PESHAWAR: Station House Officers here have a luxury not afforded to others. Instead of patrolling in bulky police vans, senior and junior police officials are often seen driving luxurious vehicles: silver corollas, sleek, metallic vans, and land cruisers.
These vehicles are not bought by the officers on lease, or obtained from a second-hand car shop. Many of these are ‘borrowed’ vehicles: cars and vans impounded by the police on various charges, including smuggling, possession of arms and explosives, and theft.
Many of these late-model luxury vehicles— including wagons, pickup cars and motorcycles— often have no formal documentation like shipment details or proof of ownership. They go unsuspected by the local customs office, and since the excise department does not have to register them, they can be easily smuggled to other parts of the country.
Drivers, personal assistants and other close acquaintances of high ranking policemen are seen driving them openly, and illegally. "They have no fear of law," a police official admitted. "Because no one dares to stop them." He wishes to stay anonymous, for fear of getting into trouble with senior colleagues.
A document available with Dawn.com reveals that 133 cops, including DIGs, DSPs, SPs, SHOs ASIs and SIs in the districts of Mardan, Nowshera, Swabi and Charsadda are using case property vehicles.
Under the law, the police are responsible for the handover of all case property vehicles confiscated under Section 550/523 of Pakistan's Code of Criminal Procedure, which deals with suspicious vehicles. They are then supposed to label each item inbuilt and installed in the vehicle:
523. (2) Procedure where owner of property seized unknown. If the person so entitled is unknown, the Magistrate may detain [the property] and shall... issue a proclamation specifying the articles of which such property consists, and requiring any person who may have a claim to establish his claim within six months.
Once the property's particulars are noted down at the police station, its owner is given a six-month period to claim the vehicle. If no one shows up, "such property shall be at the disposal of the Provincial Government and may be sold under the orders of the District Magistrate", or eventually auctioned off.
But these rules are flouted for the convenience of officials for free rides in luxury vehicles with family and friends. For many, it is a way to get a new model car at a much cheaper price, despite the fact that borrowing the vehicle — even for a quick run — hampers the law from taking course.
“Tampering with the case property or misusing it for personal luxury is tantamount to destroying the evidence,” says a senior police officer who wishes to remain unnamed.
He feels that if legal action was taken to protect case property vehicles, half of the police force, including SHOs and senior officers, would be dismissed.
“The minimum punishment for such a violation is dismissal from service," he elaborated. "But who here cares?”
A high-ranking officer at Peshawar Custom Collectorate believes that that policemen even use clever tactics to specifically register some cases under Section 550/523 so they can hoard the vehicles.
Section 550 outlines the powers of police to seize property suspected to be stolen:
550. Powers to Police to seize property suspected to be stolen. Any police-officer may seize any property which may be alleged or suspected to have been stolen, or which may be found under circumstances which create suspicion of the commission of any offence.
90% of the vehicles confiscated by the police department because they were "suspected to have been stolen" are Non Custom Paid (NCP) vehicles, alleged the customs official.
The Pakistan government charges a percentage duty on every imported vehicle depending on its specifications and capacity. NCP vehicles— also termed Non Duty Paid (NDP) vehicles— are essentially illegal vehicles procured without customs duty.
NCPs enter the country illegally, usually from Afghanistan or Japan. “The first offense committed by a NDP car is the fact it has entered the country illegally,” an official explains. This typically means the property has entered the country through an unauthorised route, and is evading customs duties and other taxes.
Once a case is filed, police and other law enforcement agencies are supposed to hand over all NCP vehicles to the Customs Department, whether they have been impounded in other offenses or not.
But the law is routinely violated. The vehicles are never handed over to the customs department. Over time, they pile up in the police junkyard with dozens of broken old vehicles, or officials start using them for personal use, even before the six-month claim period ends.
The vehicle's owners and those accused cannot do much either, since pursuing or appealing their case would only result in the police handing their vehicle over to customs, and would leave no chance of getting it back.
A total of 380 vehicles alone were confiscated by the Peshawar Police in 2015 and placed under the jurisdiction of different police stations, according to official statistics.
Some vehicles were handed back to their owners after legal procedures, but others, including Japan’s luxury-made cars are being used by high ranking police offers and inspectors, as well as their gunmen and families.
The data of some of these confiscated vehicles was obtained through official sources. As a test case, this data (registration numbers) was randomly cross-checked with data available with the customs department.
Alarmingly, many of the vehicles matched. Registration numbers of case property cars showed up, and the vehicles were listed under the possession of current DSPs, ASPs, Inspectors, and SPs, including a few who were no longer with the department. Some of these officials and ex-officials had as many as two or three case property cars under their possession, and one of the 'owners' was a gunner of a suspended SDPO.
To curb this blatant abuse of power, the customs official outlines a simple procedure: All 523/550 cases should require policemen to record the vehicle’s data and send it over to customs. Once customs checks the car's status and whether or not duty and taxes have been paid, subsequent action can be taken.
“Only once we declare a vehicle NCP, only then can other formalities of 523/550 be carried out,” the customs official added.
If police departments provide accurate Chassis numbers to the customs department, they could immediately determine whether these vehicles are NCP or not.
“But the police is not cooperative in this matter,” he alleged.
The Custom Department appears to be equally complicit. “Each and every official of Excise Department has a NCP for his/her personal use,” an official of the custom department claimed.
At the customs department, officials are supposed to calculate the car’s value and add duty taxes to the value to auction and generate revenue. NCPs are a great asset to the national exchequer since cars can be auctioned off once their value and duty is estimated.
“Using NDP vehicles mean deliberately giving loss to national exchequer,” the high ranking official alleges. Such vehicles are required to be auctioned and the amount earned deposited in national treasury. Keeping them in the open for months and years and allowing them to rust and become useless scraps deprives the government of an important source of earning.
According to Ishfaq Anwar, the in-charge at one police station, the big junkyard of confiscated and abandoned vehicles and two wheelers held at least 100 cars and another 100 hospitals. Every car junkyard maintained by the police had at least the same amount of vehicles, if not more.
These junkyards routinely become supply centres for spare-parts' dealers who buy the parts and accessories from cars that are not rusty enough to be thrown out, nor luxurious enough to be borrowed. Police 'mechanics', according to an earlier report, sell the parts at throw away prices.
Another official personally knows of several cases where excise department’s employees sold a NCP for a cheap price in the market.
“In one bid, an official sold a Rs0.5 million car for Rs80,000 in a bid,” he said.
Capital City Police Chief Mubarak Zeb expressed ignorance about his men's alleged involvement in the misusing any case properties for their personal use. "I have no idea about it," he claimed.
The high-ranking official at the customs department alleges that police officials are able to get away with driving illegal cars because of the inbuilt hierarchy between them and the customs office.
"Police departments are not accountable to Customs departments,” the official explained. “Since the chief of the police department is on Basic Pay Scale (BPS) 22 and the chief of the Customs department is only on BPS 20.”
But Chief Zeb insisted that any official found ‘borrowing’ a case vehicle is held liable for inquiry and dismissal from service.
“I will probe into the matter,” he said, alleging that anyone found guilty of such a practice is misusing his powers and should be entitled for punishment.
“If I find any officer responsible for misusing case property,” he added. “I will take action against him."
In Peshawar, a customs officer approached the relevant offices of police and excise departments in hopes of improving the affairs of NCP vehicles, and the process of exchanging them between the police and customs department, but he had no solution.
"How can police officials check vehicles belonging to political readers or religious groups on the city roads, when they themselves are misusing NCP vehicles?" he asked.
It does not help that some areas have been declared tax-free zones. Residents in seven districts of Malakand are specifically able to use NCPs freely since their districts are tax-free zones.
A police officer pleading anonymity said that NCP vehicles are being using throughout the province, but since their users are influential men, they cannot be busted easily.
“These are government officials, businessmen and politicians,” he shrugged.
— The author is a Peshawar-based journalist