Menace of extortion

Published December 4, 2013

AMONG the heinous crimes which have spread across urban Pakistan over the past five or six years is the collection of bhatta or ‘protection’ money and extortion. Primarily a Karachi phenomenon, it is now spreading to other cities.

Bhatta was fearlessly collected by a few leading political parties in the early 1990s. It is now being collected even by smaller political and religious parties as well as by criminal elements.

The most lethal weapon in extortion is the use of unidentified mobile subscriber identity modules (SIMs), which continue to be used to extort millions of rupees through intimidatory tactics with no fear of being identified or tracked. Hence there must be a crackdown against unidentified SIMs forthwith.

Business houses, industrialists and traders are sick of paying extortion money, which was first collected in the name of zakat, fitra and political donations and later termed protection money.

The daily collection of bhatta runs into millions and continues unabated, even after it was brought on record before the Supreme Court in the Karachi law and order case. All leading Karachi markets are affected. Extortion is said to be causing a 60pc decline in domestic investment as well as capital flight overseas.

Extortion is easy to overcome with proper guidance, an effective response and support of the law enforcement agencies. Criminals making extortion calls often identify themselves as members of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan or Lyari-based gangs. They use unidentified SIMs issued on fake CNICs, or call on landlines located in the Waziristan agencies and other parts of Fata or Afghanistan.

The details of individuals/companies are easily available from club membership lists, trade associations, school/college records, call centres, websites etc. The caller can be a stranger or someone at your workplace, domestic help or a neighbour — somebody who knows the basics about you.

One must never give in to extortion whether the amount is petty or in the thousands. Delay in negotiations or not responding to the caller for 48-72 hours makes the extortionist wary and he may back off.

Extortionists sometimes send letters and parcels with bullets to the intended victim, which may be couriered or home delivered, for a terrorising impact. One must never do as instructed by the extortionist and seek the assistance of senior law enforcement officers.

At times, criminals throw homemade crackers and resort to gunfire on the home or work premises to scare victims into responding. This pattern can be put to use by the law enforcers to pre-empt the extortionist and make plans to apprehend the culprit.

The visit of the prime minister and interior minister to Karachi in September and their giving unbridled powers to the Rangers and police to tackle such criminal activities was welcomed. Timely amendments to certain laws caused the crime rate in Karachi to drop by around 40-50pc. However, failure to convict the arrested suspects is putting a damper on such positive efforts.

In cases of extortion and bhatta, a dedicated cell supervised by senior officers should be established in the offices of DIGs/SSPs/Rangers’ wing commanders and the recently reinstated deputy commissioners (DCs) and additional commissioners (ACs) to build the citizens’ confidence.

Since citizens lack the confidence to directly approach the police, out of fear or other reasons, a simple method should be initiated to encourage them to record a complaint, which can be replicated in the FIR under the station house officer’s direction. Follow-ups should be carried out by investigation officers with entries in the police daily diary to be used as evidence.

Subsequently, traps or raids may be planned, with covert cameras fitted in vehicles. This could be a simple yet effective way to collect credible evidence in extortion and bhatta cases. It could also be employed at the time of payment of ransom. Such a plan will lead to excellent detection, and to convictions, and help eradicate this menace.

Until we have the police, Rangers, public prosecutors, jail staff and courts working in tandem, we will continue to suffer from high crime rates. It should be remembered that kidnapping for ransom and extortion are crimes funding terrorism and must be combated at the national level.

Money transfers through different commercial schemes operating out of shops, etc are another hidden demon, similar to unidentified SIMs. With the help of fake/stolen CNICs, extortion/bhatta money is transferred with ease to even the remotest parts of the country. Some money changers also transfer the collected amount sitting unhindered amongst the plazas at the entrance of the Super Highway.

The National Counter Terrorism Authority needs to be made effective without further delay, together with active provincial counterparts. It is a shame that while criminals are operating at the national level, we expect to combat them at the local police station level.

We need trained negotiators to guide and assist families who are the victims of this crime, while law enforcers must have immediate access to mobile/land live voice data and voice matching technology to identify different groups on a national network, with cyber mining expertise to break the terrorists’ chain.

Simultaneously, we need to pursue financial transactions’ surveillance under the supervision of trained investigators and interrogators by collating and disseminating actionable intelligence data for speedy detection and the apprehension of criminals.

Credible data needs to be presented for effective convictions with the use of surveillance cameras, voiceprints, transcripts, call and SMS data duly certified by judicial magistrates, or DCs and ACs must be empowered as surveillance commissioners to authorise and certify evidence and facilitate identification parades behind one-way mirrors, in order to ensure convictions.

Some of the laws of evidence, which can be termed ‘criminal-friendly’, must be amended and confession before a Grade 19 police officer must be admissible in cases of terrorism.

Sadly, no efforts are afoot to encourage witnesses to testify, despite the fanfare about the passage of the Sindh witness protection law by the provincial assembly. It has not yet been notified, nor have the funds been allocated. Proposals to relocate trials in different cities and for anti-terrorism courts to conduct night trials, for speedy convictions with ‘faceless’ judges and the use of video-conferencing to protect witnesses, in the face of TTP threats to judges, LEA officials, journalists and citizens, must be implemented.

This will show our seriousness in protecting witnesses and convicting and punishing those involved in destroying our nation.

The writer is former chief of the Citizens-Police Liaison Committee.

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