It was a ghastly spectacle caught live on the cell-phone camera of a stunned bystander; 16 cops of Pakistani Punjab’s Counter Terrorism Department (CTD), armed with automatic weapons, opened fire on a car carrying a family of four, plus their driver-friend, in broad daylight.
Within minutes, three members of the family—parents and their 13-year-old daughter—lay dead in a pool of blood. The driver of the car was also killed on the spot. A nine-year-old son of the slain couple dodged the hail of bullets by crouching low inside the car and survived.
The video of the gory incident of mass shooting by the guardians of law enforcement in the city of Sahiwal (Montgomery of yore), a 100 kilometres or so from Lahore, went viral within minutes on Pakistan’s vibrant social media, triggering protests on a massive scale. It stirred the conscience of a nation which otherwise seems to have grown jaded on terrorism-related incidents because of their frequency in a country long plagued by terror.
What hurt people’s sensitivities more was the insensitive and almost insulting reaction to the dastardly incident from the governor of Punjab and his law minister.
Governor Chaudhry Sarwar—who has spent a lifetime in Britain and was the first South Asian Muslim of Pakistani origin to sit in the British Parliament as an MP—just shrugged off the tragedy by saying the victims happened to be “at the wrong place, at the wrong time”.
But what his law minister said, with callous disdain, was even more infuriating. He dismissed the cold-blooded murder as “collateral damage” in Pakistan’s ongoing war against terrorism within the country.
So robust and spontaneous was the popular outcry against what most commentators described as cold-blooded murder of an innocent family in a fake encounter by the Punjab police that Imran Khan’s government in Islamabad, sworn to enforcing civility in Pakistan’s governance long held hostage to the whims of autocrats and carpetbaggers, was forced to immediately constitute a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) to probe the gory incident.
That was on January 19. Within four days, by January 23, the JIT had concluded that the police indeed worked outside of its ken of countering Pakistan’s rampant terrorism and, in the process, killed the four civilians who had nothing to do with it. Mindful of the popular backlash demanding quick justice, the government briskly removed the top echelons of CTD involved in the killing. Five of the trigger-happy policemen have also been apprehended for murder.
To further tackle the public outrage, the government has also announced a handsome package of compensation for the surviving child of the family. The government may think that quick remedial measures taken by it may adequately douse the flames of public outrage and anger over the gory tragedy. But they apparently aren’t.
Some lawyers among the social media activists have already gone to the Lahore High Court and petitioned that constituting a JIT wasn’t an adequate response to the rising incidence of police brutality and fake police encounters against alleged terrorists. They have demanded, instead, that a judicial commission headed by a sitting judge of the High Court be formed to thoroughly investigate the role of law enforcement apparatchiks who seem to be going berserk because of unlimited powers given to them to combat the scourge of terrorism in the country.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has come up with some soul-searching and sobering statistics to highlight the menace of vigilantism by the police in its supposed crusade to root out the menace of terrorism from Pakistan. According to these figures, 3,345 people were killed in Pakistan in police encounters between 2014 and 2018, and 12 of the victims were children.
Popular sentiment against police brutality and extra-judicial killings is such that most people—laymen as well as pundits—blame the police for staging fake encounters and settling personal scores in these vendettas which come under the sobriquet of ‘encounters’.
There was this celebrated case of a handsome young Pathan, Naqeebullah Mehsud, killed in a fake police encounter in Karachi in January last year. His executioner was a notoriously rowdy police superintendent, Rao Anwar, said to have close links with the country’s intelligence apparatus as well as with Pakistan’s former president Asif Ali Zardari.
Mehsud was killed, according to a popular social media version, at the behest of some political heavyweights because he had allegedly irked them. Pakistan’s feudal lords are known to have insatiable lust for the blood of those crossing their paths.
However, the notorious Anwar has conveniently eluded accountability for his murder of Mehsud and dozens of other hapless victims of his vigilantism-gone-berserk. He has been allowed to retire from police service with full benefits, pension, etc.
PM Imran Khan’s passage to political stardom and power was smoothened by his slogan of changing Pakistan’s power-besotted political culture. The gory Sahiwal massacre of four innocent civilians can only add to his burden of hammering out a ‘New Pakistan’.
Karamatullah K Ghori
Former Pakistani diplomat