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There is a growing perception that the ‘Karachi Targeted Action’, the name given to the Rangers-led operation in September, 2013, is now getting controversial, which is not a good news for the all peaceful loving citizens. It is not merely because of the latest row between the federal and Sindh governments over the powers and jurisdiction of the Rangers, but there is more to it. What went wrong, who is responsible and what is the way forward?
One reason why it became controversial could be the manner in which media was used through JITs and video leaks of suspects, which not only damaged prosecution cases but also raised serious questions about legality and credibility of the action.
Similarly, it took Ministry of Interior 24 hours to issue a clarification over the rejection or acceptance of the summery sent by the Sindh government for the extension of Rangers deployment in Sindh for one year and the powers under Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) in Karachi for 90 days.
Ministry's legal department has raised some objections, though previously no such objection was raised on similar letters. The question is who had earlier leaked the news, which created media hype and tension between Sindh and Centre.
Thus, the Rangers operation in Karachi is practically without any legal cover for the 12 days, which certainly is harmful to the whole operation. It would have been better if Interior Minister Ch Nisar Ali Khan had called Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah and discussed the matter and thus could have defused the tension.
Neither the apex committee nor the federal and provincial governments have ever taken notice of this constant leak of JITs and videos of suspects. The purpose seems to be more to defame MQM and PPP in particular, rather to make the prosecution stronger on merit. In the past, the same tactics had damaged operations in 1992 and 1995.
Over 16,000 alleged criminals had been arrested in three years, but till this day no one knows who they were, why they were arrested, how many were released and what is the status of the rest of the cases.
Secondly, whoever had blocked the formation of the grievances and redress committee despite an agreement between Ishaq Dar and MQM, like the one refused at the start of operation, and tried to take political mileage out of is equally responsible for all this mess.
Had such a committee been constituted, many complaints, either of a party or common citizen, would have been addressed, including cases of missing persons, JITs and video leaks.
In the Asad Kharal case too, a hype was created that he was wanted in the case of allegedly giving shelter to 20 most wanted criminals, including those on whom government had put head money. The brother of former home minister, Anwar Sial, and a CIA inspector were also suspected. What happened in the end after Kharal had been arrested or surrendered, is that police did not even took one day remand and he was sent to jail.
All this led to tension between the Rangers and Sindh government and in the end, the Sindh chief minister, Syed Qaim Ali Shah, was replaced and Sial lost his home ministry.
Operation was on the right track when massive crackdown took place against the alleged militants of outlawed groups, Lyari gang war and the militant wing of MQM. The list submitted in the Supreme Court by an intelligence agency about militant wings had also named other political parties. Interestingly, it did not carried names of their wings or any other detail.
It all started well because of the vast experience in Karachi by the sitting ISI DG Lt-Gen Rizwan Akhtar who had served as the Rangers DG before his promotion. The current Rangers DG Maj Gen Bilal Akbar did not take much time in setting the ball rolling and operation got good results in the first year.
For entire year, the operation remained focused on action against terrorism, extortionists, kidnapping for ransom. It was successful as the law enforcement agencies did not use media or leak JITs in the first 14, 15 months.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, army chief Gen Raheel Sharif, former president Asif Ali Zardari, Governor Dr Ishrat-ul-Ebad (when he was part of MQM), CM Syed Qaim Ali Shah and Interior Minister Ch Nisar Ali Khan, all were on one page.
Problems started surfacing when someone, somewhere decided to politicise the operation. It all started with the video leak of Saulat Mirza from death cell. It suddenly generated a controversy and as expected a sharp reaction came from the MQM and its chief Altaf Hussain whose speeches were later banned.
The events which followed – including the raids at the MQM headquarters, Khursheed Memorial Hall in March last year, just before the by-election in NA-246, Azizabad, and later a series of JITs – forced MQM to hit out at the operation.
In the Sindh government case, it all started with the raid at Sindh Building Control Authority (SBCA), first by Rangers and later by FIA, which took away 15,000 files in two or three trucks. Hype was created but no one knows about those files and the cases till this day.
Corps Commander Lt-Gen Naveed Mukhtar's famous speech at a seminar last year, which many observers termed as a charge-sheet against Sindh government, also did not go well as far as transparency of the operation was concerned.
In one of the most controversial press releases issued by the Rangers, even the name of Bilawal House was allegedly linked with terror financing and corruption. And then came the mysterious arrest of Uzair Baloch. The PPP feared he surfaced after months of interrogation by the intelligence agencies.
All these factors made the operation controversial and as a result a complete distrust developed between the Sindh government and Rangers, on the one hand, and the MQM and Rangers on the other. Issues of custodial killings, extra judicial killings and missing persons also raised questions.
As expected, the government decided to distance itself from the JITs, particularly those linked with the PPP or government officials.
Thus, the government during the last year started showing reluctance in giving extension to Rangers. Last time round, they only gave 77-day extension and that too after reservations.
The new CM, who has already refused to accept the tag of ‘captain of the operation’ unlike his predecessor and wanted to be address as CM not as captain, was surprised over the Interior Ministry's reservations. "I am not aware of the federal government’s concerns. At least, I have not been officially informed. It’s all in the media," Murad Ali Shah said.
Apparently, he is distancing himself from the operational authorities. Since taking the oath as CM, he has neither met the Rangers DG nor the corps commander. His emphasis is on using police instead of Rangers. He took his time in giving one-year extension to the Rangers stay in Sindh and 90-day extension to the policing powers under ATA in Karachi.
Three months back, Sindh had delayed extension of the Rangers powers on the pretext that at times it crossed its limits and for the first time a resolution was tabled in the Sindh Assembly, restricting the paramilitary force to limit the operation to areas like terrorism, kidnapping for ransom and extortion, while they were also stopped from accompanying with any federal agencies, like FIA or NAB, without prior permission of the chief secretary.
Ch Nisar Ali Khan perhaps mishandled the situation by appearing on media and expressing his views about Ranger's powers and Sindh's concerns. Previously, his remarks that he has nothing to do with Dr Asim Hussain's video caused a lot of hue and cry. Two days back, he once again talked about the options available with the federal government in Sindh.
Knowing well that he is not in the good book of the PPP leadership, Ch Nisar should have been more careful in his expression, particularly in matters linked to the operation. He himself was not happy the manner in which Dr Asim Hussain, a close friend of Asif Ali Zardari, was arrested.
Whoever decided to leak Dr Asim's video did not help the operation but on the contrary it went in his favour.
Surprisingly, the National Assembly standing committee sought Sindh government’s comments on the video leak, though he is in NAB's custody, while his video was recorded when he was in Rangers custody.
As the situation stands today, it is very important that all the stakeholders must collectively own this operation, but a complete review is needed for this purpose. If Rangers, army and intelligence agencies have reports of terrorists’ presence in Sindh and feelthat the powers of Rangers must be expanded to the entire province, the provincial government should not have any objection.
However, the Rangers and agencies have to be careful that mere leaking videos and JITs to media, in a bid to defame MQM or PPP, may not help as it has often proved counterproductive in the past. If they have evidence against their leaders and militants in cases linked to terror financing, money laundering, abatement and others, proceed in the court and must not use it for media trial.
There is still time to constitute a high-powered ‘grievances and redress committee’, comprising retired officers of some repute. Its purpose should be to address the genuine complaints and not to make the operation controversial.
History is the best judge and it has been proven time and again that propaganda against political parties through media or talk-shows hardly had any impact on voters’ mindset. From Saulat Mirza to the Baldia Town factory or scores of JITs may not be able to change the MQM voters. Similarly, the videos or JITs of Dr Asim Hussain and Uzair Baloch may not damage the PPP.
If there are cases and evidence against the leadership of the two parties, they must be taken to task, not through media but proper prosecution in the court of law. Thus, a new look ‘Karachi (or whole Sindh) operation’ is needed. There is no harm if similar operation be launched in Punjab too.
Thus, the jurisdiction and extension issues should not become controversial as it will benefit no one but terror networks.
The writer is a senior columnist and analyst of GEO, The News and Jang.