Justice: both delayed and denied

Published December 22, 2013
Parveen Rehman demonstration in Islamabad. - Photo by the writer
Parveen Rehman demonstration in Islamabad. - Photo by the writer

It has now been nine months since Parveen Rehman, the Director of the world-famous Orangi Pilot Project in Karachi, was shot dead while being driven home.

Parveen spent a lifetime working in the slums of Karachi providing shelter, sanitation and clean drinking water to the people. In her lifetime, she created documentary proof of citizens’ ownership of their land to protect them from the land mafia. She mapped 2,000 villages around Karachi, establishing the rights of ordinary citizens. This earned her the ire of the powerful land and water mafias who work in collusion in the mega city, grabbing land wherever they can and illegally selling municipal water back to citizens through water tankers.

They do this by breaking the government’s water lines and hiding the hydrants from which they withdraw water for the tankers. It is estimated that the tanker mafia operating in Karachi earns around Rs500 million per day by selling water and is so powerful it can even have provincial ministers removed if they dare to poke a nose in their business.

To date, Parveen’s killers — four gunmen travelling on motorbikes according to her driver whose life was spared — have not been apprehended. “We owe it to her to constitute a judicial committee to initiate a proper inquiry into her murder,” points out Fayyaz Baqir of the Akhter Hameed Khan Resource Centre in Islamabad. As her inspirational teacher, Dr Akhter Hameed Khan persuaded Parveen to work for him at the Orangi Pilot Project after she graduated from Karachi’s Dawood College of Engineering and Technology in 1981 with a bachelor’s degree in engineering and architecture. As his brightest student, Parveen later became the Director of the Orangi Pilot Project-Research and Training Institute. She never married and lived with her mother in Karachi.

Her elderly mother, who now lives in Dubai with Parveen’s sister Aquila Ismail, has not been told that her beloved daughter was murdered. “I know she would not be able to bear the horrific details of her dearest daughter’s death, therefore I told her she died in a road accident,” says her sister. The day she was killed, all the television sets were turned off in their home in Karachi and all the newspapers were hidden.

Parveen Rehman, who worked tirelessly and courageously for nearly 30 years in Orangi, had been receiving death threats from various mafias, but she remained undeterred and continued her efforts against the growing expansion of land grabbers. According to a petition signed by over 8,000 people all over the world, including renowned professionals working for the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and UN agencies, “She was the voice of the marginalised community which had been under threat of eviction. The society not only lost a brave social worker and activist, but also a teacher who was to nurture many minds. It is an immense loss; people across the globe have condemned this brutal act”.

An FIR was lodged on March 13, the night of the incident; however, police investigation is still pending and there has been no progress in the case. The petition points out that “Ms Rehman’s case is a classic example of high handedness, negligence and failure of the law enforcement agencies in Karachi, which have not only failed to protect the life, liberty and property of the citizens, but have also failed to investigate the murder of an internationally renowned social worker.”

The petition demands that authorities like the Chief Minister of Sindh and the Inspector General of Sindh Police take “immediate and effective action against the perpetrators so as to ensure that justice is done and such incidents against social workers can be prevented in the future”. The petition was followed by a string of protests in Islamabad and other cities, with hundreds of NGO workers gathering on the streets to demand ‘Justice for Parveen Rehman’. Social workers across the country have been shaken by Parveen’s murder — aside from grieving for the loss of their colleague, they feel that if someone as internationally acclaimed as Parveen could be gunned down on the road and her killers allowed to get away scot free then what chance do they have surviving in an increasingly violent society where they often have to encounter opposition from local mafias.

A petition has also been filed in the Supreme Court demanding an inquiry into the lack of progress in apprehending the culprits. The petition has been accepted for hearing by the new Chief Justice of Pakistan, Tassaduq Hussain Jillani, although no date for the hearing has been given as yet. According to Fayyaz Baqir, “We are very hopeful that he will give it due consideration and realise that it is very important to take action for all the development practitioners and workers in Pakistan, because without having a sense of security in the country the commendable work being done by all the NGOs might gradually come to a complete stop. The Supreme Court and the government must take appropriate action to provide justice for the victims of violence.”

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