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Friday Jan 26 2018

When the state encourages 'fake encounters'

Malir SSP Rao Anwar. Photo: File 

It was 1993 when, in a meeting held at a famous 'house' in Karachi's Clifton area (not Bilawal House) chaired by former interior minister Lt Gen (retd) Naseerullah Babar and attended by senior police and intelligence agencies' officials, a decision was taken to kill militants extra-judicially. The only person who opposed the policy was ex-IGP Afzal Shigri, who paid the price and got transferred. It seems as if this policy has not yet been abandoned.

Due to the outcry on social media, the recent case of Naqeebullah Mehsud became a national issue and landed 'encounter specialist' Rao Anwar in hot water.

The inside story of the making of Rao Anwar and others reveals that they always enjoyed 'official' backing from both political and non-political forces. Successive governments followed the 1993 policy in future operations, particularly in Karachi.

Unimpeachable sources aware of those developments reveal that Rao Anwar and dozens of well-known police officers are the product of the said policy. Many police officers were also killed in the last two decades by the militants. Departmental inquiries looked like 'patchwork', bearing no results.

When I contacted Shigri, he confirmed that he opposed extrajudicial killings and told Babar that he cannot be a party to it. "It has always been my considered opinion even when I was an SP in Peshawar," he said.

Babar was of the view that when terrorists kill innocent people, they should also be killed. "In extraordinary situations, you adopt such policies the world over," sources quote the late interior minister as saying.

Shigri did not agree and insisted on speedy trials and an improvement in the criminal justice system. Some other officers suggested that in case any police officer kills an innocent person, he should face murder trial and the appropriate punishment. Shigri was later replaced and transferred from Sindh, as he did not endorse the policy.

Sources said that, following this policy, a strong message was communicated to militant wings and their political faces. "If they kill one police officer, two of their militants in custody would be killed in similar fashion". A team of police officers was also constituted for the job.

Those who defended extrajudicial killings were of the view that it gave positive results in Karachi, but admitted that many innocent political workers were also killed.

One of the main reasons why extrajudicial killings became the order of the day since 1993 was the lust to get 'reward money'. It would be worth finding as to how different police officers received 'rewards' for such 'encounters' in the last so many years.

Since Chief Justice of Pakistan Justice Saqib Nisar has taken suo motu notice in the Naqeebullah Mehsud case, he should also seek records of hundreds of such encounters, or at least of the ones that took place during the ongoing Karachi Operation.

Former chief justice of the Sindh High Court, Justice Nasir Aslam Zahid, during his tenure passed a number of rulings on 'fake encounters' and, at times, even asked the government not to post such officers in Sindh again. However, his rulings were ignored.

The 1993 policy produced 'encounter specialists' like Rao Anwar, Bahadur Ali, Chaudhry Aslam, Fahim Commando, Irfan Bahadur, Sarwar Commando, and dozens of others. They were not only 'rewarded' with huge prize money and promotions, but even branded as 'national heroes'.

Naseerullah Babar's operation may be regarded as among the best as it led to the killing of many alleged MQM militants who became the 'face of terror' in the city. But when he decided to open the 'accounts' of other militant groups — like the PPP (Shaheed Bhutto), Lyari gangs, and other — he was asked to 'go slow'.

In the official list, groups that had militant wings also included names of Sindhi nationalists, members of Jamaat-e-Islami's student wing and the Awami National Party (ANP), besides sectarian and global terrorist networks.

Sources said that, at one point, Babar decided to disarm Mir Murtaza Bhutto's guards and the PPP (SB), including those who had the past record of Al-Zulfiqar. He decided to raid 70 Clifton — Bhutto's Clifton residence — after an intelligence report suggested the presence of a huge quantity of arms. However, he was stopped.

The incident of Murtaza Bhutto's 'fake encounter' on Sept 20, 1996 was the ultimate fallout of extrajudicial killings. The most amazing part was the conclusion of the case: Not only were all police officers acquitted, but all the alleged PPP (SB) militants — against whom cases were registered for firing on police during the encounter — were also acquitted.

In the last 27 years, the police have been involved in several hundred encounters. Some of these could be genuine, but others were definitely fake. Fingers have also been pointed at other law enforcement agencies as well.

In many cases, the Pakistan Penal Code's clauses of 'self-defence' are used very often. If one goes through many 'departmental inquiries', police officers involved in encounters often get the benefit of doubt.

One senior police officer involved in many such investigations believes that if an independent and thorough investigation is conducted on each encounter, and in case one turns out to be 'fake', those responsible be put on trial. This could improve the situation and overcome 'fake encounters'.

Secondly, he says, the concept of head money or rewards should be reviewed. He says that reward for seeking information on a suspect or terrorist is one thing, but giving rewards for the arrest of a suspect or accused should be linked to the final conviction.

He also suggested that the judiciary, particularly the anti-terrorism court— instead of dealing with 50 or 60 cases in a day — should deal with eight to ten cases and dispose of each within 15 days. Neither side should be given more than one or two adjournments particularly in cases of terrorism, he recommends.

"In 1992, when the Tando Bahawal incident came up in which nine innocent villagers were killed in a fake encounter, the then-army chief Gen Asif Nawaz ordered the primary accused Major Arshad's court martial and he was hanged," he said.

Unfortunately, it was a rare example and, during the last two decades, there was hardly a case in which the policy of fake encounters was discouraged. He added that the judiciary also has a crucial role to play.

In many cases, police or law enforcement agencies did not even have criminal records of suspects they killed and the terms used in such cases are 'accomplices' or members of this gang or the other.

If in the 1980s, every second PPP worker and leader became a member of Al-Zulfiqar, in the 90s every second MQM leader and worker became an MQM militant. After 9/11, every second Afghan or Arab became Taliban or al-Qaeda. The same pattern has been followed in the cases of Baloch or Sindhi nationalists.

Many experts who have dealt with such operations consider this policy flawed and have proposed a serious review if we really want to prevent incidents like Naqeebullah Mehsud. Because every Mehsud is not a terrorist.

Irrespective of the merit in Naqeebullah Mehsud's case, it is time for a serious review of the policy of giving clean chits to fake encounters. It is time to differentiate between a 'target-killer' and an 'extrajudicial killer', which can only be possible if we stop fake encounters.

The writer is a senior columnist and analyst of GEO, The News, and Jang

Twitter: @MazharAbbasGEO

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Geo News or the Jang Group.


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