A licence to kill

24 Jan 2018


THE brutal murder of young Naqeebullah Mehsud in a fake encounter has shaken the nation and raised questions about the apparent impunity that some members of the law enforcement enjoy. It is indeed not the first case of extrajudicial killing in this country; the only difference between this and other case is that the media backlash and protest by the civil society forced the administration to act this time.

Hundreds of alleged terrorists have reportedly been killed by law-enforcement agencies in recent years without being identified. They are just numbers. While such cases have been reported from across the country it has almost become a norm in Karachi. Finding mutilated bodies of persons after they were picked up by the security agencies is a common phenomenon.

Given this situation, an incident like Naqeebullah’s death was waiting to happen. There were three other ‘suspected terrorists’ reportedly killed in the same ‘encounter’, but nothing is known about their identity. Last week’s incident is symptomatic of a more serious problem — the breakdown of the rule of law.

It is not just about Rao Anwar. He is a product of a system that sanctions extra-legal actions.

Rao Anwar, who is being held responsible for Mehsud’s coldblooded murder, had earlier been eulogised as a daredevil officer and referred to as the ‘encounter specialist’. He was untouchable, reportedly having enjoyed the blessing of the security establishment as well as the top PPP leadership. He has been a familiar name in Karachi since the 1990s when he earned notoriety for his role in the operation against the MQM.

Rising from the ranks, he owes his senior position to powerful backers. He would certainly deliver what was expected of him. That, it seems, gave him a licence to kill. It is not the first time he has been suspended from the job, but he always came back. His refusal to appear before an inquiry committee indicates defiance that has become his hallmark.

But it is not just about Rao Anwar. He is a product of a system that sanctions extra-legal actions. Custodial killings and fake encounters have become a way to deal with suspected criminals, militants and sectarian extremists not only in Karachi but across the country. And it is not just the police but intelligence agencies and the paramilitary forces too that are involved in extrajudicial killings. The ongoing conflict and insurgency in the tribal areas provided a justification for this impunity.

A case in point is Balochistan where bodies of disappeared persons were dumped regularly. It was certainly not the police or other civilian law-enforcement agencies responsible for those killings. The low-intensity insurgency in the province and involvement of foreign-backed separatists has been used as an excuse by the security agencies for taking extreme actions. But such actions have been counterproductive and have further alienated the population. In fact, such indiscriminate use of force is a major cause of public discontent in the province.

Indeed, the situation in the tribal areas where the militants had challenged the writ of the state is different. The killing of militants in combat is not the same as extrajudicial action. But there is always a question about custodial deaths. The suspects must be tried in a court of law rather than eliminated. It may be true that a weak legal system and prosecution often allow even hard-core terrorists to go scot-free. Yet extrajudicial actions are not the solution. The excesses perpetrated by the security agencies in conflict zones are often used by the militants to mobilise support.

Karachi’s case has been very different. The country’s largest city and economic jugular had become a hub for criminal gangs backed by political parties vying for the control of the city. The battle turned the city into a lawless region. More serious was the influx of militants fleeing the military operation in the tribal areas; they had established their stronghold in the outskirts of the city.

In those areas, police control had virtually collapsed. Indeed, the turnaround over the last few years, bringing some semblance of normality in the city, is remarkable. The credit for it certainly goes to the police, Rangers and other security agencies. But it is also a fact that scores of suspected militants as well as members of some political parties have been killed in so-called encounters as well as in the custody of security agencies.

For sure, many of them might have been wanted in militant and terrorist activities, but such actions do not provide a long-term solution. A licence to kill makes incidents like last week’s inevitable. Naqeebullah’s case generated much public backlash because he was active on social media and known in the area for his flamboyance, but there may be other innocent victims whose deaths in fake encounters have gone unnoticed. A judicial inquiry must be conducted to probe other complaints too.

Rao Anwar and other alleged perpetrators of the crime must be punished. It will indeed help prevent such excess use of power and authority in future. More important, however, is to reform the police system that produces officers like Rao Anwar. His impunity came from political patronage.

Not that the police system is much better in other provinces, but the Sindh police has earned greater notoriety. There is a need for improving the judicial and monitoring system too. Action against one officer will not change the culture of misuse of power. There is a need to strengthen the system of check and balances.

While it is important for the media to highlight the cases of police excesses, there is also a need to be careful not to demoralise the entire force that has contributed immensely to getting Karachi back to normal. There is always a danger that demonisation of the law-enforcement agencies could affect the police officers engaged in a counterterrorism drive. A senior police officer rightly pointed out that no officer should go to the job worried about the consequences of his action. But no one should have the impunity to use power indiscriminately.

The writer is an author and journalist.
Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, January 24th, 2018