Analysis: ‘Encounter policy’ unsustainable

Updated November 20, 2014

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Karachi police have killed some 600 suspects in 'encounters' during 425 days of operation.—AP/File
Karachi police have killed some 600 suspects in 'encounters' during 425 days of operation.—AP/File
Karachi police have killed some 600 suspects in 'encounters' during 425 days of operation.—Reuters/File
Karachi police have killed some 600 suspects in 'encounters' during 425 days of operation.—Reuters/File

IF one goes by the data released by the Karachi police elaborating the law-enforcement agency’s performance since the ‘targeted operation’ was launched in September 2013, every serious crime in the metropolis seems to be declining.

Whether it’s targeted killing or extortion, kidnapping for ransom or robbery, the citizens of Karachi have been witnessing better days, if the police’s numbers are to be believed.

Also read: Karachi operation

But one worrying number seems to be rising constantly — that of the suspects killed in police ‘encounters’. The law-enforcement agency has killed some 600 suspects during the 14 months of the operation.

Though the latest number of suspects’ killings in ‘exchange of gunfire’ with the Sindh Rangers — the force which actually leads the ‘targeted operation’ — was not available, it would be safe to presume that the paramilitary force is not far behind police, as after six months of the operation in March 2014 the figures from both law-enforcement agencies were almost the same.

The suspects killed have reportedly been hitmen associated with political parties, militants from banned outfits, gangsters working for criminal groups mainly operating in Lyari and street criminals.

While the parties who lost workers and families whose loved ones were reportedly killed by police and Rangers in encounters may have reasons to question the law-enforcement agencies’ actions, many others who are aware of Karachi’s bloody history and are familiar with the city police’s modus operandi seriously doubt the authenticity of these encounters. They also warn of grave repercussions of the policy.

Failed justice system

Off the record, police officials argue they have few choices. When the country’s criminal justice system fails to convict suspects and policies of respective governments change due to political compromises, the police have little option but to resort to such methods to enforce their writ.

But on the record, authorities say it is due to the force’s enhanced professional skills and effective response time that such a high number of encounters have been reported.

“The Karachi police are obviously not satisfied with the courts’ performance mainly since the operation was launched,” says the city police’s spokesman. “But it’s not the reason that the number of encounters has increased. It’s because of effective policing and enhanced professional skills. In the past, criminals managed to escape after challenging policemen, but they can’t do that anymore.”

Such arguments from the police are difficult to digest for many.

If the frequent protests by residents of Lyari against on-again, off-again raids by the law-enforcement agencies and condemnation from political parties and groups like the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, Sunni Tehreek and Ahl-i-Sunnat Wal Jamaat against killings of their workers in ‘fake encounters’ were not enough, the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl recently joined the ranks of those who question the credibility of the ‘targeted operation’ and ‘trigger-happy’ attitude of the police and Rangers. The JUI-F recently staged a sit-in after the killing of a local leader in an alleged encounter.

“We have showed our concerns time and again,” says Zohra Yusuf, chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. “We consider every suspect’s killing in police shootout as extrajudicial as one always remains doubtful about the authenticity of that action. It’s so unfortunate that our system is battling against the criminals or suspects on the same conventional methodology.”

She also referred to a “number of complaints” received by the HRCP from families of people who went missing; many of them were later found shot dead in different parts of the city or declared killed in encounters. Also, after more than a year of the Karachi operation, she doesn’t see Islamabad very interested in the exercise.

Karachi has a history of brutal policing. In the 1990s political activists — almost all associated with the then Mohajir (now Muttahida) Qaumi Movement were killed in police encounters that were later documented as extrajudicial killings and are still described by the MQM as ‘state terrorism’.

Those who have witnessed the entire system closely argue that it’s not an issue of police training, but of weak policies.

“Nobody can defend extrajudicial killings,” says Jahangir Mirza, former IG of Sindh, who held the office from January 2006 to April 2007. “[But] in a condition where the criminal justice system is not delivering and criminals have the protection of parties, what does one expect from the police.”

‘Reform is essential’

He says extrajudicial killings can never be addressed until the criminal justice system is reformed and the policemen associated with taking action against criminals are not threatened or victimised in case of a change of guard in the power corridors.

“This cannot be called effective in any way,” observes Ms Yusuf. “The police argument can be accepted to some extent of a weak criminal justice system. But one cannot deny their own flawed investigation process. They still rely on conventional torture policy for any investigation, which can’t help them in courts.”

For immediate relief, she suggests the Sindh government set up a forum for redressal of grievances which can help check the police and Rangers’ alleged excesses.

“Otherwise I don’t see anything positive coming from this exercise. If the judicial system is not delivering, it should be reformed. It doesn’t [mean] the police [should] run a parallel justice system,” says Ms Yusuf.

Senior journalist Idrees Bakhtiar echoes these thoughts. He believes that the onus to establish a suspect as a criminal lies with the police, which the law-enforcement agency always fails to do.

“You can’t [use it as an] excuse for extrajudicial killing,” he says. “And secondly, it [encounters] has never been effective. If they were effective, the crime rate should have come down to zero. But that’s not the case.

“The key part of policing is investigation. One cannot blame the courts, which always convict suspects based on evidence. There is not only a lack of professionalism and interest on part of the police to make the investigation effective, but also connivance with certain criminal elements, which makes the entire policing system flawed,” says Mr Bakhtiar.

Published in Dawn, November 20th, 2014