IT was only a matter of time before yet another account emerged of innocents losing their lives at the hands of an out of control police. And so it turned out on Saturday, when a couple along with their daughter and a friend were shot dead by law enforcement officials near Sahiwal.

Of the couple’s other minor children on the scene, the son escaped with a bullet injury while two daughters remained unhurt.

The police (particularly in Sindh and Punjab) have become accustomed to glibly using the pretext of fighting terrorism to cover up egregious abuses of power.

Explore: A licence to kill

After initially floating a story depicting the incident as a daring rescue of kidnapped children, it produced a formulaic response.

According to the Punjab CTD, after ‘terrorists’ fired on police personnel trying to stop the vehicles in which they were travelling, a shootout ensued and four people were killed, “reportedly as a result of firing by their own accomplices”. The brazen fabrication was soon exposed by eyewitness accounts, including that of the slain couple’s son.

Yet on Sunday, there was the astoundingly tone-deaf spectacle of Punjab Law Minister Raja Basharat describing the deaths as ‘collateral damage’ — a more dehumanising term can scarcely be imagined — caused in an attempt by security personnel to prevent an even bigger carnage by terrorists.

This is similar to the end justifies the means argument advanced several years ago by supporters of drone attacks in the northern region — an argument vociferously condemned by PTI chairman Imran Khan at the time. Meanwhile, the PPP and PML-N, so full-throated in their denunciation of the Sahiwal incident, are using the issue for political point-scoring.

Sindh’s ‘encounter specialist’ Rao Anwar — prime suspect in Naqeebullah Mehsud’s murder, but yet to go on trial for it — operated with impunity in Karachi, as did SP Chaudhry Aslam until his assassination in 2014.

Dawn Investigation: Rao Anwar and the killing fields of Karachi

Punjab under the PML-N had also long been a theatre for staged shootouts, with far-fetched accounts of purported face-offs against vicious criminals (with rarely even an injury incurred by the cops) going unchallenged.

Explore Herald: Punjab's 'encounters' with sectarianism

No doubt, there are brave, upstanding police officials whose work is a credit to their profession. However, they are eclipsed in a culture of policing where the lack of accountability is growing in tandem with the militarisation of law enforcement. In such an environment, police departments see themselves less as public servants upholding the law and more as an army fighting an elusive enemy.

And everywhere is a battlefield. Instead of condoning the police’s worst impulses, as the law minister seemed to be doing on Sunday, Punjab’s PTI-led government must demonstrate it will no longer tolerate trigger-happy law enforcement personnel.

Find out more: Reforming Pakistan's criminal justice system

Provincial legislatures need to urgently address the shortcomings in the criminal justice system, of which the police are a critical pillar. People should not have to fear being killed, either in crossfire or as a result of ‘mistaken identity’.

Published in Dawn, January 22nd, 2019

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