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Kidnapping — the business booms

November 18, 2012

It’s not just the rich that are at risk of being kidnapped, discovers Imran Ayub

It was in May, 2012, that Muhammad Nadim* experienced his worst nightmare — being kidnapped.  “I was driving home from work when I was intercepted near the Northern Bypass by armed men in a car,” he recalls. “Within seconds, they whisked me into their vehicle, leaving my car abandoned. Before I could react I was blindfolded and being driven away. I was terrified”.

The next morning Nadim came to know that he was ‘somewhere’ in Karachi and his family has been asked to pay Rs10 million for his safe return. An engineer by profession and coming from a humble background, Nadim was home a couple of days later but only after paying Rs1.6 million following a series of phone calls between the kidnappers and his family negotiating the ransom amount; his family never reported the incident to the police.

“After that incident I even changed my job but I am still reeling from the horrific experience. It’s difficult to imagine how we arranged the ransom. I don’t know why middle class people like me, who are not rich, are targeted,” he says.

He is still unaware of the reasons behind his kidnapping, but investigators are not as they see a shift in the target of kidnappers with more than 100 cases already registered over the past 10 months. Kidnappers no longer restrict themselves to rich families; rather they are kidnapping people from the upper to the middle classes and industrialists to salaried employees as well.

“We need to dispel the impression that kidnappers are specifically targeting people from a particular class or profession,” says Ahmed Chinoy, chief of Citizen-Police Liaison Committee (CPLC) — a key body that is recognised and relied upon for handling kidnapping for ransom complaints in coordination with the police and intelligence organisations.

He believes that even people belonging to the middle and lower middle classes are not safe. He does not see any major difference in terms of the number of registered kidnapping incidents between 2011 and 2012 so far. “But considering the crime trend and increasing criminal activities in 2012, we have managed to keep it on the lower side,” adds Chinoy.

His assessment is borne out by the number of reported kidnapping for ransom cases maintained by the police authorities. By the end of September 2012 more than 100 cases had been reported, averaging over 10 a month. It was in October 2012 that the numbers started declining following proactive policing and a number of deadly encounters that killed some suspected kidnappers, leading to safe recovery of the victims.

“By September 2012 the number of reported cases stood at 103,” says SP Niaz Khoso of the Karachi police’s anti-violent crime cell (AVCC) — mandated to probe into heinous crimes from kidnapping for ransom to terrorism. “In October we moved with proactive strategy, enhanced our intelligence coordination and deputed more force towards operation. The month ended with only two reported cases and we recovered half a dozen victims after exchange of gunfire that killed five kidnappers”.

Investigations so far establish that there is no single specific group operating in Karachi as the ‘lucrative business’ has attracted bandits from rural Sindh, banned militant outfits and organised criminal gangs of Karachi to taste the windfall, he says.

“But all operators are local and no foreign individual or group has so far been found to be involved. We have spotted Shikarpur groups that made several attempts and succeeded in a few. In a few cases, the kidnapees were driven to Ranipur in Khairpur district from where they were released after payment of ransom in Karachi,” he says.

He says that no area can be defined as ‘vulnerable or hotspot’ as kidnappers always maintain a level of surprise for their targets and can strike anywhere but definitely keep the victim mainly in the city outskirts.

This year, the AVCC data shows, 54 people got released without paying ransom through police efforts but in 46 other cases the victims’ families paid ransom ranging from a few hundred thousand to a million rupees for the safe return of their loved ones. Despite payment of ransom, the police claim to have pursued those cases and arrested a number of suspects.

Though the recent police efforts in coordination with CPLC are seen as instrumental in capping the number of kidnapping for ransom incidents, experts with experience in dealing with this particular crime believe that there are still many initiatives that need to be implemented to attain the desired results.

“After 9/11 there has been an unprecedented surge in kidnapping for ransom cases and it may continue,” says former CPLC chief Jameel Yusuf, who personally handled dozens of such cases between 1996 and 2003. “I remember when I was at the helm of affairs an efficient response team was in place for that technical job. But that’s not the case now. An important step is to streamline the sale of cell phone connections and equip investigators with modern gadgets to help them trace kidnappers on a fast track basis.”

Unfortunately, the tracking system facility, an effective tool for tracing missing persons, is not available in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) which makes it even more difficult for the police to track kidnapping cases. In KP, where kidnapping for ransom is also a lucrative business wherein several gangs in both settled and tribal areas are involved, women play a significant role as they can extract and disseminate information more easily and the police cannot arrest them without solid proof.

*Name changed for security reasons Additional KP information provided by Ali Hazrat Bacha