THE cold-blooded murder in Sahiwal of a couple, their teenage daughter and a fourth victim in an engineered encounter is yet another manifestation of the brutal culture that allows law-enforcement agencies to employ extralegal actions. It may not be the first incident of its kind but perhaps it is one of the most heinous acts of police brutality in the country and has sent shockwaves across the nation.
The killings could have ended up as yet another statistic in the long list of extrajudicial murders of alleged terrorists had it not been for videos of the terrified children who had survived the hail of bullets that killed their parents going viral on social media, and generating public outrage.
Nothing could be more callous than the remark made by the Punjab governor that the victims were “at the wrong place, at the wrong time” or the provincial law minister calling the deaths “collateral damage”. The real issue of the indiscriminate use of force has been lost in the cacophony of political point-scoring and blame game.
For the opposition, the incident is a handy tool to beat up a hapless Punjab administration headed by a clueless chief minister. The fractious team of novices that forms the provincial cabinet has hardly been able to deal with the political fallout and do damage control.
The changing version of the incident by the ministers and police officials has exposed the fault lines in the system.
The Sahiwal tragedy raises questions about the impunity granted to the law enforcers.
Meanwhile, the federal government, too, appeared rudderless as it sought to defuse the situation. The conflicting prime ministerial tweets did not help calm the public rage either. Although it would be unfair to hold the PTI government directly responsible for the Sahiwal incident, its management of the aftermath and failure to restore the public’s faith in the existing dispensation has dealt a serious blow to the fledgling administration.
While the government has fulfilled the ritual of setting up a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) to investigate the matter and has announced monetary compensation for the grieving family, it appears unlikely that justice will be done and facts about the shootout will be fully revealed.
It is, indeed, not a black-and-white situation, with the fourth victim accused of having had links with an outlawed militant group and involved in several terrorist attacks. Yet nothing justifies the indiscriminate use of firepower. There is no evidence of the police claim that they retaliated to firing from inside the car. The Sahiwal tragedy cannot be dismissed as a shootout by some trigger-happy cops or a botched operation. The gruesome act cannot be seen in isolation. It raises a whole lot of questions about the impunity granted to law enforcers and the breakdown of the rule of law in general.
More importantly, the incident has once again highlighted some basic flaws in the mechanism used for fighting terrorism and violent extremism in this country. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, around 3,345 people have been killed in police encounters in the country between 2014 and 2018, including 12 minors. It is, indeed, a highly alarming number and cannot be rationalised even though the country is faced with an existentialist threat from terrorism and violent extremism.
More disturbing is the fact that no details about the slain ‘terrorists’ are available. Two alleged terrorists were reportedly gunned down by counterterrorism forces in Gujranwala a day after the Sahiwal killings. The police claimed that both were associates of the fourth victim of the Sahiwal shootout and had been working for the militant Islamic State group. The timely action saved the country from an imminent catastrophe, we were told.
It may be true, but again their death in a dubious encounter leaves many questions unanswered. The veracity of police claims remains questionable given that several victims of previous extrajudicial actions were proven innocent. Hundreds of alleged terrorists have reportedly been killed by law-enforcement agencies in recent years without being identified. They are just numbers.
Such cases have been reported from across the country. Finding mutilated bodies of persons after they were picked up by the security agencies is a common phenomenon. The Naqeebullah Mehsud case in Karachi brought to the surface the horror of custodial killings. The father of two who had never been involved in any militant activity was picked up by police in Karachi and killed in a fake encounter.
Such incidents are symptomatic of a more serious problem of what has been described by Zoha Waseem, a writer on security issues, as the “militarisation of policing”. The Naqeebullah incident was not surprising given the vast powers vested in police officers like Rao Anwar. He had been eulogised as a daredevil officer and referred to as an ‘encounter specialist’. He was untouchable, reportedly having enjoyed the blessing of the security establishment as well as the top PPP leadership.
A JIT report had implicated Rao Anwar not only in Mehsud’s murder but numerous other custodial killings as well. But it seems that he continues to be protected by powerful institutions. Given such impunity and militarisation of police, the Sahiwal shooting was waiting to happen. It is not just about the cops involved in the action, but also the system that empowers the law-enforcement agencies to take reckless actions and rationalise extrajudicial killings.
Cases like the Sahiwal and Naqeebullah killings also expose a breakdown in the rule of law and the criminal justice system. What encourages the law-enforcement agencies to resort to extralegal actions is the failure of our judicial system to convict hardcore terrorists. For sure, many of those killed in so-called encounters might have been wanted in militant and terrorist activities, but such actions are not conducive to a long-term solution.
It was the licence to kill provided to the law enforcers that made last week’s incident inevitable. Surely a judicial inquiry must be conducted into the tragedy. But it is more important to address the main issue relating to our counterterrorism mechanisms. There is a need for improving the judicial and monitoring system too. Action against a few cops will not change the culture of misuse of power.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, January 23rd, 2019