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Islamabad’s Safe City Project is only partially operational and it has already started paying dividends.

While introduction of the project’s key features must wait for the departure of the current operator, officials say many of the 1,900 CCTV cameras that record the movement of traffic at sensitive locations in the federal capital also remain to be installed.

Still, the cameras already operational helped the city police break up a car theft ring – a crime on the rise in the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Aabpara police say records from CCTV cameras and mobile phone towers in their precinct greatly helped them apprehend the gang members who stole a Suzuki Mehran early this month.

Investigators of the Anti-Car Lifting Cell (ACLC) of the Islamabad police reviewing the Safe City CCTV recordings saw that a little while after a man in white coat finished talking on his mobile close to the car and moved away, another man reached there, opened the car door and drove away.

That made the caller a suspect to the ACLC investigators, who sought assistance of mobile phone companies. They succeeded in tracing the caller’s number by pinpointing his position and matching the time on the CCTV records with a call made exactly at the same time on a mobile company’s records. It was revealed that the car thief was in communication with two persons.

Both, namely Imran Bashir and Allah Bux, were later traced to and arrested in Tarnol – a location used to hide and eventually smuggle out the cars stolen in the twin cities. Their interrogation yielded the police the name of their ringleader, Imran Khatia, but he had disappeared in the meantime and was untraceable.

Police records, however, showed him up as a habitual car thief. Khatia was arrested a year ago for the offence but was released on bail after five months.

“At that time he had a long beard,” said the investigators. “In his CCTV images he appears clean shaven and runs a family business now.” Police mounted vigilance at the hideouts of Khatia pointed out by his arrested accomplices. But the man, a native of Nowshera, was not picked up from his hideout. “We followed his movements and caught him red-handed – stealing another car,” they said.

Khatia’s interrogation led them to recover from him 10 kilograms of hashish, a forged computerised national identity card (CNIC) in the name of Umer Daraz and a forged driving license in the name of Imran Qasir. They quoted Khatia saying that fake CNICs helped him and his wife Kulsoom Imran “stay and operate” in the city with relative freedom.

Police are yet to establish whether he faked the identities himself or in deals done with the issuing authorities in Darra. They recalled that the Crime Investigation Agency had busted a gang in early 2013 which arranged forged CNICs for Afghan nationals with help from the issuing authority.

One official said that Khatia’s four person gang used to steal Suzuki Mehran and Toyota Corolla cars parked outside public dealing offices, shopping centres and hospitals in the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi.

Their modus operandi was that two watched the cars arriving at these locations while the ringleader with his wife and son lurked nearby. “Allah Bux would spot a car of choice, follow its owner to judge how long his visit to an office, or hospital or shopping would last and phone the information to waiting Khatia. Imran Bashir, meanwhile, kept a watch on the goings-on at the spot,” the official said. On receiving an ‘all clear’ from them, Khatia would reach the location, open the door and drive away with the car – picking up his wife and son on the way.

“It is a safe getaway,” Khatia told his captors. “Police patrols and pickets usually don’t check vehicles carrying a family.”

Police say Khatia took the Mehran to Karak where he sold it for Rs60,000 to a “receiver” - a term used for a person who purchases stolen vehicles to sell it for a much higher sum in the thriving market after tempering tampering its engine and chassis numbers and arranging forged documents. Khatia claimed his ‘receiver’ paid him partly in narcotics, which he sold to drug traffickers in Islamabad.

Police claim he confessed to stealing 13 cars but find it difficult to go after the “receiver” he identified because “our counterparts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa don’t assist us in this regard”.

Published in Dawn, March 21st, 2016