On June 8, 2014, Muhammad Ashraf and Omar Farooq, both in their 30s, landed at Allama Iqbal International Airport, Lahore, from Abu Dhabi at around 3:30am, returning after two years of hard work in Saudi Arabia. They were set for their hometown Chak Shafi Abad in Shorkot, central Punjab, on a private car with their two relatives and driver.
As soon as their car touched Ring Road, a route made to make the city exits more accessible, a car with the official blue light and number plate with five men in police uniform stopped them.
“One of them with a torch in his right hand waved at us meaning that we should stop. As soon as we stopped, they asked to search the car, while his other aides took out guns asking to put our hands up,” recalls Omar Farooq, talking to TNS. “We thought they were police but they were robbers in disguise who took away all our luggage and valuables leaving us helpless.”
Ashraf and Farooq lost valuables worth more than two million rupees including Saudi Riyals, gold, mobile phones and laptops. Ashraf had 60,000 Saudi Riyals on him but despite a long protest and calling the media to their help, the police mentioned only 6,000 Riyals in its official report.
According to media reports, for that very day, in the next 15 minutes, the robbers had stopped two other vehicles and repeated the act.
This was not the first time that armed men dressed as cops had robbed expatriates of large amounts of cash and valuables on Ring Road or, for that matter, other parts of the provincial metropolis.
A few months ago, the Lahore Police unearthed a gang of five Baloch from Karachi who had looted expatriates the same way. “The gang arrested in the end of 2013 had carried out dozens of such robberies,” says Omer Riaz Cheema, Superintendent Police, working as senior Criminal Record Officer (CRO) in the city who traced this network.
Cheema further says, “There have been at least 100 robberies of this kind in the past two years. The gang had looted the people on Ring Road, Canal Road and Grand Trunk Road.
He says the gang had also observed that a lot of expatriates have the habit of carrying a lot of cash and valuables with them.
“The gang, with Baloch ethnicity, had also been active in Karachi for a long time. They were smart and operating on a large scale at different airports in varied groups,” he says.
According to Cheema, the gang knew the routine of international flights and the seasons in which expatriates mostly return. They had rented small houses nearby for a short period and used fake official number plates and uniforms as modus operandi. One of them was running a rent-a-car service at Lahore airport for a while.
Cheema says such gangs were difficult to trace because of inter provincial coordination hiccups and lack of finances. On the other hand, such groups are very strong and operating systematically with the large sums of money they robbed. They have expensive lawyers and a lobby helping them in the courts. One of the booked is out of jail now, according to police information.
The SP also urges people to be cautious and careful while leaving airports. “Now we have set up counters at airports making announcements that if somebody has big cash or valuables he should inform the police at the desk. Police are bound to help them and the amount would also be noticed this way,” he maintains.
In November 2011, a Kuwait-returned family, deprived of foreign currency and jewellery by robbers in police uniform, lodged a strong protest against police. They alleged that some policemen standing nearby for Eid security did not react to the robbery call and actually stopped the victims from making an emergency call for at least 15 minutes. The ‘policemen’ carrying rifles and wireless sets came outside and asked the woman sitting in the car to get her passport and luggage checked and then took away all things with them.
Cheema does not deny the possibility of the involvement of low ranking officials in some incidents.
A similar group was nabbed early this year who looted many overseas Pakistanis and their families at gunpoint. According to reports, Constables Muhammad Adeel, Muhammad Kaleem, and Ali Akbar were arrested by Shahdara Town police on April 8, 2014. They committed most of the robberies at Ring Road and in Shera Kot and Darogawala areas while chasing the passengers from the airport parking area. Most of the robberies occurred at early mornings.
“We returned empty handed to our homes and there is no progress in investigations for the past two months,” says Farooq. “We saw our hard earned money looted in one go in our own country.”
The looted expatriates over the past few weeks obviously think of Pakistan as unsafe and regret coming back. “What can you do when the protector becomes the looter?” he asks.
Though 40 kilometres long, Lahore Ring Road is primarily developed to facilitate people leaving the city but it lacks supervision and effective patrolling with toothless authority to nab criminals.
Patrolling on the Ring Road was started in 2013. Currently, it has at least 300 patrolling officers with 40 vehicles. They are taken from the police group, says a police official. The main purpose of the authority is to prevent over-speeding and keep an eye on suspicious activities.
The official further says they are not given ammunition and are not authorised to respond to crime. “For crime reporting, they have to call the city police,” he says.
“The issue has been brought up at various high-level meetings to provide trained force with authority to respond to crime but nothing has come of it yet.”
Quoting some high-ups, the official says the answer usually is that most of the force is busy with security measures in the wake of terrorism.
Ring Road, according to some reports, generates revenue of almost 1.5 million rupees every day from the toll tax. Most of the crime happens around the interchanges near the airport.