EVEN by the abysmal standards of our broken legal system, the acquittal of former SSP Rao Anwar and his 17 subordinates in the murder of Naqeebullah Mehsud and three others is a travesty. It eviscerates the very concept of justice. What clearer manifestation can there be of the rot within our system than a controversial cop with connections in high places walking free, despite having boasted of his exploits as an ‘encounter specialist’? For many cynical observers, Monday’s verdict by an ATC in Karachi was a foregone conclusion. After all, the hidden hands of the state had extended every facility to Rao Anwar when, after mounting public pressure, an arrest warrant was issued for him a few days after Naqeebullah’s murder. After making an appearance at a court in Karachi, the police official went underground and managed to successfully ‘elude’ law enforcement across the country for the next several weeks. This, despite repeatedly contacting reporters on WhatsApp and, with the help of unknown individuals, making a failed attempt to flee abroad from Islamabad.
Even after he was arrested, Rao Anwar enjoyed kid glove treatment. He barely spent a few days in prison; instead, the Sindh government declared his residence in Karachi a sub-jail. Meanwhile, his trial progressed at a glacial pace, giving ample time for witnesses to be intimidated; several retracted their statements, some went ‘missing’. Ultimately, even compelling forensic evidence was not enough to convict him. The protocol that accompanied Rao Anwar to court, the deference shown to him by law-enforcement officials present there, as well as the insouciance with which he conducted himself, suggested that being on trial for multiple homicide was merely a temporary inconvenience. Between 2011 and 2018, at least 444 people were killed in ‘encounters’ led by the former SSP, according to the police’s own records; not a single cop was even injured. And yet no inquiry was ever carried out against him: Rao Anwar was above the law long before Naqeebullah’s cold-blooded murder. Staged encounters are abhorrent in the extreme: acting as judge, jury and executioner further brutalises an already corrupt police force. Any ‘police encounter’ must be thoroughly investigated and if found to be fake, the perpetrators should be tried and punished for murder. Instead, those who engage in this practice will now be further emboldened.
There are times in a nation’s history where it can redeem itself, and move, if ever so slightly, towards its stated ideals. The outcome of Rao Anwar’s trial was one such moment, but as it happens, the verdict will only deepen people’s disillusionment with the state of the nation. It has been said that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” In Pakistan, sadly, the reverse seems to be true.
Published in Dawn, January 25th, 2023