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February 10, 2018

When our saviours turn bad


February 10, 2018

The Karachi police are in the cross hairs once again, and for all the right reasons. As per recent incidents, at least two people were gunned down by the trigger-happy police, street crimes saw a resurgence and the haunting grenade attacks in Lyari also made a comeback.

Effective law enforcement has never been the hallmark of the Sindh police, particularly in Karachi. The city police have often come in the line of fire for their apathetic and coercive behaviour towards the public they are supposed to serve and protect. Raised as a potent force in 1843 by Charles Napier, the Sindh police soon became a model for the Bombay Police, characteristic of the officers’ gentlemanly conduct. But over the last 50 years, the force has plunged to a level where public service, accountability and rule of law have taken leave from its overarching principles.

From the 1990s to post 9/11, the megalopolis along with the rest of the country faced an unprecedented bout of anarchy, insurrection and terrorism that massively damaged the economy and left hundreds of thousands of people dead. But the state responded by resorting to extrajudicial killings to restore peace.

Our police force has been made to perform under multiple tiers of political and state authorities, denying it the opportunity to emerge as a robust and independent law-enforcement agency. It has been reduced to an extension of some influential peoples’ vested interests, ignoring their crimes and punishing their political rivals. In return, the corrupt influence guarantees quick career progression and prized postings, destroying the force’s esprit de corps in the process.

The Sindh chief minister’s efforts to remove the incumbent IGP exemplify the kind of political influence over the police force, that is often spoken of. The force is so handicapped that until quite recently it had to request the intelligence agencies to help locate cell phones and access mobile phone data. Even now they cannot detect locations of WhatsApp calls. The district police still struggles with their budget to keep their patrol mobiles up and running.

A policeman like Rao Anwar reflects the system of shoddy investigations and interventionist politics that breeds a culture of insubordination, indiscipline and lack of accountability. Serious investigations are not a skill our policing culture is known for. Acquiring the art of investigation is an exercise that requires hard work, tenacity and a deep understanding of crime and criminal psychology. And to be able to draw tangible information from a criminal is often a race against time.

And add to all this bad prosecution. The judiciary also has to share the blame for failing to reform its centuries-old approach and not providing solutions to modern challenges; thus, the proclivity for staged encounters. Musharraf-era police reforms, aimed at making the police force independent and depoliticised, met with systemic resistance from the political elite and the district bureaucracy.

However, since 2008, when the TTP and Al-Qaeda terrorists wreaked havoc, the reprehensible exercise of staged encounters became an undeclared policy to eliminate the menace of terrorism. Even dacoits, kidnappers and rapists started being dealt with in the same manner country-wide. The biggest blowback of this policy is the mindset of young police officers, enamoured with cops like Rao Anwar and the late Chaudhry Aslam, who have little inclination for ‘serious investigations’.

But it is not always criminals and terrorists who have fallen victim to this extrajudicial practice, with corruption rampant, some officers are using it to settle scores or acting as hired goons for various interest groups. The tragedies of Naqeebullah Mehsud and Intezar Ahmed expose the dark side of this loathsomepractice.

Rao Anwar, who is said to enjoy powerful patronage, has killed 444 alleged criminals and terrorists in encounters. In some other cases too serious complaints were raised but the man was too powerful to be reproached, and even eluded the apex court’s summons. This exercise is carried out with impunity in Punjab as well. During the recent spate of child abuse incidents reported in Kasur, an innocent man, Mudassar, was killed in an encounter over suspicion of his involvement in one of the cases. Besides such barbaric acts, severe miscarriage of law and serious human rights violations never helped counter crime or terrorism in the long-run.

The recent grenade attack in Lyari over the refusal of a businessman to pay Rs5 million as extortion is a stark reminder of the days when street crimes remained largely uncontrolled. Districts South and Central figure prominently among the areas that have seen a resurgence of crime. Lyari, a place with abysmal civic facilities, falls within the old city area that constitutes the Karachi’s business district. It suffered epic proportions of violence at the hand of pernicious gangs. Illegal businesses such as gunrunning, drug peddling, and gambling were the order of the day, but despite it, the area does not have any CCTV system to monitor crimes.

The misery of Lyari’s people continues unabated. The area’s police are alleged to be part of the problem.

Street crimes are a bigger challenge to handle because they are widespread and do not have a pattern. Dealing with extortions is a relatively easier task with fewer identifiable gangs. The former requires an out-of-the-box strategy, involving team work, crime analysis, investigations by professional and dedicated crime busters. But as the people of Lyari watch helplessly, none of this is possible with the present state of indiscipline, divisions and politicisation of the police force.

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