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Old friend gives up hope for captive Canadian in Pakistan

Canadian Beverley Giesbrecht, also known as Khadija Abdul Qahaar, was kidnapped in northern Pakistan in November, 2008.

Globe files/Globe files

It has been so long since Glen Cooper was awakened by a desperate phone call from Beverly Giesbrecht that he has given up hope.

Kidnapped in northern Pakistan in November, 2008, the West Vancouver woman who had dreamed of getting an interview with Osama bin Laden made several calls to Mr. Cooper from captivity, but then fell silent.

A few months ago, there were unconfirmed reports in Pakistan media that she had died in captivity.

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"I have long feared it, but I finally accepted her demise only a few weeks ago," said Mr. Cooper, who for years has served as a spokesman in Canada for Ms. Giesbrecht, an old friend of his.

He said he hasn't heard anything new on her file for several months from RCMP National Security agents who used to call him regularly, or from contacts he has in Pakistan.

And the calls she made, pleading with him for help while armed kidnappers stood over her, ended long ago as well.

"She was in poor health going in," he said of Ms. Giesbrecht, 53, a self-styled freelance journalist, who published a pro-Islamic website, Jihad Unspun, that was sympathetic to the Taliban. "That, combined with the fact we haven't heard anything [from kidnappers]since August, 2009, has convinced me she's gone. It took me a long time to accept it."

He has also been convinced by conversations he's had with Salman Khan, a young Pakistani man who worked briefly with Ms. Giesbrecht as an interpreter, and who was kidnapped with her.

The Globe was unable to contact members of Ms. Giesbrecht's family. Mr. Cooper said he has been in touch with her sister, and her daughter, and that both have indicated they do not want to talk to reporters.

Mr. Cooper said he believes Ms. Giesbrecht died of hepatitis, after becoming sick while being held in unsanitary conditions. He said she told him in phone calls that she was usually kept in a small, cold, dark room day and night, was poorly fed and had pneumonia.

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She, her interpreter and her cook "were kept in the same room for six months," he said. "When they were moved, some of the places were shacks, some were like dungeons. … She was cold the whole time, with one blanket."

Details on the ordeal came to him from Mr. Khan, who confirmed the information in separate e-mails to The Globe and Mail, and who has written a detailed account for Mr. Cooper.

Mr. Khan, an accounting student who is "not really interested in any politics or world affairs," said he was hired by Ms. Giesbrecht to translate.

"She had a lot of knowledge about the war on terror and it was obviously due to her traveling and study," he wrote.

Ms. Giesbrecht, who converted to Islam and took the name Khadija Abdul Qahaar, went to Pakistan in the summer of 2008 to conduct research on terrorism and with the hopes of interviewing top Taliban officials. Her visa application in Canada was supported by two letters from Al Jazeera, but she wasn't on staff with any media outlet, nor did she have a specific assignment.

In November, 2008, she told Mr. Cooper she was going to get an interview with a top Taliban figure, but she wouldn't say who.

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"She wanted to meet the main players. She always wanted to meet bin Laden … that was her ultimate goal," he said.

Mr. Khan said that on Nov. 10, Ms. Giesbrecht told him they were going to Bannu, in northern Pakistan.

"We were heading towards the worst day of our lives," he wrote. "On the way there was a mosque-type structure and two guys having guns stopped the car … they shouted 'hands up' … it was the most horrible moment of my life."

He said they were taken, together with a Pakistani man who worked as a cook for Ms. Giesbrecht, to a house where they were held at gunpoint.

"For the first time I saw tears in the eyes of one of the strongest lady [sic]" he wrote. "She was very strong and very brave but she was angry and she was in [a]cage and she couldn't do anything."

Later, Mr. Khan and the cook were released. Pakistan government officials tried to negotiate through intermediaries for the release of Ms. Giesbrecht, but Mr. Cooper said the ransom demand - which in March, 2009, was for $375,000 (U.S.) - kept changing, and no deal was ever made.

Then she fell silent.

Rahimullah Yusufzai, resident editor of the News International in Peshawar, Pakistan, told The Globe in an e-mail that he was involved in efforts to negotiate her freedom.

"Yes, I tried to secure her release and nearly succeeded, but nobody, I mean neither the Pakistani nor Canadian authorities were willing to pay the ransom amount. I spoke to her on the phone and [received]her last video messages and she was desperate and seriously ill. We still don't have any confirmation that she is dead, but this is what is being presumed," he said in a note.

Muhammad Saleem, deputy high commissioner with the Diplomatic Mission of Pakistan in Canada, said the media in Pakistan reported Ms. Giesbrecht's death late last year, but nothing is official yet.

"There's no confirmation. We have tried our best to get information," he said.

By coincidence, the kidnappers of Ms. Giesbrecht stopped communicating at about the same time Shah Abdul Aziz was arrested in July, 2009. The former parliamentarian in Pakistan is known for his links to the Taliban. He was accused, but later acquitted at trial, of ordering the murder of Peter Stanczak, a Polish engineer who was kidnapped by the Taliban in September, 2008.

When she went to Bannu, Ms. Giesbrecht said she was going to meet men who could get her the interviews she wanted. Those men, she said, worked for Shah Abdul Aziz.

The RCMP and Canadian Security Intelligence Service referred media calls to the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Priya Sinha, a spokesperson for the ministry, said in an e-mail Thursday: "We continue to pursue all appropriate channels, including with Pakistani authorities, in seeking information with regard to Ms. Giesbrecht."

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About the Author
National correspondent

Mark Hume is a National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver, writing news and feature stories on a daily basis about his home province of British Columbia. His weekly column, which often challenges the orthodoxy on environmental issues, appears every Monday. More

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