Follies of a desperate lot

August 29, 2014

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The writer is a retired police officer.
The writer is a retired police officer.

IN the current crisis, the rule of law, constitutionalism and democracy seem to be under imminent threat of disruption. Unfortunately, the Punjab police are likely to go down in history as having the dubious distinction of precipitating the crisis because of their lack of professionalism and pandering to the patently illegal orders of their political masters.

The June 17 Model Town fiasco in Lahore was the product of an arrogant mindset that unleashed a totally unnecessary bloodbath reflecting the thoughtless and impetuous decision-making of some desperate people at the helm of political, administrative and police affairs. Their continuing follies have only aggravated the crisis.

The judicial commission comprising a judge of the Lahore High Court, appointed on the request of the Punjab government, has held the government responsible saying that the police had acted on the government’s orders that led to the bloodbath. This damning indictment of the government came at a late stage when the Pakistani Awami Tehreek ‘revolution’ march had entered the final deadline phase. The provincial government unwisely chose not to release the report to the public when it was submitted to the home secretary about two weeks ago.

The judicial tribunal has pointed out some glaring discrepancies in the affidavit submitted by the chief minister and statements filed by other key officials.

It is evident from excerpts of the report that the participants of the June 16 meeting presided over by the former law minister planned and implemented the gory operation the next day.

It is intriguing to note the viewpoint of the government that the commission did not have the mandate to give findings and fix responsibility. Was it only a fact-finding commission? Were the terms of reference clearly spelt out at the initial stage of constituting the tribunal or amended later by the home department? Why didn’t the government declare that the report of the commission was inconclusive as soon as it was submitted to the home secretary? Why the delay and secrecy?

These are questions being raised by the media and those spearheading the protests against the government. Although an FIR against 21 suspects in the Model Town killing was finally lodged yesterday, the issue has been marked by police reluctance, at the behest of the authorities, to deny the Minhajul Quran victims of police action the registration of the first information report. This matter was grossly mishandled.

Victims of police violence have every right to become complainants. After spilling blood, the police chose themselves to become a complainant against PAT/Minhaj activists who had resisted demolition of the security gates by pelting stones at the law enforcers. The right course should have been to be truthful and admit the mistakes made.

From the word go, the police version should have been recorded in the daily diary of the police station concerned and Minhaj representatives could have been asked to file a written or verbal complaint so that the death of their workers could be investigated impartially by a joint investigation team comprising senior police officers of the provincial investigation branch and representatives of the federal intelligence agencies.

Instead, the police blamed the Minhaj people and even arrested some of them. By not recording a timely FIR on behalf of the victims, the police provided the aggrieved party time to retaliate and file an application for a fresh FIR before the sessions court against 21 functionaries of the government, including the prime minister and chief minister.

The sessions court acting as ex-officio justice of peace decided the Minhaj petition under section 22-A (6) of the Criminal Procedure Code with the object of setting the criminal law in motion on behalf of the victims and ordered the recording of an FIR against the nominated accused. Again the government went into panic mode. Haunted by the Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto FIR recorded promptly by the police and investigated years later resulting in capital punishment for the former prime minister, the Sharif government opted to file writ petitions before the high court against the sessions court’s orders.

As expected, the Lahore High Court dismissed the petitions of four federal ministers and rightly observed that “a person named in an FIR was not to be arrested straightaway upon registration of the case or as a matter of course unless there was sufficient incriminating evidence regarding the culpability of the accused”.

The FIR is not a sacrosanct document that binds the police to arrest the accused. If incriminating evidence is lacking, the police are not supposed to arrest the suspect and can even move the trial court to discharge those against whom there is insufficient or no evidence, even at the pre-trial stage.

Unfortunately, the idea of being named in an FIR in our society is so negative and the misuse of police for vendetta so pervasive that the people in power are not only wary of a media trial but also feel that once removed from government, a process of victimisation would be set in motion by their successors. Thus, it is important to depoliticise the police and grant them autonomy in their investigative, operational and administrative matters.

There should have been no delay in adopting the right course and recording the cross version of the murder case on the application of the Minhajul Quran Secretariat against the 21 nominated suspects. For the purpose of fair investigation, a joint investigation team should be reconstituted to probe the version of the Minhaj victims. This team can be headed by a carefully selected senior police officer of known integrity.

The representatives of federal investigative and intelligence agencies such as the FIA, IB, ISI and MI can be co-opted as members of the team. For the purpose of transparency, a high court judge can be nominated to monitor and oversee the investigations.

Wisdom demands that saner elements in our state institutions and government must try to defuse the situation immediately by allowing the law to take its course and ensuring the supremacy of the Constitution at all cost.

The writer is a retired police officer.

Published in Dawn, August 29th, 2014