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Inmates or bosses?

July 17, 2017


GIVEN the country’s situation vis-à-vis militancy and violent extremism, each instance of a perpetrator of terror or crime being arrested and brought to justice is to be welcomed. There are unfortunately not enough successes on this count, but one case that went differently, at least initially, was that concerning a man called Shaikh Mohammad Mumtaz and another named Mohammad Ahmed.

The Sindh police Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) arrested these members of the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi four years ago, and they were incarcerated at the Central Prison Karachi facing charges for the killings of more than 60 people. Unfortunately enough, the course of justice was obstructed when a month ago they escaped from the judicial complex inside the prison.

This, in and of itself, is distressing enough, although it ought to be acknowledged that jailbreaks do occur in every part of the world, especially in places where detention facilities are inadequate and the criminals part of powerful groups, as in Pakistan. A perusal of excerpts from the CTD’s report of the inquiry into the escape, though, could be referred to as entertaining were it not for the grimness of the subject matter.

As reported by this newspaper recently, it seems that a number of militants subscribing to banned organisations are virtually running affairs at the prison where they are housed. They impose their will on jail staff, who follow instructions out of either fear or incompetence. Sources privy to the contents of the report said that what it exposes is “incidents of deliberate and systematic intimidation” on part of certain prisoners towards the jail authorities.

Prisoners are acting as court clerks or helpers.

Thus it is that at the Central Prison Karachi in place is a “virtual caste system”: detainees that can intimidate their wardens, such as members of political parties or extremist outfits, are “enjoying virtually every privilege under the sun” while all the others have to “pay through their nose for everything”. Prisoners are acting as court clerks and helpers. The system is so organised that certain prisoners with clout have been made zimmedar — or responsible for the administration of ‘their’ wards; as can be imagined, they behave like virtual dons, controlling their networks outside the jail.

Such influential prisoners are at liberty to go to the court complex whenever they want, even without any judicial summons. In fact, this is precisely what the two LJ prisoners did: even though one of them did not even have a court date, they went to the judicial complex, hid, cut through the bars of a courtroom, and vanished. In a detail that almost invites derision, the report concludes that their disappearance went unreported till the next morning because “even the simple and crucial act of counting the prisoners has been outsourced to the prisoners themselves”.

It can be guessed that the situation in other prisons may not be too different. Over the years, several instances have come up where well-connected prisoners have been found to be in touch with or even continuing to work with their outfits whilst technically under detention. One wonders why, under such circumstances, then, Pakistan’s prisons continue to hold any inmates at all, except for those that are powerless to engineer escapes for being fry that is far too small.

The answer is found in the CTD report about the Karachi escape. It muses:

“So deeply has this become institution­alised that, in fact, one can question whether there was any point in sending high-profile prisoners to jail, because being in prison makes them safe from further prosecution and allows them to continue with their acti­vities without fear of law enforcers.”

As is quite clear from the circumstances that have prevailed for years, militant, extremist and criminal outfits often manage to run rings around law-enforcement agencies here, the impunity with they operate only being bolstered when a new tool used by the law is proved ineffectual, or when cases such as the one being discussed come up.

Yet, spare a thought for the law enforcers, particularly the civilian ones and especially the lower-ranking personnel that constitute the bulk. First in the line of fire, they have little reason to believe that the strength of the institutions they represent will be expended on their behalf in their hour of need — which, on the streets and in the corridors of overcrowded prisons, is never very far. Further, in a country where corruption at the highest ranks has for decades been an open secret, how much incentive would there really be to remain staunchly upright in the face of all temptations?

As a friend remarked regarding the CTD report, when in the country generally it is quite obvious that lunatics are running the asylum, why become fastidious over prisoners running the prisons?

The writer is a member of staff.

Published in Dawn, July 17th, 2017

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