had just been beaten by an Afghan crowd and arrived, still bruised and very bloody, at the guest house on Chinar Road, which has been home to many journalists over the past months.

Daniel and Mariane were a picture of happiness, a great relief to me after the hardship of recent days, and they immediately took me to their small room to make me coffee and open their lists of phone numbers – I had lost my own contacts book when I was beaten. Daniel insisted I use his international line to track down some journalist friends in Qatar. Were they going to Afghanistan, I asked? They shook their heads. Mariane said she was pregnant. There was something about that small room, its warmth, its cosiness, a sort of self-contained home. I have often come across this phenomenon when I meet two people who are obviously very much in love.

Daniel was kidnapped in the Pakistani city of Karachi while he was researching a story on Islamic groups, and went to meet two contacts in a restaurant. They insisted on taking him to another location – and that was the last that was seen of him until those grotesque photographs a few days later and the kidnappers' threat to kill him unless Pakistani prisoners held in America's Camp X-ray are returned for trial in Pakistan and the imprisoned former Taliban ambassador to Islamabad is freed.

I am not the first to point out that the kidnappers – calling themselves the National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty and using an email account called Kidnapperguy@Hotmail.com – don't sound like an ordinary Islamist group. "Revered" and "respected" is about as close to religion as their most important messages have come. But since Daniel was trying to contact Islamist organisations, there is a near to certain chance that these are people who take their religion seriously – even if they promised to give his family food after his execution, because "we cannot forget American kindness that they gave a gift of death to hundreds and thousands of Muslims and rained food on their relatives" – contains a kind of macabre humour.

Back in the mid- to late-1980s, journalists were culled by the hostage-takers of Beirut. Islamic Jihad, they called themselves then, and death threats were a regular occurrence. I remember spending an hour searching for my friend Terry Anderson's body on a garbage tip – a story I was thankfully able to tell him in person after his release almost seven years later. I met some of those kidnappers, tough, uncompromising men of ruthless determination.

But they made one serious political error. Once foreigners were kidnapped, almost every Western journalist fled Beirut. Although The Independent kept operating – I once had the odd distinction of being outnumbered five to one in Beirut by my kidnapped colleagues – Lebanon's tragedy fell out of the news. No one read or heard of the great battles being fought between Hizbollah and the occupying Israeli army in the south of the country – save, of course, from Israel itself – and the terrible suffering of the Palestinian camps under siege by a Lebanese militia was a story largely untold.

The Hizbollah, around which these kidnap groups floated like satellites, now acknowledges that hostage-taking was a major blunder, an own goal of the worst kind, quite apart from the inhumanity of imprisoning the innocent and threatening their lives. If Israel could not persuade the United States to put the Hizbollah on America's "terrorist" list, the kidnappings would have done the trick. The argument that national resistance should not be confused with "terrorism" was never heard – because the journalists who should have reported it were either locked up or running away.

Daniel's kidnappers are now making an identical error. They gave all American journalists until midnight last night to leave Pakistan, the best way of ensuring that the suffering of tens of thousands of Afghan refugees, the chaotic, lawless Afghanistan which has emerged from America's victory, the crisis in Kashmir and the plight of Pakistan's millions of poor goes unrecorded, and all for a series of demands that will never be met by the United States.

Now I happen to think that the treatment of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay is outrageous, illegal, a scandal for a country that claims to be a democracy. I wrote here earlier that these men were being treated much as the Beirut hostages were treated, complete with the threat of death from drumhead courts. And – given the dangerous, infantile State of the Union speech which President Bush gave last week – I am not surprised that the US government saw nothing wrong with releasing those disgusting photographs of the shackled, hooded, drugged prisoners.

But much of the world's anger at this scandal was only provoked after journalists had highlighted the conditions in which the men were held and in editorials and opinion columns explained why their treatment amounted to a form of revenge. Without reporters, we would not have been given such devastating eye-witness proof of the thousands of innocent Afghans killed in those American B-52 bombing raids, nor of the murder of Taliban prisoners by our so-called allies of the Northern Alliance.

I don't know if Osama bin Laden is alive. But I suspect he is. If so, he knows what is happening around him. I know him and he knows me. And so, if he has the power to do so, and if he reads this article – as I think he will if he is alive because my reports are often reprinted in Arabic and Pushtu – I want him to do everything he can to secure Daniel's release.

Osama bin Laden has many great admirers in Karachi – indeed, he once spent half an hour telling me with pride of his support in the Pakistani city – and his word, however it was transmitted, would count if Daniel's kidnappers are people who believe in the Koran.

This is not special pleading. The innocent should be protected, what ever their age or job. But I've spent too many years of my life in Beirut in fear of cars with smoked-glass windows and bearded gunmen and basement prisons. And today I am writing this on a beautiful, sunny, winter's afternoon overlooking the seafront of a now safe Beirut, I shudder to think of what Daniel is going through.

Put simply, we must get on with our job of uncovering the truth about America's Afghan war, and Daniel must be allowed to go home to his wife and unborn child.

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