Extrajudicial killings in the name of counterterrorism are unacceptable

As a successor of the colonial police force, police departments in South Asia are notorious for their high-handed, brutal methods, especially for what is known as faked “encounter killings.” The Police Order of 1861 drafted by the British in India remains in force. In India, it has not even received the cosmetic name change that Pakistani authorities have undertaken. While every political party in Pakistan has promised to end the’thana culture’, no substantive change has occurred. In fact, the so-called war against terrorism has made things worse, providing yet another excuse to the police to stage extrajudicial killings with further impunity.

The latest case is the killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud by Karachi police. Mehsud, a resident of South Waziristan, was an internally displaced person and arrived in Karachi in 2008 to escape insecurity in his native land. He was picked up in early January by the Counter Terrorism Department and his body was found a few days later. The Police had cited Mehsud’s alleged links with Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which are easy to forge given the victim’s ethnicity and background. For long, we have equated Pakhtuns with terrorists in popular narratives. Civil society has been protesting across the country and the encounter specialist SSP Rao Anwar has been reportedly removed from his post until the investigation is complete.

War against militancy will not be successful if the state continues to make a mockery of its larger responsibility of ensuring the rule of law. Whether it is profiling of Pakhtuns, viewing IDPs as suspects and giving a free hand to Rangers and Police, more and more Pakistanis will be alienated

Human Rights Watch in its 2017 report “This Crooked System” Police Abuse and Reform in Pakistanhighlighted the continued use of extrajudicial killings in the country. According to Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, 2,108 men and seven women were killed in police encounters across Pakistan during 2015. 696 suspects were killed in Karachi alone. Punjab was even worse where 1,191 men and 3 women were killed in police encounters. “An encounter killing occurs when the police justify the killing of a criminal suspect either as an act of self-defense or as a means of preventing suspects from fleeing arrest or escaping from custody…many are faked outright, and are not merely the use of excessive force but an extrajudicial execution”, adds HRW.

The use of extra judicial methods finds some measure of popular support. Shehbaz Sharif, the long time Chief Minister of the Punjab province is known for his proclivity to give Police a free hand for such abuses. Over recent years, Karachi’s law enforcement has adopted this method to’clean-up’ regularly supported by influential voices within the media and political circles. HRW report cited a police officer: ‘Yes, junior officers do stage encounters and kill suspects…They do not consider it a gross violation of human rights and instead see it as an effective way of delivering justice.’And HRW’s investigation showed that’junior’officers more often than not were supported by their seniors to stage such ‘encounters.’

The plain truth is that Pakistan’s ruling elites find in the police a convenient mechanism to advance their political and class-agenda through this brutal colonial instrument. This is why most of the so-called reform efforts have failed. Musharraf’s mega reform drive in early 2000s was reversed when he had to win politicos for his legitimacy. Even the recent reform efforts in provinces do not restructure but tinker at the margins. A fundamental tenet of any such effort has to be police accountability, especially to the citizens. Until that is assured, police excesses will not end. In fact they are likely to increase given the imperative of ‘counter terrorism’ efforts.

The global discourse on War on Terror, eagerly internalized by Pakistan’s security institutions, including the paramilitary and police further justifies such brutal killings. Amnesty International’s 2012 report, The Hands of Cruelty had alerted as to how Pakistan’s security apparatus gained wider powers and more impunity. Ethnic profiling intersects with the state policy. In Karachi and elsewhere, the Pakhtun has been branded as an easy suspect. Since 2014, Pakistan military’s drive against TTP and its affiliates have killed thousands of ‘terrorists’. That is cited as a success. Worse, the Parliament in early 2015 set up the military courts with the intention to deliver quick justice. The record of these courts has been no better than the ordinary ‘civilian’ courts but in the process, due process and the constitutional guarantees of a fair trial have been subverted.

In the terror-fighting Pakistan, anyone can be branded as an alleged terrorist or a facilitator. The best example was Dr Asim, a political associate of former President Asif Ali Zardari who was accused of massive corruption as well as enabling the Al Qaeda militants by giving them medical treatment at his hospital. Once Zardari’s relations with the establishment improved, Dr Asim was released and all terrorism charges were forgotten.

War against militancy will not be successful if the state continues to make a mockery of its larger responsibility of ensuring rule of law. Whether it is profiling of Pakhtuns, viewing IDPs as suspects and giving a free hand to Rangers and Police, more and more Pakistanis will be alienated.

The recent release and whitewashing of Sufi Mohammad, who finds Pakistan’s Constitution and democratic ideals as ‘unIslamic’, is yet another reason to be worried. TTP’s Ehsanullah Ehsan, a self-confessed murderer is already in state custody. Just because he confirms the role of India in terrorism within Pakistan, he may be pardoned.

An overhaul of the criminal justice system is long due and no one seems interested, including the guardians of law and the geographical and ideological frontiers. A security policy without checks on the excesses of Police and Rangers is designed to fail.


Published in Daily Times, January 21, 2018: Extrajudicial killings in the name of counterterrorism are unacceptable

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