Since the turn of the year, the Supreme Court of Pakistan has begun to take up cases of police encounters. It took up the case of Rao Anwar and another suo motu notice on encounter killings in Punjab. While neither of these cases has reached any conclusion yet, the SC issued a judgment a few weeks back on another encounter killing case, as the result of a petition filed by one Sughran Bibi, the mother of a man alleged to have been killed in a fake encounter way back in 2008. The practice of fake encounters is an abomination against any criminal justice system. The usual justification used for encounter killings is that the justice system doesn’t work so hardened criminals must be killed. This is never a legitimate excuse. The police can’t just decide to kill individuals – whether they have or have not been convicted of a crime. Further controversy of course lies in the fact that the police usually end up killing innocent individuals before pinning the blame for dozens of open cases on them. There is little interest left in any part of the legal system to see the investigations and court proceedings in these cases completed. Covering up encounter killings also requires a significant amount of paperwork – setting patterns which have not been questioned in the courts or parliamentary debates.
Taking note of procedural irregularities in the Sughran Bibi case, the SC has issued a number of simple, but important, orders. First, the police cannot arrest an individual simply because he or she is nominated in an FIR. The police must instead provide proper justification for taking an individual into custody under CrPC 1898 and Police Rules 1934. Moreover, the police cannot register second and third FIRs over the same incident. In the Sughran Bibi case, the court has also observed that no progress was made on the private complaint filed by the victim’s mother despite charges being framed in June 2015. Neither has her deceased son been found guilty nor have the police officials been charged for false arrest and murder. This is the crux of where the miscarriage of justice is carried out. Encounter killing victims do not receive a trial to verify any charges. The fact that the SC must order the police not to treat FIRs as the truth is also a shocking indictment of the police system. This should be an obvious fact. This is a decade-old case which still has not reached any satisfactory conclusion. However, if the SC judgment is enforced, Sughran Bibi may have secured some key procedural changes that would make covering up encounter killings more difficult. One doubts this will bring an end to the practice of encounter killings though, which are not just about procedure, but an institutional culture of murder and cover up. There is more that needs to change to stop such miscarriage of justice.