Justice and politics

Published January 21, 2024
The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

AFTER a lengthy trial in an anti-terrorism court, followed by the rejection of appeals from superior courts, the killers of Sarfraz Shah, who was shot by paramilitary forces in 2011, finally appealed to the president of Pakistan for a pardon under Article 45 of the Constitution. When the President’s House denied their appeal in 2018, it was a significant step towards restoring the confidence of ordinary citizens in the existing justice system. In a similar incident in 2020, the arrest of a Frontier Corps soldier for the killing of a university student in Turbat, Balochistan, proved to be a significant confidence-building measure between the local populace and the security forces. However, such examples remain rare in Pakistan’s legal and judicial landscape.

Last year, on Jan 23, a dark day unfolded when Rao Anwar, a police officer accused of killing over 400 people in fake encounters, was acquitted in the high-profile Naqibullah murder case. This case had significantly impacted the political landscape of Pakhtun-dominated regions, and the army chief at that time had personally assured justice for the victim’s family. Adding to the irony, the Sitara-i-Shujaat was awarded to a police officer from Punjab who was implicated in the Sahiwal tragedy. This tragedy occurred in January 2019, when the Counter Terrorism Department mistakenly killed a family travelling to a wedding ceremony, suspecting them of being terrorists. The court eventually acquitted all the accused officials.

A lot has been written on these four cases from the legal and human rights perspective, but academic curiosity has no limits. These cases expose the power dynamics of how power corrupts officials in law-enforcement agencies (LEAs), how low-ranking and high-ranking officials alike misuse their authority, and how the system protects them.

Sarfraz Shah’s case is a rare example of justice done. Perhaps the reason was that the culprits had little defence. Sarfaraz, a 22-year-old man who went out for a walk in a public park in Karachi, was killed by Rangers, and a camera captured the entire scene. This began an era of social media activism and vigilant citizenry. Civil society played a vital role in bringing justice to the victim’s family.

Rights movements can evolve into political forces when justice is denied or delayed.

The killing of university student Hayat Baloch in Turbat, amidst volatile security and rising political grievances in Makran, sparked the birth of the Haq Do Tehreek in Gwadar. Security forces took a different approach in this case, arresting a Frontier Corps soldier. A wise move, this arrest proved a major confidence-building measure and prompted a dialogue between security leaders and communities, particularly youth. This led to administrative changes, including relaxed security checks and expanded border markets along the Iran border. However, the initiative faltered as local grievances resurfaced, fuelled by the provincial counterterrorism department’s excessive resort to extrajudicial practices. This further accentuates the ongoing sit-in camp for missing persons in Islamabad, led by courageous Baloch women.

The lower ranks are often scapegoats in police brutality cases, and are sacrificed by LEAs to appease public anger while maintaining their impunity. This pattern persists despite high-profile incidents such as the killings of Sarfraz Shah and Hayat Baloch, demonstrating the lack of accountability within law enforcement.

Across Pakistan, reports of LEAs indiscriminately killing innocent civilians surface regularly — from Karachi to Islamabad and from Gwa­­dar to Quetta. This entrenched culture of violence is enabled by the flawed political, social and justice systems, which continue to support figures like Rao Anwar and the late Chaudhry Aslam, notorious for their extrajudicial practices.

Ironically, LEAs justify such unlawful actions and demand both immunity and rewards. Even when caught, legal loopholes and judicial leniency, as seen in the Sahiwal tragedy, often shield them from consequences. The anti-terrorism narrative conveniently allows LEAs to sweep these incidents under the rug, with no real accountability within the civilian, security and judicial systems. An audit of recent ‘police encounters’ would likely expose a staggering number of injustices, a fact the system is unwilling to confront.

If the state institutions had been vigilant enough, they would have recognised the advantage of engaging with the families of missing persons from Balochistan who are protesting in Islamabad. A dialogue with them would have been more effective, but the institutions fear that the issue of the missing persons is complicated and could damage their reputation. Apparently, not only the state institutions but also political parties are convinced that publicly sympathising with these families will come at a cost, and they are deliberately trying to distance themselves from the protesters. The mainstream parties, betting on the establishment’s support in the upcoming election, and even Baloch nationalist parties, are reluctant to extend their full support to the victims’ families.

State institutions’ reluctance to engage with Baloch families and their counterproductive tactic of establishing ‘victims of terrorism’ camps nearby are backfiring. Though the Baloch missing persons’ movement initially focused solely on the rule of law, state institutions, political parties, and their media allies have framed it as a potential PTM-like threat in Balochistan. This narrative threatens not only the status quo, but also Baloch nationalist parties who have not adapted to the changing aspirations of Baloch society.

The Haq Do Tehreek’s political foothold in Gwadar demonstrates that rights movements can evolve into political forces when justice is denied or delayed. This transformation is not a choice but a necessity; they recognise that power responds to power, and political participation becomes the path to achieving their goals.

The rights movements challenging the status quo and demanding transparency in actions of state institutions have often faced a harsh response. Instead of engaging in dialogue and addressing concerns, state institutions have opted for coercive measures, pushing the movements towards more confrontational tactics. A charged protest atmosphere can create the perfect environment for law enforcement to abuse their power. The judiciary alone can prevent LEAs from exploiting the ambiguity inherent in such confrontational situations.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, January 21st, 2024

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