On November 11, Haider Ali alias Saleem, was killed by assailants who had barged into his house in Soldier Bazaar area.
“The suspects brought a box of sweets to the victim’s house. When his wife opened the door they barged in and shot All twice in the head,” DSP Qaiser Ali Shah said, read a report in the following day’s paper.
In the backdrop of the killing, the sixth and last witness to the murder of journalist Wali Khan Babar, and a spike in violence and crimes in Karachi, the crucial issue of witness protection program (WPP) has resurfaced in several discussions over the last few months.
Noting that one of the major impediments in effective prosecution was witnesses turning hostile, especially in cases of sectarian murders and extortion in Karachi’s anti-terrorist courts, Sharfuddin Memon, consultant with the Sindh Home Department, has urged for “a comprehensive WPP within the existing criminal justice system.”
President Asif Ali Zardari, while presiding over a law and order meeting in Karachi, early last month also agreed that the legal battle against terrorists and criminals can only be won if witnesses were given fool-proof security.
The president directed the provincial government to draft a new legislation that guaranteed safety for those who testify and for those judges who pass sentences without feeling intimidated.
Memon, a former head of the Citizens-Police Liaison Committee (CPLC), an organisation working closely with Karachi’s police and the provincial government, however, was of the view that it was vital to establish the WPP all over Pakistan, not just Sindh or Karachi alone.
Karachi, with a population of over 18 million, has seen an unprecedented spike in violence since the beginning of the year.
In the first eight months of this year, over 1,300 people were killed in Karachi violence, compared with 1,715 in the whole of 2011, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, which cited criminal gangs and “political patronage” for the clashes.
The CPLC reported 106 cases of kidnapping by October, compared with 113 in 2011. Few culprits are caught, and when they are, most are acquitted for want of evidence.
In October, this year, an anti-terrorism court acquitted Qadir alias Daket, known to be associated with criminal gangs operating in Lyari. He was allegedly involved in attacking an armoured personnel carrier with rocket launchers in December 2009, killing the driver and injuring several policemen. According to the report, the prosecutor failed to produce concrete evidence against the accused.
Despite having set up anti-terrorist courts (ATCs) for speedy disposal of cases, in Sindh, the conviction rate is still an abysmal 26 per cent.
Talking to Dawn.com the prosecutor general of Sindh, Shahadat Awan said that a total of 1,329 cases were pending before 11 ATCs of the province, of which 43 cases were related to the years between 1999 and 2006.
While experts say the WPP is important, many link high rate of acquittal, almost 73 per cent, to weak investigation and witnesses retreating.
Senior advocate, Ismat Mehdi, a well-known criminal lawyer, finds the WPP impractical. “What is needed is to instil respect for the police, strengthen prosecution, have an independent investigation carried out by honest and upright police officers who are acquainted with the law and rules of investigation.”
She says while section 31e of NAB Ordinance provides protection to witnesses as does the Anti terrorism Act 2007, there is no provision in general law for that. “And the ATC has limited application with just one per cent convicts being tried there.”
To strengthen investigation, Awan suggests induction of law graduates in the police force. “I know police officers are provided some training but it’s really not enough for them to assist the legal fraternity in courts,” he said.
Even the first information report, said Mehdi is “prepared in a hurry either on the instructions of a superior or under political pressure.” She further added that investigation is conducted “without application of mind and law”.
Hasan Abdullah, senior assignment editor at CNBC, a private television channel, covered crime and courts as a reporter, while agreeing that “a working WPP is essential”, but given the pathetic conviction rate in anti-terrorism cases, the WPP, in Pakistan it is nothing more than “fancy sound bytes of government officials”.
Instead, he believes the police investigation should rely more on forensic evidence than witnesses. “The police force is rife with political influence and has to mould its investigations around the directives it receives from the ‘top’. There will be no improvement for the next ten years unless there is a change of mindset,” he said.
The government’s apathy towards correcting society was recently observed by the apex court which is currently looking into Karachi’s law and order implementation case.
Sindh’s additional inspector general (AIG) early last month informed the court that over 35 criminals who were released by the government on parole in 2003, for two years, had not been re-arrested and brought to trial. Further, last year 2,381 criminal cases were registered in which 761 people were arrested while 3,461 were still absconding.
“How can the law and order situation in the city improve when more than 3,500 murderers and criminals are roaming freely in the city without any fear of arrest or prosecution?” rebuked Justice Khilji Arif Hussain.
“When criminals know they will get released, crime and criminal elements will flourish,” said Haider Abbas Rizvi, spokesperson of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, he said, adding an effective WPP would help in stemming crime.
The home department has already set up a witness protection cell and has started providing not only police protection but even aims at taking extreme measures like post-trial anonymity and rehabilitation, even relocation. “And if may also require giving the witness a new means of earning livelihood,” explained Memon.
But witnesses are not the only ones who remain at risk. Often the police are intimidated and killed.
According to police sources, of the 124 policemen killed in the line of duty in the last ten months, 98 were from Karachi police alone. Last year the death toll of the policemen in Sindh was 80 and 57 for Karachi.
Since the 1990s, Awan estimates the figure to be over 800.
Memon assured that the WPC provided protection for police as well as the judiciary and “anyone cooperating in apprehending the criminals”.
Sceptical of its success, Abdullah said even if such programme is rolled out, these were likely to fail under the present political order. “Purely political inductions in police, home ministry, Nadra and other key departments often manifest in the form of sensitive information leaking out,” he pointed out.
Memon, however, said that there is a need to have confidence in the police and for them to be allowed to work independently.
At the moment Karachi has an inadequately trained, demoralised and politicised police force of 33,000 of which 12,000 were deployed on special duties. This means there is one policeman for every 900 people.
“Yes!” agreed Mehdi. “We need to make our police independent by taking them out of the clutches of the politicians. They don’t work for the government; they work for individuals,” she rued.
In addition, said, MQM’s Rizvi: “There needs to be even-handed enforcement of the law, regardless of the political group involved in the breach of peace.”
Meanwhile, pointing to the huge backlog of cases pending before the courts, Abdullah said: “The courts need to speed up the process of dispensing justice,” he added.
In an editorial dated November 19, Dawn mentioned how Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of Bihar, claimed to have controlled crime in his state “through speedy trials, strong prosecution and taking action against suspects irrespective of their connections”.
“You can achieve nothing without the political will, which, in our case, is non-existent,” lamented Abdullah. “The status quo serves the interests of our ruling elite and they have no desire to change it,” he added.
Still Mehdi had the last word when she said: “We often talk about disposal of cases; that’s not how it should be, it’s the dispensation of justice that should be the hallmark of a bold justice system.”
Alas, she said: “Our judicial system is not bold enough!”