Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


Murders most foul

May 25, 2011


WHILE the establishment of the Kakar Tribunal to probe the killing of five unarmed Chechens in Quetta is to be welcomed, the move does not obviate the need for effective and comprehensive measures to check the spate of extra-legal killings across the country.

The Quetta incident has caused nationwide outrage because the details of the victims’ brutal extermination quickly became known and the official account was too palpably concocted to be taken seriously. Who can say that the persons whose bodies have been found at various places in Balochistan over the past many days were not equally mercilessly bludgeoned! What we are witnessing in Balochistan is the worst and the most dangerous form of extra-legal killing this country has known.

The view that a substantial number of the cases in which bullet-ridden and mutilated corpses have been found in Balochistan fall in the category of extra-judicial killings is not ill-founded. Quite a few of the victims had earlier been reported to have involuntarily disappeared. Many of them were known to be active dissidents or advocates of nationalist causes. Some of them had rubbed the law-enforcement personnel on the wrong side and turned them vengeful. In some cases, the victims’ abductors had been identified as members of one security agency or another.

Besides, the government’s failure to punish any killer or even to pursue the killers seriously arouses suspicions of complicity. Thus, it is fair to demand that all instances of abandoned corpses, especially those bearing marks of excessive violence, should be presumed to be cases of extra-legal killings unless proved otherwise, instead of expecting the generally resourceless victim families to run the hazard of challenging the all-powerful masters of the land.

In a way, the spree of extra-legal killings in Balochistan is an extension of the perverse practice that has spread in other provinces, especially Punjab over the past several decades. Before the world fell for the scheme of countering terrorism with more devastating forms of terrorism, extra-legal killings were disposed of as deaths in police encounters. And the practice continues.

Last year, 338 men were killed in so-called police encounters, according to HRCP. In about 35 per cent of the cases, the story was that the suspects/victims opened fire on the police and were killed when the latter returned fire. That in some cases an exchange of fire did take place is confirmed by the casualties suffered by the police — eight officers and 22 constables. But that does not mean that all the encounters were genuine. The fact that in these encounters 28 ‘suspects’ were injured and captured alive shows that it is not impossible to get hold of the wanted men if the tendency to open fire as the first resort can be curbed.

There is reason to believe that the annual tally of extra-legal killings in the country exceeds the number reported in the media and quoted by human rights organisations. For instance, HRCP recorded, on the basis of media reports, 226 encounter killings in 2009 — 181 in Punjab , 31 in Sindh, 13 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and one in Balochistan. The chief of the Punjab police, however, declared that 253 criminals had been killed in 208 encounters in his province alone.

The size of the problem can also be judged from a 2005 Punjab police report to the federal authority which said 2,246 ‘suspects’ had been killed during 1990-2005 (mid-August) giving an average figure of 150 killings per year. According to this report, 1998 was the worst year for encounter killings — 413 killings in 417 encounters. These figures could be challenged because, according to HRCP, the year 1999 was even worse — 527 killings in 350 incidents.

A number of factors have contributed to the failure of efforts aimed at checking extra-legal killings. First, and most important, is the fact that such killings have enjoyed the blessing, overt or covert, of government leaders. Kalabagh, who is generally accepted as the first Pakistani ruler to have authorised the police to kill criminals, was certainly not the last man to do so. He has had quite a few successors who have kept the practice alive.

Secondly, some police officers have justified the killing of their victims either in view of the heinous nature of their crimes or their lack of confidence in the judicial system.

Thirdly, the facility with which it has been possible to get away with extra-legal killings has emboldened the corrupt officials to offer their services for hire. Fourthly, the system of judicial inquiries into police encounters or deaths in custody has collapsed. Either no inquiry is held or the task is perfunctorily disposed of by junior magistrates or the victim families succumb to police pressure and choose to remain quiet.

While the situation caused by police encounters was bad enough it has been made far worse by the war on terror. Once a person is branded a terrorist, he loses all his rights — including the right to life. In this environment, killing of ‘terrorists’ is easily justified without any attempt to prove that the victims had deserved the description.

Further, the authorities have done little to sensitise law-enforcement personnel to laws, conventions and practices designed to prevent extra-legal killings. Even senior police and security officials do not seem to be clear about the definition of extra-legal killing and often do not know that acquiescence into or condonation of extra-legal killing is as culpable as their killing someone by their own hands.

Above all, the government does not seem to realise that the continuance of extra-legal killings is not only a stigma it cannot live with, it is alienating the people from the state and undermining the state institutions’ and functionaries’ capacity to defend the people’s most fundamental rights.

There is an obvious need to devise a two-pronged strategy to stop extra-legal killings. On the one hand, the manuals for the training of law-enforcement agencies must include directions and methods of avoiding extra-legal killing. Each incident that looks like extra-legal killing must be registered as high crime and examples made of some high-placed offenders. And, on the other hand, the senior officials in all law-enforcement agencies should start punishing their offending subordinates instead of defending them.

What precise shape a meaningful campaign against murders by security personnel should take requires detailed probing. It is to be hoped the Kakar Tribunal will pave the way for the formation of a multi-member joint commission of superior court judges and members of civil society to analyse the various patterns of extra-legal killing in the country and devise effective remedies.