It is true that extraordinary situations require extraordinary measures, but can that bring lasting peace and stability? What is the difference between a target killing and a fake encounter, except the uniform? What is the difference between a kidnapping and disappearance, except that one was conducted by a criminal and the other allegedly by law enforcers?
Many cases of disappearance, particularly in Sindh and Balochistan, resulted in appearance of the bodies. Many of those who returned prefer not to talk about it. While Karachi remains the prime target of fake encounters, not much has been reported from the interior Sindh.
One thing is for certain though — all this apparently is the result of a policy: a policy that made police so powerful that some of them made their private force and private jails.
Police officers, like SSP Rao Anwar, are products of this state policy — of extrajudicial killings — which rewarded them in kind and in billions of rupees. Had this money been spent on improving our criminal justice system and police, the situation would have been different today.
The protest over the killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud is justified. But those who are protesting now were silent before. In fact, they have supported fake encounters in the past.
As a journalist, I have covered some real ‘encounters’. I vividly remember the one involving al-Qaeda’s number four, Ramzi bin al-Sheiba, in Karachi’s Defense Phase-II on the eve of the first anniversary of 9/11. He and two others were arrested after almost three hours of cross-fire.
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Another one that is fresh in my mind is the one involving a gang of Iranian Baloch, which lasted about six hours and took place in Nazimabad in the mid-1980s. Some 2,000 people witnessed it. The police fired more bullets in celebration than in actual encounter after killing all the three suspects.
But the ‘real’ encounters have become history in an era of fake encounters and extrajudicial killings.
What happened with Naqeebullah Mehsud and many others like him is a result of a policy adopted at the highest level in 1993 in Karachi. The only dissenting voice heard back then was of former IGP, Afzal Shigri.
Thereon, the state has failed to establish an effective criminal justice system because ‘fake encounters’ have become the order of the day, and an easy way to eliminate alleged terrorists and criminals rather than getting them convicted, as ‘prisons’ too are terrorists’ safe havens.
The ‘real story’ behind mass killings in urban Sindh in the 1980s and 90s —including incidents like Hyderabad massacre and Aligarh Qasba massacre, followed by ‘target killings’ — is still a big mystery for journalists who have covered Karachi. It was 1992, during the first government of former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, when he ordered the then army chief, General Asif Nawaz, to send troops to control Karachi.
General Nawaz, who had the reputation of being an upright soldier and a very disciplined general, wanted ‘across the board’ operation both against dacoits in the interior Sindh and terrorists in urban Sindh. Sources aware of these developments told me that when he submitted the list of 72 ‘big fish’, the prime minister agreed to take action against them but also warned him of possible political backlash. “Finish them and restore peace,” one of the sources quoted Nawaz Sharif as saying in a high level meeting in Karachi attended by General Nawaz.
Gen. Nawaz as Corps Commander Karachi faced criticism when he allowed exchange of hostages between the PPP and MQM student wings.
In May, 1992 the army launched the operation clean-up first in interior Sindh. The army led by Major Arshad killed nine innocent villagers. He claimed they were terrorists and dacoits, and reported that huge weapons had been recovered from them. This marked the first ‘fake encounter’ in Tando Bahawal. A little later, the drive against dacoits and shifted was abandoned, and the operation moved to Karachi on June 19, 1992. The prime minister and Gen. Nawaz visited the site and congratulated the team.
Days later, the Pakistani media and the BBC exposed the encounter and termed it ‘fake’. The News and leading Sindhi newspapers gave a detailed account. General Nawaz ordered investigation and when he got the confirmation that it was a ‘fake’ encounter, he ordered the arrest of Maj. Arshad and suspended the team.
Major Arshad was later court-martialled, found guilty, and sentenced to death. He was hanged.
When the Karachi operation was launched, the army team picked some police officers who had been serving in Karachi for long and knew the ‘ins and outs’ of the alleged militancy by the MQM. Rao Anwar and Chaudhry Aslam were selected as the ‘elite team’. Later, the team was joined by others, like Sarwar Commando, Zeeshan Kazmi, and Irfan Bahadur.
The 1992 operation became controversial because instead of taking action against MQM militants, the police and other agencies were asked to strengthen its rival faction — MQM-Haqiqi. Sources say this led to differences between the two premier agencies — MI and ISI. While MI was in favour of across-the-board action, ISI had political considerations and in a bid to check the MQM’s militancy it allegedly backed its rivals.
The 1994-96 operation, regarded by many as one of the most effective operations, can also be called ‘extrajudicial’. Hundreds of MQM militants as well as many MQM workers who were not involved in criminal activities became the victim.
While this operation broke the backbone of MQM militancy, it made the MQM much stronger as a political entity as it exploited the operation, politically.
When former Interior Minister Lt. General Naseerullah Babar, architect of the Karachi operation and founder of ‘extrajudicial killings’, decided to target the Lyari gang war and militants of al-Zulfiqar, he faced opposition. Former premier Benazir Bhutto was in favour of ‘disarming’ Murtaza Bhutto’s guards and PPP (Shaheed Bhutto) militants. She had warned both Babar and DIG Dr. Shoaib Suddle to be careful in dealing with Murtaza Bhutto. She even told the police to disarm Mir’s guards when Murtaza is not in Karachi.
A well-informed source disclosed that on Sept 20, 1996, a day after Murtaza Bhutto got his closest aide, Ali Sunnara, rescued from the police station, it was allegedly decided to disarm them even if Murtaza tried to resist. It is still a mystery which police team targeted Murtaza, the one which stopped his caravan or the one who were not even posted there.
As compared to the police operation launched in 2013, during which the Rangers had been given extraordinary powers, the number of ‘fake encounters’ or extrajudicial killings had been much less in the 90s. Secondly, this operation was more successful as it was focused and above political considerations. Therefore, it gave better results as, besides MQM militants, it also targeted the Lyari gang and outlawed organisations, including sectarian outfits.
Ironically, no high level judicial commission has ever been constituted to look into the cases of extrajudicial killings or police’s target killings despite repeated demands by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and other civil society organisations.
Serious questions have been raised about hundreds of cases of disappearances and extrajudicial killings. A majority of them go unheard. The Supreme Court of Pakistan, since its independence in 2007, did take up some of the cases. The present one in question is the killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud by one of the most powerful police officers of Sindh during the past 25 years, an ‘expert’ in extrajudicial killings — SSP Malir, Rao Anwar.
They all are the product of the 1993 state policy formulated by the then interior minister, retd Lt. General Naseerullah Babar, which was laid down during a high profile meeting at the famous Bhopal House in Clifton, one of the participants of the meeting revealed to this scribe.
“Terrorism can be killed with terrorism,” Babar was quoted by a reliable source. He even quoted top intelligence agencies’ operations in which ‘terrorists’ had been killed in extrajudicial encounters. “He was clear in his resolve that peace in Karachi could only come if we break the backbone of MQM militancy by killing them as it would be impossible to get them convicted through courts,” the source said.
He had even assured all those present in the meeting, which included IGP Sindh, IB chief, DIG Karachi and others that they would not face any inquiry or punishment in case voices were raised against them.
On the contrary, they were told that the police officers would be rewarded and get promotion if they succeeded in bringing peace.
The dissenting voice in the meeting was that of IGP Sindh, Mr Afzal Shigri. His fear was that if police officers were given such power there was always a danger they would settle personal scores and kill innocent people, too.
“Sorry sir, I cannot be a party to this decision,” source quoted Shigri telling the minister. He was later replaced by Mr Saeed Khan.
When I contacted Shigri and asked whether it was true, he said, “Yes, and my view was that it would never bring lasting peace. Instead, I suggested that through a speedy trial and effective prosecution we could get them convicted.”
“How could I defend extrajudicial killings or fake encounters even if it gave temporary relief to the city?” he added.
Rao Anwar’s case in Naqeebullah Mehsud’s murder is similar to what once Ch. Aslam was accused of — killing Mashooq Brohi in the case of a mistaken identity.
I still have my doubts that the Pandora’s Box of extrajudicial killings would ever be opened. The box must be overflowing with cases of the accused or victims killed as a result of 24 years old ‘official policy’ that terrorism could be defeated through state terrorism.
If the above-mentioned police officers are accused of killing in over 1,000 fake encounters, there is a still a mystery about uncounted bodies found in different parts of the city, particularly in areas under the control of Rao Anwar. They belong to different militant groups, including MQM, BLA and Taliban.
A few months ago, a story appeared in some leading newspapers regarding thousands of unidentified bodies buried in one of Edhi’s graveyard. If probed by an independent body, we may be able to find some hidden truth.
Terrorism cannot be defeated through terrorism, but, by transforming the society and the system. The journey from custodial death of Hasan Nasir to Nazir Abbasi and extrajudicial killings of hundreds, if not thousands, reveal the same old and sad story — we are still far from any system of justice.