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July 20, 2016

Is Karachi safer?


July 20, 2016

Is Karachi safer today than it was in 2013 – the year the current Rangers-led operation began in the city? For many in Karachi – and more in the rest of the country – the answer to that question would be obvious.

It would be difficult to argue against the situation on the ground having improved – particularly with hard numbers to support this claim, which appear every so often in briefings to the media as well as to dignitaries visiting the city.

To quote a recent article in an armed forces’ publication on the Karachi situation:

“Two-and-a-half years down the lane, there has been a significant improvement on the ground. The city has witnessed a decrease of 70% in target killings and 65% in dacoities. Cases of kidnapping for ransom have also gone down by 62%. The business of extortion came down by 84% and bank robberies by 72%. Cases of car thefts also hit a 14-year record low in 2015. Moreover, 71% Pakistanis believe that [the] Karachi operation has led to decrease in crimes in the city.”

Staggering figures – enough to silence any detractor of the Karachi Operation. While there is the occasional flare up, such as the Amjad Sabri murder, it is treated as an aberration in a generally improving trend (some would even argue that such incidents are desperate attempts to sabotage the operation.)

Yet, as always, numbers can be deceptive, and even meaningless, if you don’t study the methods and methodology.

An issue of particular importance is how the ‘obviousness’ of the improved situation and the staggering numbers have been widely used as cover for the questionable modus operandi of law-enforcement forces.

Over the last 20 months or so, aided by sweeping powers added into the law, the security apparatus has conducted a wave of raids that has seen the ‘picking-up’ of dozens, if not hundreds, of ‘suspects’ off the streets and from their homes and offices. They haven’t always been formal arrests, mind you. The detentions have been of suspects associated with political camps as well as of those associated with religious militancy.

In most cases, particularly the high-profile ones, the detentions have been followed by startling and sometimes outlandish, accusations – either directly, through press talks and press releases, or indirectly, through JITs and videos leaked to the media.

However, there has not been a corresponding conclusiveness to the judicial processes that should have accompanied these detentions and claims. That is not to say only that the prosecution fails; in fact in many instances the most startling accusations aren’t actually pursued in the court. Many high-profile suspects – or those stated to be high-profile suspects – are released on bail, or charges dropped entirely. Take the MQM’s Amir Khan (or their other senior leaders picked up for that matter), or supposed high-profile financiers and abettors of religious terrorism such as Sheeba Ahmed. In the latter case, the initial accusations versus the end of the charges are almost laughable.

As for cases that have been partially pursued, it doesn’t look like anything substantive is to come out of them. Case in point Dr Asim Hussain, who has been in custody for one month short of a year now on charges of supposed astronomical corruption and abetment of militants.

While these detentions are technically legal, moral authority doesn’t stem from simply having the cover of law - that too such draconian ones. In fact, the opposite can happen.

Simply put, a lot of hectic action and rhetoric, and plenty of additional leeway, hasn’t resulted in anywhere near an equally substantive outcome. By substantive outcome one means, among other things, actual prosecution and sentencing. Or even proper legal reforms.

All of this has slowly eroded the credibility of the act as well as the actors. Contrary to the initial shock, many accusations and detentions are now taken with a pinch of salt – by both the public and most thinking journalists.

A basic principle is that justice should not only be done, but seen to be done. In the case of the Karachi Operation, it seems that justice is being seen to be done, but not actually done.

Conversely, when it comes to the transgressions of the security forces, justice may well be done, but it is almost invisible, without any details.

The brutal custodial murder of MQM member Aftab Ahmed was to be investigated, but we’ve heard little of that matter since it occurred. Five Rangers’ personnel were ‘suspended.’. We were not even given names. Or ranks. Nor do we know their fate as of now, or what is being said in their trial or there is one underway.

These matters are spared the sort of public trial that political detainees are subjected to on an almost daily basis.

There has been no accountability process or even regret for continuous faux pas by the security forces (on the other hand, only recently, the Rangers arrested a political figure for “spreading propaganda” against them and the forces have treated valid criticism as support for criminals).

The Rangers have been meticulous when it comes to removing posters of a political party’s chief from around its political headquarters – the most recent such raid taking place a few days ago – yet there’s no move to remove flyers and banners inviting a military coup.

The dual standards are creating an air of resentment. But there seems to be no concern about perceptions of being above board or indiscriminate.

To add to the irony, the Rangers even run businesses such as a private for-hire security agency using their name when protecting the public is their basic service mandate at the moment. They also run lucrative brick-making businesses using land occupied of a Karachi varsity and public water, and have no qualms admitting that they do in order to finance themselves. But they won’t allow the MQM to collect even fair charity (while some militancy-linked religious outfits continue to do so, no questions asked).

This waning confidence and rising doubt will help those who have treated this city as their crime den for years. As the siege mentality of millions in the city deepens, they just have to sit back and wait; and when they return, they’ll come back stronger – with a sense of redemption, with fresh justifications for their acts, and a mandate to continue to run the city, with a discredited security apparatus having to eventually back down. Like they did in the past, leaving us back at square one; leaving many of those sections of society that have stood up to the forces of chaos during the operation at their mercy once again.

So the real question isn’t if Karachi is safer today than it was before the operation. It should be if this safety will hold when the operation finally ends, the temporary laws lapse and forces go home.

Or is that not the plan?

The writer is a senior executive producer at Geo News.

Email: [email protected]

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