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Extortionists, the fear of Taliban and the police

Updated May 17, 2014

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— File photo
— File photo

Last week, the Rawalpindi police won big headlines for tracking down two gangs of extortionists in the city. However, their celebrations over the feat ended in humiliation on Thursday when the Anti-Terrorism Court acquitted very first accused extortionist.

Haji Naeem, a city businessman, was acquitted after his victim and nephew Arshad Waseem reconciled with his uncle.

However, there is a perception that the police deliberately handled the case poorly. After all, the 72 accused arrested for the bloody Ashura sectarian riots in the city last year had to be released for the same reason.

But police hierarchy contests that.

“There is no doubt that the accused businessman Haji Naeem, arrested from Mohanpura locality, had links with TTP (the outlawed Tehreek-i-Taliban militant group). Police have a long list of phone calls made from unknown SIMs to him from tribal areas and record of the conversations as well,” City Police Officer Humyum Bashir Tarar told Dawn.

It is a fact that Haji Naeem confessed to media persons at the press conference at the RPO office on May 5 where the police announced his arrest. He told reporters he had contacts with the TTP group in Afghanistan and been providing them telephone numbers and other information about rich people who could be potential targets for extortion.

It emerged from police investigations that Haji Naeem used terms like “big fish” and “a chicken that would lay a large-size egg” for the rich.

Regional Police Officer Akhtar Omer Hayat Laleka said the suspect did not spare even his real brother, with whom he had a property dispute.

However, the family patch up reduced all the evidence the police claimed to have to nothing when the case of extortion, which carries the maximum punishment of death, put to the Anti-Terrorism Court.

Inspector Rana Abdul Sattar of Gunjmandi police, who was leading the investigation into Haji Naeem’s case, had a straightforward explanation for that ending. Police had no evidence that could prove that the suspect actually extorted money from his alleged victims, he said.

“Haji Naeem only provided cell phone numbers to TTP group, which was operating beyond our jurisdiction. And the suspect himself had not extorted any money from any person,” he said. “After the complainant withdrew the charge against the accused, the case was legally closed.”

However, the ending raised the question in many minds why it was not possible for the police to put all the technical evidence with it before the court to prove the accused guilty.

Police long had evidence of illegal use of Afghanistan-origin cell phone SIMs for kidnapping for ransom and extortion by the underworld. They had been pushing the authorities to block all such SIMs.

Recently, the Sindh Assembly was told that a terrorist arrested in Karachi was found holding 5,000 illegal SIMs.

“We cannot rule out presence of elements having links with TTP groups and operating in Rawalpindi. Police have been doing their job and are trying to track down such elements,” RPO Akhtar Omer Hayat Laleka said.

Laleka had claimed that no case of kidnapping for ransom and extortion was pending with his force after it arrested Haji Naeem and a six-member gang of extortionists.

But the case of the gang operating in the guise of TTP militants is still open as police have arrested four of its members but the ring leader Babar Khan, and a key member Noman Butt are still at large.

Police investigators discovered that Babar Khan had been a robber in Karachi but shifted to Rawalpindi for “better prospects”.

“For some time he worked for a private television channel and then called one of his friends from Bhawalpur and planned house robberies in Rawalpindi. After realizing there was not much in the trade for him, he switched to extortion in the guise of TTP in the belief that its terror would make people an easier prey and they will not report to police,” RPO Laleka revealed.

Babar was not very wrong. Two rich traders of the city are known to have met extortionists’ demands but not dared report to police.

Now the daunting task for the police is to catch the absconding gang members and recover the money they had extorted from their victims, something that seldom happens.

Published in Dawn, May 17th, 2014