The euphemism ‘encounter’ has become an unfortunate part of our vocabulary to describe extrajudicial and usually premeditated killings by the police. In a country where the justice system is weak and unreliable and law-enforcement has not proven up to the task of properly investigating criminal cases, the police have taken the law into their own hands on far too many occasions. ‘Encounters’ became a common method of dealing with political violence in Lahore and Karachi in the 1990s and – with the ‘war on terror’ – are now justified by describing the victims as terrorists. In a better world, and a lawful state, the massacre in Sahiwal on Saturday should never have happened – and it should definitely not be something anyone should be able to get away with. As per most reports, officers of the Counter-Terrorism Department shot dead four people, including a father, mother and their teenaged daughter – while their three other small children were present there and have survived – in what the authorities have described as an intelligence-based operation and a shootout with terrorists. However, it didn’t take long for this official version to be disputed. Eyewitnesses have claimed that the CTD officials killed the family in cold blood and that no weapons were recovered from the vehicle of the victims, suggesting that rather than being a shootout all the fire was directed only in one direction.
The CTD has released an official statement, claiming once again that they had legitimate intelligence that the man driving the car was a Daesh-affiliated terrorist and that he fired the first shot. In the meanwhile, the officers who took part in the ‘encounter’ have been arrested and an FIR has been filed. While Prime Minister Imran Khan has promised swift action, let us also urge that, if any confidence is to be left in law-enforcement, the investigation needs to be transparent and justice must be done. The JIT set up by the IGP Punjab will hopefully uncover the facts. We need to know them all, but while this process continues, we must remember that the first duty of police is to protect life. If there was any terrorist involvement in all that happened, it is the tires of the car that should have been shot out. Surely the CTD has training in this?
In this particular case, the fact that children were involved has helped bring the conduct of law enforcement under scrutiny as well as given it media attention. That clips of the ‘encounter’ went viral also helped galvanise public opinion. But this horrific incident is likely not the only one of its kind. The fact is that our law-enforcement has managed to get away with little regard for the human life and has not been investigated for that because the victims are less likely to get much sympathy. Even when there is no proof that those killed were guilty of a crime, simply invoking the word ‘terrorist’ is usually enough to forestall any criticism.
We need to keep in mind that the only time it is appropriate for law enforcement to use lethal force is when suspects prove an imminent danger. Extrajudicial killings cannot become just another tool in our counterterrorism arsenal because this erodes trust in rule of law and gives the state an unlimited licence to kill. The state also needs to ensure that justice is done – no matter what. As we have seen in the protracted saga of Rao Anwar, even when multiple investigations have shown that a person was killed without any justification, justice can be hard to come by. In the case of the Sahiwal killings, it is important – after an impartial investigation and if wrongdoing is established – to punish not only those officers present at the scene but for those higher up the chain of command to be held accountable as well. Extrajudicial killings have become unwritten official policy and the only way to eliminate them is by showing that any disregard for due diligence and due process comes with real consequences. The tragedy which killed one child and wounded her three siblings will not be forgotten easily by the people, including relatives of the family who have staged angry protests. We should not forget it either.