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FOOTPRINTS: HEAVIEST OF DAMAGE

September 14, 2018

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While assault rifles like AK-47 have been a weapon of choice for Karachi 
police for decades, the authorities are now mulling over new ideas and 
have recently armed a special unit formed to combat street crime with 9mm pistols.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
While assault rifles like AK-47 have been a weapon of choice for Karachi police for decades, the authorities are now mulling over new ideas and have recently armed a special unit formed to combat street crime with 9mm pistols.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

IT was the night of Aug 13 — the eve of Independence Day — and streets throughout the city were abuzz with jubilant and, in many cases, over-enthusiastic celebrators. Traffic on major roads was moving at a snail’s pace and key intersections were grinding down to a halt every few minutes.

Even in a scene like this, when hundreds of thousands of people are out on the streets in a joyous mood, this city can still strike at its beleaguered citizenry. That night, this is what happened at the Akhtar Colony traffic signal off DHA. A family of four — a couple and their two young daughters — were waiting in the car for the traffic light to change when a knock at the vehicle’s window left them with a lifetime of pain and irreparable loss.

Pointing a pistol, a man asked the vehicle’s driver, the owner, to lower the window. As a concerned family man and a Karachiite, he knew what to do. Immediately, the couple started handing over cash, cell phones and valuables to the robber, whose aide seemed to be in a nearby rickshaw.

The robber turned and started walking off with the booty, and the family thought the worst was over. The next second, they heard a single gunshot and turned to see their 10-year-old daughter — who had been sitting in the backseat with her six-year-old sister — slumped in a pool of blood. The child subsequently died, while here at the firing site, one of the robbers was killed by police fire. His accomplice escaped unhurt.

Then started attempts by the area police station — Defence — to cover the incident up as an ‘encounter’ between armed criminals and the police during which the robber had fired the shot claiming the life of the 10-year-old, after which he himself was killed by the police. Witnesses to the scene, the evidence suggested by the bullet-pierced family car, and even the concerns of the family failed to impress police high-ups, who sold the same theory to media outlets.

Members of the victim’s family then approached media outlets and raised doubts, not blaming the police but sharing the facts that suggested there was no exchange of gunfire at this spot that night. The parents of the child had heard only a single shot. The family also voiced grave concerns over police protocols for situations policemen handle at public places.

The family’s concerns and media reports bore fruit. Four days after the incident, and after the intervention of the Karachi police chief, the police conceded that the girl had been fatally shot by police during an “encounter with the robbers”. They presented the view that had the police not killed the criminal, the latter would have shot the policeman dead.

There is a point to the police claim. A situation such as this is a kill or be killed choice for policemen who put their own lives at risk while challenging armed criminals. Even so, what emerged after the tragedy should prove a wakeup call for the authorities.

“The incident raises questions about two things that need to be addressed,” said a family member of the victims a few days ago. “First, the conventional police attitude after every incident that involves their men. A family has lost everything and you [police officers] are setting up cover-ups. Second, there’s the matter of the training of our policemen who are patrolling the streets and challenging criminals at public places with an assault rifle [AK-47]. This weapon is used for regular street policing even though it carries the risk of collateral damage. Is the assault rifle really that important?”

The question haunts the police authorities in Karachi where they have been struggling for years to control street crime. Faced with threats ranging from terrorist attacks to deadly battles with gangsters, street criminals and hit-men associated with political groups, the Karachi police backed by the Pakistan Rangers, Sindh, have succeeded in improving the city’s security situation to a large extent. Peace of sorts has been restored to residential and commercial areas after years of bloodshed on sectarian, ethnic and political grounds. Yet the challenge presented by street crimes remains.

The change in the police mindset to shield their own men from the law even if they violate it is long awaited. One cannot be sure of seeing this happening. However, the authorities are convinced about bringing change on other fronts.

“To fight increasing street crime, we are setting up a new unit named Street Watch Force comprising 2,000 police commandos to patrol the city roads and streets on over 1,000 motorbikes,” said Karachi police chief Dr Amir Ahmed Shaikh. “The plan has been launched after a batch of 200 personnel with 100 motorbikes hit the roads in the city’s South district as the first phase of the plan. This will be different from past experiences. In a few areas such as Defence and Clifton, we are arming the members of the force with small weapons like 9mm pistols and not with AK-47 assault rifles.”

Published in Dawn, September 14th, 2018