Arab News journalist recalls hostage ordeal as Philippines arrests suspected kidnapping mastermind

Journalist Baker Atyani boards a plane in Jolo island on Dec. 6, 2013, after fleeing kidnappers who held him captive for 18 months. Inset: Atyani’s suspected captor Nasirin Baladji, center, after his arrest. (AFP, PNP-AKG)
Updated 27 September 2019

Arab News journalist recalls hostage ordeal as Philippines arrests suspected kidnapping mastermind

  • Baker Atyani was working on Al Arabiya documentary when he was kidnapped on June 12, 2012
  • “When I heard of his arrest, all the horrors of that time flashed through my mind,” Atyani said

JEDDAH: One of the alleged masterminds behind the 2012 kidnapping of veteran journalist Baker Atyani is in custody following his capture inthe Philippines.

Col. Jonnel Estomo, director of the Philippine National Police-Anti Kidnapping Group (AKG), named the suspect as Nasirin Baladji, alias Zaed, a high-ranking member of the militant Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG).

Baladji, who was on the AKG Mindanao most-wanted list, was seized at his house in Zamboanga Sibugay province during a joint military and police operation on Wednesday night. An official announcement was made on Thursday.

Estomo said the suspect’s arrest followed a six-month surveillance operation.




Baker Atyani in a recent photo. 

Baladji’s arrest came as a relief to Atyani, who saw 18 months of his life snatched away after he was kidnapped by militants on June 12, 2012, while working on a documentary for Al Arabiya News Channel on Muslims in the southern Philippines.

Atyani, now Arab News Asia Bureau chief, was in Dubai on Thursday when Philippine police phoned to inform him of Baladji’s capture.

The veteran journalist told Arab News that he never met Baladji, but knew from police that he was “one of the key guys behind my abduction.”

Baladji was one of the high-ranking men in the Abu Sayyaf Group.

“When I went to the Philippines in June 2012, I was working on a documentary about Muslims in the southern Philippines, their problems, and the possible signing of the peace agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF),” Atyani said.

“Abu Sayyaf Group opposed MILF. The documentary was to include the views of all groups. And so Abu Sayyaf and some members were supposed to be part of the documentary and talk about their views of the situation.

“Back then, the MILF was about to sign an understanding with the government for what became known as the Bangsomoro Peace Agreement.”

He said that a Filipino journalist in Manila at the time had arranged the meeting with an ASG commander.

I spent 18 months in captivity, in the heart of the Sulu jungle, living among ignorant people, to say the least.

“The whole arrangement for the interview was actually setting a trap for my kidnapping.”

Atyani said he has no knowledge what happened to the journalist who claimed that he had arranged the interview.

“I registered an official complaint against him, but  to my knowledge no action has so far been taken against him. I have told police to investigate because I believe he has a connection to the group that has kidnapped me

“He is in the Philippines, and everyone knows where he is.”

Atyani said: “With his arrest, I feel that justice would be meted out to the man who stole a year and a half of my life. The Philippine police confirmed that he was the one who delivered me to the kidnappers in the jungle.”  




A photo distributed by a US-based intelligence group in September, 2014, appeared to show Abu Sayyaf militants holding hostages at an undisclosed location

“When I heard of his arrest, all the horrors of that time flashed through my mind. It was a terrible time.”

Atyani told Arab News that he believes justice is being done with the arrest.

“The criminal has received what he deserves. My main captor, Kasman Sawadjaan, died three days before I regained my freedom. Then I saw Abu Rami, their spokesman, had been killed along with others.

“They got what they deserved. I want this man to be punished for what he did. This guy was a part of the group holding me. This is what the police told me this morning. The case against him is watertight. He was responsible not only for my kidnapping but for two others as well, including an Italian national.”

After being held for 18 months, Atyani managed to escape his jungle prison on Dec. 4, 2013, with the help of outsiders and Al Arabiya News Channel.

“I was lucky to get my freedom back,” he said.

Atyani said he still dreads visiting the southern Philippines. “I have visited the Philippines five times since then. There is always fear at the back of my mind, which is why I try never to leave Manila when I am in the Philippines.”

Writing about his kidnapping ordeal in this newspaper in 2017, Atyani recalled how he was taken hostage.

“It was about 5.30 a.m. when my cameraman, Ramil, knocked on the door of my room. ‘We have to go now,’ he said. ‘Romeo has arrived and is waiting outside the hostel.’ I was already up and preparing for the meeting with one of the ASG leaders on Sulu island. Romeo was the guide and driver set to take me and my team into the jungle to meet this leader.

“The plan was to return within three hours to Jolo, the island’s main city. I had promised Jolo’s mayor I would attend the Philippine Independence Day ceremony. This was on June 12, 2012.

“My Filipino coordinator said that he was tied up with work in Manila, but had arranged all the interviews and made all the arrangements for my visit to Zamboanga City and Sulu island, including the interview with the ASG leader. He kept saying: ‘My brother, you will be in good hands.’




An aerial photo of Jolo, in Mindanao’s Sulu province, where journalist Baker Atyani was found in 2013. (AFP)

“The night before I was kidnapped, he sent me a text saying the same thing. Something inside me warned me of a lurking threat, but I ignored the feeling. My coordinator arranged our accommodation at Sulu Students Hostel and insisted that I refuse to stay with the governor of the island or with the mayor of Jolo. ‘They should not know about our plans to meet with the ASG leader,’ he said.

“As Romeo drove toward the jungle, I had a feeling I would not return soon. The car crashed three times during the journey; the third time, Romeo left the car on the road and told us to continue on foot. This added to my feeling that something was not right; you cannot just leave the car on the road and continue with your journey unless it is serious.

“The journalist in me ignored every sign of threat. ‘You should do this scoop, meet the ASG leader in the jungle, and get a first-hand account of the conflict in Mindanao,’ I thought to myself. I had interviewed all the other parties involved in the conflict of Mindanao by then.

“We were deep inside the Patikol area, the ASG stronghold. Armed men from every side of the jungle appeared with guns and munitions. Abu Rami, an ASG leader who was later ambushed and killed by the Philippine army, gave money to Romeo, who left us with our kidnappers.

“I spent 18 months in captivity, in the heart of the Sulu jungle, living among ignorant people, to say the least.

“When Sheikh Mohammed Hussein, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, appealed to my kidnappers to release me, they had hardly heard of Jerusalem. One of them asked me about it, to which I said: ‘Have you heard about Al-Aqsa Mosque?’ He said: ‘Yes, is that in Spain?’”


Why the UN is struggling to function

Antonio Guterres, UN secretary-general, called the budget shortfall “the worst cash crisis facing the UN in nearly a decade,” jeopardizing, among other things, peacekeeping efforts and the management of the UN’s New York headquarters. (Ray Hanania)
Updated 16 October 2019

Why the UN is struggling to function

  • World body facing 'the worst cash crisis' in nearly a decade due to mounting arrears
  • Crisis is marked by lack of cash to pay staff and vendors or to fund critical programs

NEW YORK CITY: The UN is facing its worst liquidity shortfall in 74 years of operation with a deficit of $1.385 billion, which is making it difficult for the world body to pay staff and vendors or fund missions.
The crisis has forced Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary-general, to begin cutbacks in all operations.
Warning on Oct. 8 that the problems are at a “tipping point,” he called it “the worst cash crisis facing the UN in nearly a decade,” jeopardizing peacekeeping efforts in Yemen, Myanmar and the management of the UN’s New York headquarters, offices in Geneva, Vienna and Nairobi, and investigative commissions in Bangkok, Addis Ababa, Santiago and Beirut.
A UN budget review presented this week showed that the crisis is being driven by the lack of cash to pay staff and vendors or to fund critical programs, and outlined spending cuts that will begin immediately pending a resolution of the situation.
“The cash deficits occur earlier in the year, linger longer and run deeper,” said Catherine Pollard, UN under-secretary-general for management strategy, policy and compliance.
“For the second successive year, we have exhausted all regular budget liquidity reserves, despite several measures we had taken to reduce expenditures to align them with available liquidity.”
Chandramouli Ramanathan, UN's controller, detailed the debt in a presentation with Pollard on Oct. 11 that identified $1.385 billion in debts, more than half of the UN’s 2019 annual budget of $2.85 billion.
Ramanathan said that only $1.99 billion had been collected this year, including past year arrears.
“If the trend continues … you will pretty much see that at some point we are running out of liquidity so often — everything depends on the liquidity if the liquidity runs down, we have to prioritize the payment,” he said.
“It will come to the point where you will not have enough staff or not have enough to pay the vendors.”
Ramanathan said that 75 percent of the UN’s budget is for employee and building costs. The remainder includes air charters, fuel, rations, IT support and political missions, which he said are all in jeopardy.
This does not include the costs of peacekeeping missions, nearly $8 billion for 2019, but which are nearly $3.7 billion in arrears.
A slew of operating spending cuts at the UN began on Oct. 14, ranging from no new hirings or filling of vacant positions to switching off heating and airconditioning.
Ramanathan said that these were emergency steps but warned failure to address the “liquidity crisis” would result in other more serious cutbacks including funding of operations, missions and more.

UN OPERATING SPENDING CUTS

• No new hirings or filling of vacant positions

• Reducing operating hours of UN facilities including the New York City headquarters

• Suspending release of new documents, studies and translation of documents

• Curtailing travel of UN officials, meetings or publicly scheduled receptions

• Cutting back operations at the UN headquarters and its worldwide centers, including turning off the use of electricity for certain building operations such as escalators, and shutting down the UN’s fountains

• Heating and air conditioning to be turned off at 6 p.m. each day and not turned on until 8 a.m. at UN buildings

“We are trying to cut back on non-salaried costs, operating hours to meet obligations and to vendors,” he said.
Ramanathan said that the UN was prohibited by its charter from borrowing money. He acknowledged that traditionally member countries were late in paying, usually until the last half of the year or last quarter, but the late payments had become “later and later” each year.
“The US is the largest contributor and they have a large outstanding amount … the US has a large amount outstanding,” Ramanathan said, noting that the UN does single out and list specific debts or debtors.
“We are in active engagement with all the states that owe large amounts.”

Ramanathan identified seven member nations that had failed to pay their memberships fully and accounted for 97 percent of the debt owed: the US ($1.06 billion), Brazil ($143 million), Argentina ($51.5 million), Mexico ($36 million), Iran ($26.9 million), Israel ($17.7 million) and Venezuela ($17.2 million).
He said that a total of 65 other countries were in arrears for their annual dues, based on country size and per capita income, but that represented less than 3 percent of the operating budget shortfall. Only 128 members were fully paid up for this year.
According to Ramanathan, the US owes its annual membership dues of $674 million for 2019, and $381 million for previous years.
UN officials declined to comment on reports that Guterres is seeking to address the unpaid US monies in a meeting with US President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly criticized the UN and the US financial obligations.
But an independent report by UN Dispatch, which is funded by the UN Foundation, reported on Dec. 6, 2016, that the UN’s headquarters generated $3.69 billion in benefits to New York City’s economy through jobs, commerce, hotels and retail spending by delegates and their staff.
One example of the costs includes accommodating the more than 1,500 journalists, delegates and support staff at the opening of the UN’s 74th General Assembly in New York City on Sept. 23.

The cash deficits occur earlier in the year, linger longer and run deeper.

Catherine Pollard, UN under-secretary-general for management strategy, policy and compliance

The UN erected a huge outdoor media tent in its grounds to accommodate journalists, providing access to the internet, electrical outlets, video and audio feeds, tables and work stations.
But these journalists, staff and delegates also brought with them revenue for the host city — filling hotels and restaurants, and generating profits for retailers, cabs and other businesses.
Despite the financial benefits New York City reaps from the UN headquarters presence, and the power the US wields at the UN, Trump brushed aside reports of the budget crisis or his nation’s failure to pay its share of the UN costs during his address on Sept. 24 to the UN General Assembly.
And a week later, Trump tweeted in response to UN officials’ budget concerns: “So make all Member Countries pay, not just the United States!”
The UN could suspend the voting of any nation that fails to pay its dues under Article 19 of the UN Charter, which states: “A Member of the United Nations which is in arrears in the payment of its financial contributions to the Organization shall have no vote in the General Assembly if the amount of its arrears equals or exceeds the amount of the contributions due from it for the preceding two full years. The General Assembly may, nevertheless, permit such a Member to vote if it is satisfied that the failure to pay is due to conditions beyond the control of the Member.” (Article 19 of the Charter of the United Nations)
A UN staff member said that it was unlikely that the UN would implement the rule against the US and that they fully expected the US “to pay at least part of what it owes” before the end of the year.
The UN was created in 1945 with the goal of ending human-rights abuses.
The power of the UN rests with the 15-member Security Council, which the US is a member of and controls through its veto to block any policies or resolutions it opposes.
The UN General Assembly includes 193 nations, serving as a platform for advocacy and action.