A test case

Published November 15, 2022

THE trial of Rao Anwar for the murder of Naqeebullah Mehsud is a test case. It will determine whether the criminal justice system has the will to hold accountable a top police official — now retired — whose terrifying reputation as an ‘encounter specialist’ long preceded this particular killing and yet who managed to thrive professionally. The former SSP was accused of the extrajudicial murder of Naqeebullah and three other detainees in Karachi in January 2018. While the police had initially put out the predictable story of a shootout with four ‘terrorists’ which had resulted in their deaths, it later emerged that one of the men was a missing person while Naqeebullah himself was no militant but an aspiring model. His murder sparked outrage on social media and led to countrywide protests by civil society. When an inquiry implicated him in the crime, Rao Anwar was suspended but kid glove treatment of the well-connected cop continued regardless. He remained on the lam for two months, and nearly managed to make a getaway from the country with the help of powerful patrons; after he was finally arrested in Islamabad, he was brought to Karachi and detained in a house in Malir cantonment which was later declared a sub-jail. It took a year before the police officer was indicted along with 17 others for Naqeebullah’s murder, and the trial only began last month. Rao Anwar has now submitted a statement in court claiming innocence and alleging that the case was rooted in departmental rivalry with other police officers.

The insouciant demeanour of the accused each time he has appeared in court is striking, as is the deference accorded to him by the law-enforcement officials accompanying him. It suggests that Rao Anwar is confident that the trial is but a trivial and temporary inconvenience in his prospects of a comfortable retirement — accounts about his alleged involvement in a number of criminal rackets in the Malir district, such as land grabbing and sand mining, are legion. However, forensics appear to have clearly established his presence on the scene of the crime, and the grotesque precedent to Naqeebullah’s slaying should be material to the prosecution. According to the police’s own records, at least 444 people were killed in ‘police encounters’ between 2011 and 2018 on Rao Anwar’s watch — without a single injury to any cop, or any inquiry into this macabre ‘feat’. It is high time to put an end to such impunity.

Published in Dawn, November 15th, 2022

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