Perween Rahman's murder: the great cover-up

Why did the police destroy the evidence in the prominent social activist's slaying four years ago?
Published March 13, 2018

This article was originally published on March 13, 2017.

Illustrations by Bibi Hajra Cheema

KARACHI: On March 14, 2013, close to midday, a man named Qari Bilal, allegedly a member of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, was shot dead in an ‘encounter’ on a main road in Orangi. That afternoon, no less than the DIG West at the time, Javed Odho, announced that Qari Bilal was the man who had killed Perween Rahman, director of the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP) whose murder had taken place only the night before. This was before any evidence had been found to link the two incidents. What has since been confirmed is that Qari Bilal, while perhaps not innocent, was the fall guy for an assassination that sent shockwaves through Karachi and beyond.

Today is the fourth anniversary of Perween’s death. What has so far come to light about the prominent social activist’s murder? Why did the police destroy the evidence and spoil the case? Most importantly, what has deliberately been left out of the story because of powerful vested interests?

In November 2016, Raheem Swati, a local leader of the Awami National Party who was also involved in various criminal enterprises, was charged with Perween’s murder and is in jail awaiting trial. Another small-time thug, Ahmed Khan, alias Pappu Kashmiri, who was arrested from Mansehra is also in custody in connection with the case.

Needless to say, the manner in which the ‘investigation’ unfolded was met with incredulity. The police are hardly known for such efficiency: everything smacked of a massive cover-up.

However, according to a police official involved in the investigation, even though he is convinced that Swati is one of the culprits, it is highly unlikely he will be convicted. For rather than giving a statement before a magistrate under Section 164 of the Pakistan Penal Code, Swati only confessed in a statement to the SSP, a provision allowed under the Anti Terrorism Act. “Such a confession doesn’t have the evidentiary value as one given under Section 164,” said a senior police official. “The trial court can accept it but it’s not mandatory.”

An attempt to have Pappu Kashmiri turn approver in the case did not pan out. “These people are all related to each other in some way or the other,” said SP Akhtar Farooq, who has recently been transferred from Punjab and is currently investigating the murder. “He must have also thought that even if I’m released from jail, Swati has his people outside and they’ll get me.”

First, a recap of what happened on the evening of March 13, 2013.

Walking through the streets of Orangi: Perween believed that everyone, regardless of income, had a right to basic services. — Photo courtesy OPP
Walking through the streets of Orangi: Perween believed that everyone, regardless of income, had a right to basic services. — Photo courtesy OPP

It had been a long day for Perween. She had been in meetings about OPP’s savings groups programme with women visiting from interior Sindh. Looking forward to a quiet evening at home with her mother, Perween left her office just off Manghopir road in Orangi around 7.15pm, much later than usual. There was load-shedding in the area at the time. Her driver Wali Dad was at the wheel of her car.

Barely 200 metres from the office, when they slowed down at a speed-breaker in front of Pakhtoon Market, two men on a motorcycle emerged from the darkness and opened fire on the car. Perween was fatally injured and died before she could receive any medical treatment. “Haemorrhagic shock”, records the autopsy report as the cause of death. Two spent bullet casings were collected by Investigating Officer (IO) Raja Ulfat from the crime scene.

The next day, on March 14, following the so-called encounter led by SHO Manghopir police station Ashfaq Hussain Baloch in which Qari Bilal was killed, the DIG West Javed Odho, without any evidence, before any forensics were carried out, declared Perween’s murder solved. The 9mm pistol allegedly recovered from Qari Bilal and the empties claimed to have been found at the scene of the OPP director’s murder the day before were both sent together to the forensics lab on March 15 as part of Perween’s case. Conveniently for the police, the forensics report issued on March 19 declared the empties to be a match with the pistol.

Needless to say, the manner in which the ‘investigation’ unfolded was met with incredulity. The police are hardly known for such efficiency: everything smacked of a massive cover-up.

Perween was a trained architect who could have had a cushy, high-paying job at any top firm. Instead, she chose to work among Karachi’s marginalised millions and was a passionate advocate for their right to basic services, a cause that motivated her to join OPP in the first place. What was she doing that had stirred such a hornet’s nest that it ultimately claimed her life? Plenty, as it turned out. And much of it threatened the massive fortunes that are made daily by criminal mafias in the mega city.

Perween with her mother. — Photo courtesy OPP
Perween with her mother. — Photo courtesy OPP

Mafias in the mega city

Since several years, Perween had been documenting the old goths (villages), illegal water hydrants and large-scale encroachments on state land in Karachi. The tanker mafia was siphoning away water in bulk to those willing to pay premium prices for it, leaving low-income localities without the supply they were entitled to as residents of the city. Her 2008 report, Water Supply in Karachi, included a map showing the location of the illegal water hydrants and filling stations in Karachi.

According to a Karachi Water and Sewerage Board report submitted to the Sindh High Court in 2012, there were more than 100 illegal hydrants in Karachi. These supported a thriving racket in the city, involving corrupt officials and tanker owners. Back in 2008, Perween had calculated that it generated almost Rs50 billion annually, but no action was taken on her findings.

It is well known that the MQM, PPP and elements of the ANP — the TTP eliminated ANP as a political entity from Karachi — are all guilty of land-grabbing activities in and around the city.

Raheem Swati’s house close to the OPP office in Orangi. — White Star
Raheem Swati’s house close to the OPP office in Orangi. — White Star

In a street across from the OPP is a three-storey house with a bare, unpainted façade and a vacant police post just outside it. It belongs to Swati, the man awaiting trial for Perween’s murder. Swati was running an illegal hydrant close by on Manghopir Road. He was also involved in land-grabbing and had had a run-in with Perween and OPP’s co-director Anwar Rashid back in 2009 when they resisted his demand that OPP hand over part of its premises for a karate club. However, despite the long-running, low-intensity friction between Swati and OPP, there had been no recent trigger for him to single out Perween, that too for personal reasons.

Despite his local clout, Swati was no big-time don. Because of his hydrant business, he is known to have links with a man named Hazoor Bukhsh Kalwar, a mid-level player in Karachi’s criminal landscape. Kalwar’s humble beginnings as a Grade 1 employee in KMC’s Parks Department were in the distant past. He not only controlled a large number of illegal hydrants in the city — from each of which he reportedly paid out Rs100,000 on a daily basis to a political heavyweight in Sindh, an individual who has since fallen out of favour — but his involvement in land-grabbing is also well known. Very well connected, it is believed Kalwar was allowed to slip out of the country around the time the Rangers’ operation began in Karachi.

Notwithstanding the handsome returns from selling stolen water through tankers, the land mafia in Karachi was, and remains, the most powerful of the criminal mafias because of the even bigger sums of money involved. During a radio interview in 2011, Perween had said: “[O]vernight you can earn one lakh, two lakh, three lakh [Rs100,000, Rs200,000, Rs300,000] – much more than that… [It] is huge. Unimaginable.”

On various occasions, Perween had sketched the dynamics of land-grabbing in Karachi. In the interview mentioned above, she said: “There’s a continuous battle over various segments of land in Karachi between various groups of people who … as a strategy align themselves with political parties. Police, and of course, the government departments and the elected members are all partners in this.” She gave the example of a 100 square yard plot costing Rs250,000. “Rs100,000 goes to the owner… Rs150,000 is subdivided. You give it to the thana, to various government officials, revenue departments, local councillors, local nazims, MPA, MNA, everybody.”

It is well known that the MQM, PPP and elements of the ANP — the TTP eliminated ANP as a political entity from Karachi — are all guilty of land-grabbing activities in and around the city. (TTP elements even today have a stake in the northern parts of the city.)

The OPP director was documenting encroachments on government land in Gadap and elsewhere. — Photo courtesy OPP
The OPP director was documenting encroachments on government land in Gadap and elsewhere. — Photo courtesy OPP

In other words, lower tier thugs, the men in uniform who should be upholding the law and the political elite all share the spoils of organised crime in Pakistan’s largest city. In fact, there has been, until recently, a dedicated ‘desk’ at one of Sindh’s premier government offices to collect bribes from cops seeking favourable postings as SHOs. The more lucrative the ‘earnings’ from a thana, the bigger the bribe.

Moreover, the police remain a constant in what is a perpetually evolving racket. Wherever a power vacuum appears, other players quickly move in to fill it. Take the example of Mohammed Khan Colony along the RCD Highway, named after a notorious land mafia don who started out as a truck driver in Karachi’s electricity supply corporation. The colony’s location, along the Northern Bypass, makes it particularly coveted. Not only are drugs and guns being brought from the north unloaded here, but the goods-laden trucks that travel on this route from the port in Keamari to join the Superhighway are a hugely lucrative source of extortion. When Mohammed Khan died some years ago, his sons took over the reins but the transition provided just enough opportunity for a head honcho of the PPP from Lyari to muscle his way in.

At the time of her death, Perween, with her characteristic quiet determination, had been documenting this encroachment on state land as well as other similar colonies in the area.

With the legendary Akhtar Hameed Khan, founder of OPP. — Photo courtesy OPP
With the legendary Akhtar Hameed Khan, founder of OPP. — Photo courtesy OPP

Woman on a mission

Since 2006, she had also been painstakingly documenting and mapping Karachi’s many goths — the pre-partition ancestral villages dotted around the city — with the help of OPP staff. “She wanted to help people get ownership rights,” said her sister Aquila Ismail, a former assistant professor at NED Engineering University. “Whenever there was an eviction anywhere, she’d get so distressed you would think that someone had snatched her house away from her.”

Documentation is extremely important where land rights and fair compensation to land owners are concerned because it is the first step in the process of getting goths notified/regularised. “Documentation gives goth residents land title, which means they can’t be evicted as before,” explained Anwar Rashid, who was appointed director OPP after Perween. “Even if developers use strong-arm tactics, documentation means that the cost of the land increases ten-fold, sometimes even more.”

Not surprisingly, that does not suit land developers at all. Grabbing land through forced evictions or fraudulent transactions is not so easy when residents are lawful lessees.

Perween's notes on goths in Karachi. — Photo courtesy OPP
Perween's notes on goths in Karachi. — Photo courtesy OPP

Until Perween’s murder, the OPP team had mapped and documented over 2,000 goths in Karachi. These included more than 800 in Gadap town alone where the massive Bahria Town Karachi and other gated communities have by now swallowed up well over 30,000 acres of land. The mafias behind such projects include some of the most powerful in the land.

With the OPP liaising with the Board of Revenue, Sindh on the villagers’ behalf, 1,131 of the documented goths had been notified including 518 in Gadap. Upon Perween’s death however, that process under the Gothabad Scheme came to a grinding halt. Close to 700 applications for notification are pending with BoR Sindh since March 2013. According to Ms Ismail, those in the upper echelons of the government with whom Perween had been regularly in contact until the very morning of her death neither condoled with her family, nor did they contact OPP again.

Perween had a personal rapport with the women in Orangi. — Photo courtesy OPP
Perween had a personal rapport with the women in Orangi. — Photo courtesy OPP

An excerpt from a petition submitted to the Supreme Court in 2014 by Perween’s family and friends reads: “…the Petitioners suspect that the Joint Investigation Team is deliberately ignoring the land mafia because of vested interests of a wide range of influential parties….It is essential for the JIT to investigate the officials of the government of Sindh as well as the ruling party who have been involved in the ‘Gothabad Scheme’ in order to ascertain as to what threats were being faced by Ms Rahman and why was the process of regularisation of goths halted after her death.”

What is certain is that with Perween gone, people settled for generations in the vast rural stretches around Karachi have lost an ardent defender of their right to secure housing and livelihood. They are now at the mercy of an avaricious cabal for whom ‘development’ only means for-profit housing for the rich. “They achieved their objective by destroying the Gothabad Scheme,” said a close associate of OPP. “It was a brilliant move on their part to remove Perween.”

Forensics report showing empties and pistol having been sent together to the lab by police. — White Star
Forensics report showing empties and pistol having been sent together to the lab by police. — White Star

Clear and present danger

Perween’s murder was a prelude to a frightening chain of events. Exactly two months later, Abdul Waheed who was working for OPP’s Orangi Charitable Trust, was shot dead. OPP was repeatedly warned, directly and otherwise, not to continue with its documentation of land. Consequently OPP staff was relocated to an office near Shahrae Faisal. That was a huge setback for OPP’s programmes that are largely centred on the sprawling katchi abadi of Orangi.

Yet, a few months after Perween’s murder, a senior member of a sister organisation received a call from a man who wished to see him for some architecture-related advice. After he arrived however, he did not broach the topic he had mentioned but instead spoke only of OPP’s documentation of goths and how dangerous that work was.

Nevertheless, the police, after having spoiled the case, was dismissive of the very real and present danger to the lives of people affiliated with OPP. In fact, they were party to the intimidation. “It’s only luck and a bit of strategy that no one else from OPP nor any of their lawyers has been killed,” said Faisal Siddiqi, legal counsel for OPP. “The threat was imminent and such a threat still continues to persist.”

In July 2013, angered by the police’s brazen manipulation of the investigation that allowed the real killers to go free and continue to pose a threat to OPP workers, family and friends of Perween filed a petition in the Supreme Court to reopen the case.

As a little girl. — Photo courtesy OPP
As a little girl. — Photo courtesy OPP

On Jan 29, 2014, just a few days before the first hearing, an attempt was made on the life of Saleem Aleemuddin, joint director OPP, when an improvised explosive device commonly known as a ‘cracker’ was thrown at his car. Fortunately he survived, but the vehicle was a write-off.

On Feb 3, 2014, the SC appointed district and sessions judge Ghulam Mustafa Memon to conduct an inquiry into the case. Justice Memon questioned a number of people, including Perween’s colleagues at OPP whom the police had not even bothered to interview. (They had only taken the driver Wali Dad’s statement on the day of the incident. However, several concocted statements attributed to OPP staff are present in the case file. Also in the file is an intriguing stand-alone document dated Nov 20, 2013, signed by DIG Odho directing that the case be reinvestigated. Yet no one in OPP or the media seems to have any knowledge of the case being reopened. Nor is there a shred of evidence in the file to indicate any such effort by the police, not even the questioning of those who tried to destroy the evidence or carried out the ‘encounter’ that delivered Qari Bilal as Perween’s killer.)

In his report dated April 12, 2014, Justice Memon pointed out a number of reasons to question the investigation’s credibility. He decried it as “casual and indifferent” and recommended the case be reinvestigated by an “efficient, independent and honest police officer”. He also ordered police to provide security for OPP staff.

Sources close to the case revealed that Justice Memon faced considerable pressure while conducting the inquiry, which indicated that his possible findings threatened some people in very high places. According to one of these sources, “IO Raja Ulfat actually told the judge, ‘Sir, if you visit Orangi, it could put your life in danger.’ Who says that to a judge?”

Even a senior police officer with a reputation for integrity and who has investigated a number of extremely dangerous, high-profile cases without flinching, distanced himself from Perween’s murder investigation soon after being appointed to lead it following the SC’s order to reopen the case. According to a highly reliable source, the officer’s superior in the force had told him not to pursue the land mafia angle. “He couldn’t wait to get away from the case fast enough. In fact, he believed that [his superior] had assigned [a lower level cop] to keep an eye on him during court proceedings. He insisted that we were never to talk to him in court or approach him while he was in uniform.”

Meanwhile, the SC under Chief Justices Tassaduq Jillani, Nasir-ul-Mulk, and Anwar Zaheer Jamali held hearings to measure the progress of the investigation. Members of OPP, including Ms Ismail, complained about hostility from certain policemen present during the court proceedings who were warning them to withdraw the petition. (In mid-2015 two armed men barged into Ms Ismail’s house in her absence; they waited for a while and only left after leaving a threatening message for her.) One policeman was particularly obnoxious. “However, despite our insistence that he be removed from his association with the case, he remained in that capacity until quite recently. It was clear that someone very powerful was protecting him,” said a source in OPP.

The judges sensed the gravity of the situation. One former chief justice was so concerned about barrister Kamran Shaikh who was representing the petitioners in the SC that he called the police officer in charge of the investigation in Karachi and bluntly told him that if something happened to Mr Shaikh, the judge would hold him personally responsible.

“IO Raja Ulfat actually told the judge, ‘Sir, if you visit Orangi, it could put your life in danger.’ Who says that to a judge?”

Swati’s name had emerged as one of the likely perpetrators behind the murder quite early on, but the police on one pretext or another continued to express their inability to locate and arrest him. It was after A.D. Khawaja was appointed IG Sindh that Swati was nabbed on May 7, 2016, an operation in which SP Farooq also took part. Although the latter has maintained there has been no pressure on him to distort his findings or exclude any possibilities, he conceded that he “did not want to extend the investigation to an extent that is beyond my capacity and which would leave me unable to close it.”

While her family and friends continue to relentlessly pursue justice for Perween, neither DIG Odho nor IO Ulfat or SHO Ashfaq Hussain Baloch and the others who played a role in compromising the investigation into her murder have suffered any consequences. An application submitted to IG Khawaja has asked for an investigation against IO Ulfat and SHO Baloch in order to unearth the actual men behind the conspiracy to assassinate Perween.

But this is a country where even the murder of a former prime minister is covered up. Even if such an inquiry does take place, how far can it go? Will it lead to the unmasking of the real perpetrators of the crime — not just the ones who pulled the trigger, but the powerful men who decided that this warm, compassionate woman with the ready smile was such a threat to their vested interests that she had to be silenced? Or are Karachiites destined to forever be pawns in a deadly game of real-life monopoly?