Fake police encounters are said to be more rampant in Punjab province and some urban centres of Sindh, including Karachi. If one takes the case of Punjab, one finds such encounters to be a popular and preferred method of dispensing justice adopted by the police.
Police encounters have been staged for long but their number is said to have skyrocketed during the tenures of Shehbaz Sharif as the chief minister of Punjab. This has led to the perception that he has full trust in this method of controlling crime and patronises police officers known as encounter specialists. Prized postings and out-of-turn promotions for such officers strengthen this perception.
Tracing the history of police encounters in Punjab, former additional inspector general of police, Sarmad Saeed Khan, says though “fake encounters have been there since the British era but they emerged as a policy measure during the governorship of General Musa Khan.”
It was during the rule of Ayub Khan that he imposed the Goonda Act (1959) and rounded up criminals who were later on shot dead in staged police encounters. “Jagga Gujjar of Lahore in whose name “jagga tax” would be collected was also a casualty of these encounters. Encounters were also there during the time of Ghulam Mustafa Khar and afterwards but the numbers escalated in the late 1990s.”
Khan says the culture of fake encounters is rife in Punjab because people here are said to be violent in nature and demand extreme punishments like hanging upside down, de-skinning, flogging, etc, for criminals and opponents. “There are endless stories of vendettas where whole families, including children, have been wiped out by the opponents just to ensure there is no heir left,” he adds. “So, extreme solutions find popularity among people with extreme tendencies.”
Killings through police encounters got an exponential boost after Shehbaz Sharif came to power in Punjab in 1997. It was in July 1999 that BBC carried a news story that 850 suspected criminals had been killed by the police in encounters since the PML-N government had taken over in the province. The fact that 20 of them had been killed in just one week in May 1999 had disturbed human rights defenders all over the world. This killing spree was also observed during his second tenure that started in 2013. In 2015 alone, 440 suspects were killed in police encounters in Punjab.
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Ejaz Butt, a crime reporter based in Lahore, recalls the time when he says police was said to have been asked by the Shehbaz Sharif government to decimate the top 10 gangsters of the city. He says police would stage encounters without any fear and hold press conference a day before with the criminals in handcuffs. “The officers would tell reporters to ask questions from criminals, saying they would be killed in shootout the next day,” he adds. The need for this clean-up operation was felt when the trader community of the city became fed up with excessive demands for extortion money and paid assassins who were operating everywhere.
Butt says the encounter experts are very much clear about who to shoot down. “The criminals who have fired at policemen, raped female inmates during robberies, killed abducted children even after getting ransom, molested minors, indulged in multiple murders, including those of witnesses are not spared,” he adds. He says they opt for this method as it is difficult to establish these crimes in courts and letting them go will make them commit the same crime again.
Every time there is an encounter there is a judicial inquiry but most of the time fake encounters are hard to establish. Why is it so? Butt explains the reason is that “encounter specialists are also expert in making the encounter plan and executing it. They prepare a sketch of the crime scene beforehand and fire bullets at police van with unlicensed weapons, claimed to be owned by the criminals. Besides, there is no eyewitness because all the roads and pathways leading to the venue of the encounter are blocked for public before it is carried out.”
Sarmad Saeed Khan says the fake encounters are not probed properly because they are done at the behest of the government. “Not even a single fake encounter can be staged by a police officer on his own”. He says not “every police officer is ready to take these orders and only those agree who get the blessings of the government”.
Though these police officers got out-of-turn promotions, he says, “the Supreme Court reversed these which is a good step. But despite this, these officers obey unlawful orders from the government to kill people in encounters. These dreaded officers are also used to pressurise political opponents whenever needed,” he adds.
Apart from the complexities involved in the criminal trial, the fear among complainants is one thing that keeps them away from pursuing the case. As a case is registered after every encounter in which it is mentioned that the attackers succeeded to escape, the complainants are warned that they can be taken as those attackers if they keep on demanding an inquiry.
So, does it mean that there is no remedy for the aggrieved? Advocate Sarmad Ali says a fake encounter can be established provided the case is pursued properly. “The problem unfortunately is that even the blood relatives disassociate themselves from such cases and disown the deceased due to the stigma attached to them.”
He cites the case he is pursuing in which the Sessions Court Lahore has issued orders of registering an FIR against five policemen for fake encounter of a juvenile. He says “the police narrative is that this boy in handcuffs tried to snatch a sub machine gun (SMG) from a constable and got killed when it went off. But it’s not common because not everybody dares to challenge the police, not even the heirs.”