This article was originally published on May 12, 2017
KARACHI: Attempt after attempt fails to elicit comments from direct witnesses to the carnage that took place in Karachi on May 12 ten years ago. All these men served as judges in the country’s high courts and the apex court before they retired to re-join the legal fraternity as seasoned practitioners of the law. For each of my requests, I receive either “excuse me”, or “sorry”. Finally, one of them agrees to talk — but not openly.
“Please don’t mention my name,” says the retired Sindh High Court judge as our conversation ends. “You may write each and every word I have shared with you but not my name. I would prefer to be an anonymous source. One never knows here what can happen the next day: it’s better to stay away from even the memories of such controversial events.”
The ordeal he recalls of that bloody Saturday refreshes the grim memories of the city being under siege for nearly 24 hours, held hostage by forces in the face of whom even jurists and law-enforcers were helpless.
Two rival rallies had been planned that day — one by the legal fraternity, backed by parties then in the opposition, to welcome into the city the then deposed chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, and the other organised by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), favoured by the then military dictator General Pervez Musharraf, in protest against the “politicisation” of the issue of the presidential reference against Mr Chaudhry.
A certain level of fear had prevailed, but no one could have guessed the deeply disturbing events that were to follow — certainly not the then serving high court judge. “I was travelling with my driver and armed guard to the Sindh High Court where the chief justice had to deliver an address when we were forced to stop near Sir Syed Girls College in Nazimabad,” he says.
Armed motorcyclists surrounded his official, flag-bearing car, pulled out his driver and switched off its engine, seizing the keys. The bikers then bludgeoned the stationary car several times, so hard that its bumper fell off. In one of the busiest and most densely populated city neighbourhoods, a serving judge sat in fear.
“I talked to them,” he says. “They were obviously aware that I was a high court judge. After debate and argument, they allowed me to leave but I reminded them that I couldn’t because keys of my car had been snatched by one of them.” Finally, the key was returned and the judge was ‘allowed’ to leave. As he got back into his car, the men surrounding him came up with their last strike: they stripped his car of the national flag.
At the nearest police station of Pak Colony, he waited for nearly two hours for police security to arrive, as promised by the Governor’s House after it was informed about the episode. “Then came an SSP-ranking officer with his team to escort me,” he says. “The police left us some two kilometres from the Singh High Court building, saying that they could no longer help us. My driver parked the car at a safer place. Then, with my driver and guard, I walked to the high court to find all entrances blocked. Finally, I jumped over one of the walls to enter the building.”
If this was the experience of a high court judge, one can only imagine the situation for political workers. In anticipation of the two rallies, law enforcers had been put on high alert the day before. The fire brigade had been directed to remain on standby and hospitals were asked to ready themselves.
But the next day, hapless citizens found that the city had been abandoned by the law-enforcement agencies, and armed youths were wandering at will. Nasir Khan, one of the Awami National Party workers, witnessed a few of them at Malir Halt. I meet Nasir almost at the same spot where he narrowly escaped death.
“As our rally from Quaidabad reached here [Malir Halt], it came under fire,” he says. “I miraculously remained unhurt but I watched two of my friends die from bullet wounds and several others fell injured. It was a terrible experience and even today I shiver while recalling that day.”
After 10 years, only eyewitness accounts of the May 12 events remain. Justice and any action on the part of the state are still awaited.
“Should we call ourselves humanity when the fallen remain un-avenged a year to a day since that fateful day in May?” wrote Justice Qazi Faez Isa, a Supreme Court judge and former chief justice of the Balochistan High Court, in this paper in 2008. Years later, the question remains pertinent.
Published in Dawn, May 12th, 2017