Unlawful deaths: a collective failure

Updated 27 Jan 2018


NAQEEBULLAH Mehsud’s face, his trimmed, styled beard and long, flowing hair linger before my eyes, as do the aspirations that brought the 27-year-old man to Karachi from his native South Waziristan.

There is a lot of focus on crime in Karachi and the ethnic tensions that have bubbled over so many times in the past in the cauldron-like metropolis. Even then people continue to pour in from across the country.

During a haircut chat, a barber from Faisalabad once had this to say: “Ghurbat lai aayee mujhe yahan. Yeh Pakistan ka sab se ghareeb parwar shehr hai. Yahan koyee haath par maarne wala bhooka nahi sota.” (Poverty brought me here as this is the country’s most poor-friendly city; anybody willing to work does not go to sleep hungry here.)

What can one say when a premeditated murder perpetrated by state officials snatches a young man from his loved ones?

To be gunned down in cold blood and then be called a terrorist can’t underline enough the irony that journeys to this poor-friendly city, representing livelihood opportunities, have often ended in tragedy for the have-nots pursuing a dream of a better tomorrow.

If Naqeebullah Mehsud had become a victim of random crime in this mess of a city, one would still have mourned the death of someone so young, with so much promise, fire in the belly to break the shackles of poverty and give his beautiful children the head start he did not get.

But what could one say when premeditated murder perpetrated by state officials snatched the young man from all his loved ones? The question we need address collectively as a society is whether it is enough to do nothing more than lament, mourn and then move on each time such a tragedy happens.

Equally, outrage can’t be selective. Policemen such as Anwar Ahmad Khan can’t be hailed for some ‘encounters’ whilst being heaped with opprobrium for others. He can’t be alleged to be running a criminal empire which includes extortion, encounters, land grabbing and protection rackets and still be seen as a blue-eyed boy by influential sections of the power elite.

After all, look at the length of his tenure in the position the police officer was in till he was removed after a campaign, particularly by Pakhtun social media activists, blew the lid off Naqeebullah’s murder and laid bare the atrocity. Would he have spent several years in one role without strong backers?

Even as he is said to be in thick soup facing a murder inquiry, his defiance tells the story of an unholy nexus between his actions and the intelligence agencies on the one hand and of the battery of mediamen (I used the term men as I know of no woman journalist falling in that category) he has obliged over the years and who are ready to offer a platform to a policeman on the run.

His ties with the media are evident in the sort of airing his protestations are receiving even as he evades answering official inquiries, perhaps even arrest. It would be interesting to probe and find out who exactly went to the counter and got his boarding card when he tried to leave the country earlier this week from Islamabad airport.

If that question can be answered, then perhaps one can also find out where the now evasive police official may be found and who is protecting him especially since at the hint of the scandal, his civilian friends seem to have abandoned him.

However, at some point one will need to zoom out of this one incident and look at the wider issue where the criminal justice system tells such a sorry tale that more or less without exception one or the other among us have looked the other way when such encounters have happened.

Before pointing the finger anywhere else, no matter how sheepishly, I must hold up my own hand. When Malik Ishaq and accomplices were gunned down in a supposed encounter, my own spur of the moment reaction was good riddance.

The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi leader, over the years, openly owned up to multiple murders but could never be convicted because of witness intimidation. Even judicial officials were not spared his wrath and faced threats to life while pursuing his case. The result was of the 100 or so cases against him, he was not convicted in even one.

Another example was the Karachi murder of Geo journalist Wali Babar where during the trial a number of witnesses including policemen were physically eliminated, a fact documented by diligent journalists. Gratefully, there was no encounter to dispense justice here and eventually the case concluded.

When a high-profile alleged murderer like Malik Ishaq or an innocent man like Naqeebullah Mehsud are killed the cases catch public fancy and are discussed at least. Hundreds of similar cases in Balochistan and Fata are barely reported let alone widely discussed.

Pakistan has faced a wave of insurgencies of different denominations in recent years without doubt and the extraordinary challenges posed by these have seen unusual measures deployed to tackle these. Sadly, none of these measures have included a look at the laws and the judicial process.

From what is in the public domain, there is still no provision to try those charged with terrorism offences via videolinks and/or where judges adjudicate and witnesses testify from behind screens — measures which were found very effective, for example, in Italy’s fight against organised crime, and crushing of the mafia.

What to talk of witness protection programmes, where there are hardly means to protect police and other officers of the law from the wrath of the well-organised terror groups, extrajudicial killings are somehow seen as a legitimate tool by the law-enforcement machinery.

And when society chooses to acquiesce in such killings because they feel it was somehow justified given the targeted person or group, then it weakens its case for securing justice when an innocent victim is sucked into the killer machine. This is where we stand today.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, January 27th, 2018