KARACHI: In a ruling that was roundly criticised, an anti-terrorism court on Monday acquitted former Malir SSP Rao Anwar and his 17 subordinates over the infamous encounter that left Naqeebullah Mehsud and three others dead five years ago, citing “lack of evidence to prove their presence at the crime scene”.

“I am of the considered view that the prosecution since has failed to bring home guilt of the accused beyond any reasonable doubt and for giving benefit of doubt to an accused it is not necessary that there should be many circumstances creating doubt. One single circumstance leading towards the real doubt is sufficient to acquit the accused. I, therefore, extend benefit of doubt to accused,” concluded the judge in the 43-page judgement released late in the night.

The judge gave his ruling after declaring that all the four citizens had been killed “extrajudicially in a fake police encounter”.

The 2018 killing of Naqeebullah, a 27-year-old aspiring model from South Waziristan residing in Karachi, had shocked the nation as social media was stormed with public outcry and there were countrywide protests by civil society against the state’s failure to arrest the former SSP, the prime suspect, and his team.

Ruling says accused’s presence at site of ‘fake shootout’ not proved; verdict set to be challenged

In April 2018, the then army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa met Naqeeb’s father at his residence and offered condolences, assuring him that the army would support all efforts aimed at getting him justice.

The ATC XVI judge, who conducted the trial at the judicial complex inside the central prison, pronounced the verdict which was reserved on Jan 14 at the conclusion of the proceedings.

The judge ruled that since the trial court had al­ready declared the enc­ounter — in which the four victims were killed by dubbing them as militants linked to the militant Islamic State group and Taliban — as ‘fake and false’ in January 2020, therefore, “this fact will remain intact” as no one had challenged it, counsel for the accused and the complainant quoted the judge as saying in his short order.

However, the judge obs­erved, the call data record and geo-fencing analysis of the mobile phones of Rao Anwar and other accused had failed to prove their “presence at the place of fake shootout”, added the counsel.

Secondly, the judge ruled, the charge of four victims’ kidnapping before the murder had also become “doubtful since there were major contradictions in the testimonies of the witnesses” — of them two were captives themselves while seven other were police officials who had retracted their initial testimonies against Rao Anwar and others.

Citing these reasons, the judge acquitted them all, said the counsel.

Still at large

However, the encounter case against seven police officials, who are still at large and have been declared proclaimed offenders, was kept dormant by the court till their arrest or surrender.

Both the counsel said it was up to the court to decide as to who had carried out the fake encounter after the absconding cops were arrested and tried.

Since Naqeeb’s father, Muhammad Khan, passed away in December 2019 of cancer, his second son Sher Alam became complainant.

During Monday’s hearing, Rao Anwar, who among other policemen was present in the courtroom, appeared confident.

Apparently looking unwell, the former SSP while talking to media said the verdict had proved all the allegations against him and his 24 subordinates to be false though efforts had been made to implicate them, especially him.

“The allegations against me of having killed 444 people in such encounters have all proved wrong as well,” he claimed in response to a question regarding the petition filed by civil society jointly with Naqeeb’s father with the Supreme Court in February 2019 seeking impartial inquiry into those shootouts.

‘Dishonest probe’

Rao Anwar’s counsel Amir Mansoob Qureshi alleged that investigating officers — SSP Abid Qaimkhani and SSP Dr Rizwan Ahmed — had “dishonestly” investigated the case and “tempered with the evidence”.

He said some senior Sindh police officers, who were part of the inquiry committee and a joint investigation team, had tried to implicate his client in the “false case on the basis of departmental enmity”.

Jubilant colleagues escorting Rao Anwar’s bullet-proof vehicle flashed victory signs, while one official brought a bouquet for him.

Reacting to the verdict, lawyer and human rights activist Jibran Nasir tweeted: “Today’s judgment will be appealed before the Honorable High Court by the legal heirs of Naqeeb Mehsud. A travesty of justice but not a surprise in a system where every institution is rotting away like a dead body”.

The then chief justice of Pakistan, Mian Saqib Nisar, had taken suo motu of the incident and twice offered prime suspect Rao Anwar to surrender. The former SSP, after eluding the law enforcement agencies for some three months, surrendered to the Supreme Court in March 2018.

Sindh police then kept him in a house in Malir Cantonment, which was later declared a sub-jail until he was released on bail in July 2018.

Published in Dawn, January 24th, 2023

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