A report released on Friday by the Election Commission of Pakistan on the February by-poll in Daska's NA-75 constituency has concluded that election officials, police and the local administration failed to play their "designated role in the requisite manner and were found [to be] puppets in the hands of their unlawful masters" during the by-election.
The controversial by-election was marred by violence, rigging and the disappearance of over 20 presiding officers (POs) and subsequently, a fact-finding inquiry was launched to probe into the irregularities.
Subsequently, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) had withheld the results of the February 19 by-poll and ordered re-election in the entire constituency after suspicion that the results may have been falsified. The order was later upheld by the Supreme Court.
A by-poll was held in the constituency in April, with PML-N’s Syeda Nosheen Iftikhar winning the contest by securing 110,075 votes against Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s Ali Asjad Malhi, who had bagged 93,433.
According to the inquiry report, a copy of which is available with Dawn.com, it seemed that "a constant observatory force drove or goaded" presiding officers, who failed to perform their duties during the by-poll.
The report — submitted by Punjab Joint Election Commissioner Saeed Gul to the Election Commission of Pakistan secretary — said the statement given by the 20 POs who were "forcefully taken to some unknown places invoked the point that ... facts were being concealed by the POs".
It noted that while the said POs blamed police for the irregularities reported during the by-poll, "their statements can never justify their negligence and maladministration".
"In fact, their manipulated replies in the investigation of [them] being taken to unknown places and any interaction or forceful approach by someone further aired the suspicion that they were vindicated or backed up by someone," the report says.
It further stated that senior assistant presiding officers (SAPOs) also supported this suspicion.
"Statement of SAPOs exposed that one PO willingly took the tamper evident bag with him in a shopping bag."
The report stated: "Circumstantial evidence, written statements of some POs, SAPOs, most of the drivers and very few of the police personnel and CDR data from the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority clearly prove that aforesaid POs, under some planned scheme, left their respective polling stations in private vehicles and reached Sialkot by staying first at Qila Kalar Wala Police Station/ Satra Police Station, office of the DSP, Pasrur and Mundeke etc. around after nearly 08:30pm."
"They remained at some unknown building situated at Shahabpura/Ugoke Road near Zohra Hospital [in Sialkot] for more than seven hours and after that they were transported in the police security to [the] office of the RO at Jaisarwala," it said. "Before reaching their destination, all the POs were shifted in police vans from a Toyota Hiace."
It was also noted in the inquiry report that very few POs had managed to send the results of their respective polling stations through WhatsApp or submit original results.
Moreover, the inquiry found that Daska Deputy Education Officer Farkhanda Yasmeen had held a meeting with POs at her house, where the latter were instructed to "favour the government in the said by-election, allow the voters to cast their votes on copies of NIC (national identity card), act upon the guidelines received from [her] during polling and not to bother about the law and order situation if [it] turned untoward".
The inquiry also revealed Sialkot Colleges Deputy Director Muhammad Iqbal Kaloya's involvment in meetings held at the Daska assistant commissioner's house for "manipulating the election process."
The meetings were also attended by former special assistant to the Punjab chief minister Firdous Ashiq Firdous Ashiq Awan, among others, the report said, adding that Kolaya separately called POs to the office of Government Degree College for Boys, Daska's principal. There, Kolaya instructed POs to slow down the voting process and not to interfere in the matters of police and the district administration.
"These disclosed facts convincingly take us to the point that [the] mishap in the by-election not just involves the negligence or maladministration of the POs. It was a preplanned scam that could not be possible without the reinforcement from their controlling departments while they also paved the path for other persons’ involvement in this wicked game," the report said.
The inquiry also found that 17 POs had requested an exemption from by-election duties.
When the requests were scrutinised, "it was surprisingly revealed that handwriting on all TCS (Tranzum Courier Service) envelopes [containing the requests] was same that created further doubts".
Later, TCS confirmed that the requests were sent on the same day from three different TCS centres in Sialkot, which meant "that those requests were managed by someone sitting in Sialkot who deliberately acted to hamper the by-election process and managed to induct his/their own blue-eyed ones", the report said.
"In light of the afore-described facts, it can be conclusively determined that the activities of POs were suspicious, they became puppets in the hands of their controlling authority and even the replies submitted by them in response to the allegations of this maligned act were completely stereotyped and deceptive," it concluded. "Hence, the role of presiding officers carries an obvious proportion in the whole conspiracy that [made] the by-election a dead duck."
With respect to the role of police, the report stated that the statements of POs, SAPOs, naib qasids, drivers and police personnel revealed that relevant station house officers and sub-sector in-charges did not perform their duties in the requisite manner.
In fact, "they played their ... role in manipulating the whole by-election process," it said.
On the election day, the report added, police personnel kept on moving within their jurisdiction and often entered the premises of the polling stations and met polling staff, though it was not their ambit.
Hence, "they committed a breach of their designated duty," the report concluded. "Instead of taking care of polling staff and arranging their safe transport to [the] office of the RO (returning officer) in time, they kept their eyes close[d] and became the part of illegal transportation of POs to some suspicious place at Sialkot or elsewhere."
According to the report, policemen's official vehicles "remained involved transporting or escorting some of [the] missing POs to some undesired places from where they, in a form of a convoy, went to [the] office of the Pasrur DSP and then to Sialkot".
"The DSP Daska was constantly in touch with them and he called every in-charge from his mobile, landline and also directed them through wireless calls but they paid no heed to his calls [...] After the close of [the] poll, either they went to their police stations or their homes for rest and they were least interested in the [recovery of] 20 missing POs from their jurisdiction."
About the RO and the district returning officer, the report said both of them also failed to play their designated roles "with due responsibility and dedication".
"They shifted their due responsibilities on the shoulders of staff to perform various election-related tasks," it said. The report added that illegal activities "were going on under their nose but neither they were aware of that nor they took any notice of it despite their vast experience".
It further highlighted the role of the education department in the disappearance of the POs and that of education department officers in "jeopardising the fair, free and transparent by-election".
It was recommended in the report that SAPOs be made bound to remain with POs from the time of collecting election material from the RO's office a day before the election and till the time of returning the material at the office after the election.
The report said that ROs may also maintain a log of vehicles used for transporting POs, as well as details such as the number of persons travelling in each vehicle and their time of arrival and departure.
And "a tracking chip in the form of a disposable bracelet bearing a unique number may be provided to PO, so as to know about his/her location and to avoid such incidents in future," it added.
In relevance to this particular case, the rechecking of the polling record of some of the POs and SAPOs was also recommended.
It was recommended in the report the RO and DRO may not be posted at any administrative post and kept away from activities pertaining to elections.
It has been further suggested that standard operating procedures be devised so as to ensure that only naib qasids were deputed with POs at polling stations and no private person was engaged for the said purpose.