Sahiwal shootings: The rot goes as deep as the roots

The demand for change gets the loudest when something terrible happens, but all that changes is seasons.
Published January 31, 2019
With every police encounter, the system’s knees weaken and it may just buckle over from the weight of injustice that has sadly come to characterise it.
With every police encounter, the system’s knees weaken and it may just buckle over from the weight of injustice that has sadly come to characterise it.

For as long as I can remember, I have been told that Pakistan needs to change.

We need to change the government, we need to change the law, we need to change the politicians, we need to change the economy, we need to change our policies, we need to change ourselves.

The demand for change gets the loudest when something terrible happens. Never again, we tell ourselves. Things must change, we chant. Leaders faithfully echo the sentiment.

All that changes, however, is seasons.

On January 19, the Punjab Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) opened fire on a car carrying a family, killing the couple, their teenage daughter and their neighbour.

It has been called a tragedy, an encounter, a shootout, a murder, a debacle — but one thing that the Sahiwal killings were not was an aberration.

Extrajudicial executions have long been a feature of Pakistani law enforcement — killings which are unlawfully and deliberately carried out by an order of government or with its complicity or acquiescence.

If the system fails, law enforcement simply steps outside it.

Related: What the Sahiwal shooting tells us about police culture

The incentive to do so is strong because there are no rules or consequences in this grey area and the CTD, Rao Anwar, the late Chaudhry Aslam, the Punjab police and other institutions all seem to have built their collective house there.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has recorded 60 police ‘encounters’ in the year preceding January 21, 2018. This means at least one extrajudicial execution a week. These are only the ones we know about. The real number is likely much higher.

They will find ways to justify it. That the criminal was “hardened” and deserved his or her fate. That lack of evidence to convict someone should not stand in the way of punishing them — even if their target is, as in the case of the Sahiwal killings, a child.

See more: Murders most foul

But as steadfast as their resolve might be to dispense their own brand of "justice," none of them have been willing to stand by it in a court of law. There remains a pervasive culture of impunity for the enforcers of the law that have the least respect for it.

Police investigate police to never punish the police. In the immediate aftermath of the shootout, the CTD had the gall to announce that they had recovered a cache of weapons and explosives from a group of “terrorists.”

This was a lie, and had it not been for a child telling the truth of what he witnessed, they probably would have gotten away with it.

Perhaps the problem then, is that law enforcement agencies do not think they are doing anything wrong. Nothing, except selective public outrage, seems to tell them otherwise.

No prison terms, no accountability — only temporary suspensions, a press conference and yet another Judicial Investigation Team. And if it gets noisy enough, maybe a tweet from the prime minister.

When it comes to changing the system that lets extrajudicial executions routinely take place, it is difficult to know where to begin. The rot goes as deep as the roots.

That police officials take the law into their own hands shows how little they trust the hands that sign the sentence. That judges cannot convict criminals because of lack of evidence demonstrates the consequences of a resource-strapped and underfunded police force.

That defendants can be murdered without ever seeing even an arrest warrant, let alone the inside of a courtroom is symptomatic of a system that is deeply broken.

Editorial: Fake police encounters

With every police encounter, the system’s knees weaken and it may just buckle over from the weight of injustice that has sadly come to characterise it.

The murders of Khalil, Nabila and their daughter Areeba should light a fire under our need for judicial and police reform.

Between bouquets for traumatised children and fake threatening phone calls to their lawyers, it appears that no one knows where to begin with that either.

This would be a farce if the story wasn’t being built on the bodies of four innocent people, including a child.

Now the victims’ remaining family members are being shuffled back and forth from their homes to government offices. They must appear before this committee and that committee, they must receive phone calls from this official and that official.

Also read: Punjab's 'encounters' with sectarianism

They must now cooperate with the very government that killed their own. A government that is strongly motivated to make this go away. A government that holds its power dearer than their truth.

Khalil’s brother has now asked that their case be tried in a military court. He presumably does so out of lack of faith in the civilian courts and in many ways, he cannot be blamed.

With more than 40,000 cases pending in the Supreme Court, lengthy appeals processes, a system that favours the rich and punishes only the poor, there is much to be done to earn that trust.

Unfortunately, the military courts have essentially been designed to ensure no fair trial standards are followed. And if this case is heard in one, then we are guaranteed that the outcome will serve no criminal justice purpose.

The truth of what happened in Sahiwal must come forward. And as we learned from a 13-year-old boy’s moral clarity, it can often be the only thing you hear. Even during a hail of bullets, even during bellowing calls for change.

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