Anwar Soomro, 45, an electric-winding shop owner in Karachi’s Sachal Goth area, looks devastated as he narrates the story of his 18-year-old son’s arrest and death in an alleged police encounter a month ago.
“He had just passed his matriculation and came to Karachi to assist me in running this shop. But they killed him leaving my family traumatised,” says Soomro.
Anees Rehman alias Azhar Soomro, 18, was killed along with three other suspects in a police encounter in the nearby Sohrab Goth area on June 22, 2014.
According to the family, the police declared the dead as Taliban terrorists. It further says Anees was arrested by police of Sachal Police Station on the evening of June 14 while coming to his father’s shop along with two friends on a motor bike.
The two other friends, allegedly released after paying bribes, say while talking to TNS they can testify informally to confirm that he was arrested a week before the alleged encounter took place but that they would not take risk of appearing before a court or any official inquiry as witnesses.
Anwar Soomro reached the Sachal Police Station within two hours of his son’s arrest and stayed there till 10.30pm, only to see his son being beaten up by the policemen. “They told me that they have recovered a pistol and ‘snatched phone sets’ from my son.”
The next day when he again went to the police station, he was asked to arrange Rs500,000 for the release of all three boys. “I contacted the parents of two other boys who refused to contribute saying they have ‘sources’ and will manage the release of their sons and I should only care about my son,” claims Soomro.
Almost a week passed during which Soomro negotiated with the police on the understanding that it would not include his name in any FIR and would let him go as soon as he was able to arrange the money.
As per Anwar Soomro’s account, on June 18, when he had arranged the bribe money and went to the police station along with a friend, he was asked to wait for an hour and offered a glass of juice. Then the SHO called him to his office and told him that his son was not with them.
“Before I could argue with them on the whereabouts of my son, the SHO slapped me and I was thrown out of the police station.”
This was the time that the family realised the gravity of the situation. It filed a petition with the District and Sessions Judge Malir the very next day under Section 491 CrPC (habeas corpus) seeking court intervention for the recovery of Anees.
A court bailiff visited the police station the next day but could not find Anees. In a written statement submitted in the court on June 20, the police denied ever having arrested him. However, the court asked the SHO and duty officer to appear before the court along with all relevant record on June 25, the next hearing date of the petition.
“We pinned all our hopes in the court and were waiting to see our son return to us but we got the sad news of his killing in an alleged encounter as a Taliban terrorist in the Sohrab Goth area,” says Anwar Soomro.
Profile of the victim, including his pictures with family, suggests that he might have been an active member of a nationalist political party of Sindh. In one picture, he is shown lighting candles at a protest vigil outside the Karachi Press Club against attacks on temples. In another picture, he was shown sitting in a hunger strike camp put up by Baloch Student Organisation (BSO)-Azad outside KPC.
Father Soomro says he has filed a petition in the Sindh High Court for registration of a murder case against the SHO Sachal Police Station and will continue with his quest for justice.
Unfortunately, this is not a case of single person killed in police encounter in Karachi. According to police’s own statistics, 406 alleged criminals have been killed in encounters in Karachi during the last 10 months after an operation was launched in September last year. The latest statistics released by the police indicate that 49 alleged criminals were killed in the first 20 days of Ramzan alone.
Police claim that those killed in encounters were criminals involved in terrorism, kidnapping, extortion and other such activities, and were murdered when they challenged the police. However, except in a few cases, the police personnel have remained unhurt in the 1613 gun battles with criminals.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) dispatched a fact finding mission to Karachi from July 17-20 July. It says it has been receiving a number of complaints regarding extrajudicial executions and torture in custody. “We have received several dozen of complaints and we will send these to relevant authorities for redressal,” says Karacho-based Asad Iqbal Butt, one of the members of the HRCP mission.
Inspector Atique Shaikh, a spokesperson for Karachi police, claims that all the police encounters held during the last ten months’ operation were genuine. “There are a few cases where tortured bodies were found, and such cases are under investigation,” he says while talking to TNS. “No results of such inquiries are yet available to be shared with the media.”
In his view, no sensible police official would risk staging a fake encounter because if the allegations are proved, he would face murder charges. “Trust me, the current team of police officials posted in Karachi are very honest, and would not tolerate abuse of power by their subordinates.”
Police claims of these being genuine encounters, and the counter claims by families aside, the death of such a huge number of people amounts to violation of human rights as per all national and international standards. These killings have taken place without any credible monitoring mechanism to independently verify the authenticity of these so-called encounters.
Ironically, the PPP government in Sindh, which has been rather quick in the formation of commissions and inquiries on minor issues, did not bother to appoint even a magistrate to look into these killings, leave alone a high level inquiry headed by a judge of high court.
The HRCP report says that public perception of political parties’ selfish pursuits, their lack of interest in ending disappearances and deaths in custody is resulting in a pervasive feeling of helplessness and hopelessness alienating people from democracy and politics.
Security experts believe the huge figures of deaths of alleged criminals in police encounters are a clear indication of strategy change on the part of law enforcement agencies. “It seems the police has decided to finish off criminals in encounters as it is not satisfied with the conviction rate,” commented a senior security expert, requesting anonymity. “Karachi’s crime rate was so high that even people started to accept this strategy.”
However, given his experience, he thinks the strategy would be counterproductive as already indicated from the high rate of crimes which have not shown any significant decline despite the frequent police encounters during the targeted operation.
“It seems the police is eliminating criminals and not crimes; this could only bring ad-hoc relief but is not the solution of lawlessness in a city like Karachi,” he says.
“Everybody is concerned about the law and order situation but nobody wants to see Karachi turning into a police state,” says Advocate and human rights activist Tahir Iqbal. “It’s ironic that the operation is taking place without any independent oversight.”
Undoubtedly, Karachi is a classic example of a lawless city with several groups involved in violence to fulfil their vested interest; the citizens would support any action taken by authorities to transform the city into a rule of law territory. However, this must not be at the cost of human rights violation and summary executions.
Before more persons fall victims to ‘encounters’, the government must act and form an independent commission to investigate the details behind the killings so far, and deal with future complaints. This task can rightly be handed over to the official Sindh Human Rights Commission.