It is both disturbing and fascinating how many things human beings are willing to give up just to feel safe. Our survival instinct does not care for cold logic or legal obstacles. It cares only for results. The methods used to achieve those results are lost in the fanfare that celebrates outcomes. Until a moment of reflection forces us to confront the ugly image that we have crafted for ourselves.
What happened in Sahiwal was such a moment. The image it forced us to confront was grotesque.
Had it not been for the incredible power of social media, the extra-judicial killings may have been chalked up as yet another number in the swathe of murders committed by the people responsible for maintaining law and order. When the truth, in the form of the testimony of the children of the victims came forth, the reactions of those holding public office were far from reassuring. The Punjab law minister called the deaths “collateral damage,” while the Punjab governor pointed out that the victims were “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Years back, Bob Woodward wrote his famous book Obama’s Wars. The book featured an exchange between then president Zardari and CIA Director Mike Hayden regarding drone strikes in Pakistan. Giving his consent to the use of drone strikes, Mr Zardari had reportedly said “Collateral damage worries you Americans. It does not worry me.” These remarks by the president elicited justified outrage. Such nonchalance towards the loss of innocent life was infuriating. But where is that same fury at the nonchalance expressed by the Punjab law minister?
We are a nation of hypocrites if we do not feel the same rage today when the CTD kills three innocent people in an attempt at bringing down one man alleged to have links with the ISIS.
As for the statement by the Punjab governor, I wonder if he is referring to the entirety of Pakistan as the wrong place? A place where mere suspicion can cause someone to order a man to be executed without a trial. Stripped of any regard for the rule of law, certain members of the police and the CTD prowl the streets, trigger happy and ready to snuff out lives based on accusations.
These days our favourite solution to any and every problem in Pakistan is to construct a JIT. We like our remedies cosmetic after all. Instead, we should be examining root causes. We should be asking the question: ‘Just how did we get to this point?’
Perhaps one answer is our national infatuation with ‘encounter specialists’. We venerate the people who operate outside the law and make heroes out of people like Rao Anwar, the Sindh encounter specialist who according to police records is responsible for having killed more than 400 people. Despite this trail of blood, Anwar was never subjected to any inquiry and was never called before a court of law. Men like Anwar play a role similar to a royal executioner. Taking commands from those in power to proceed to eliminate people. One report described how people from other provinces and areas were picked up and transported to Sindh just so that they could be executed by Anwar.
The cost of granting such people a licence to kill is too high. Innocent lives such as Naqeebullah Mehsud’s are snuffed out at the hands of Rao Anwar in what a recent court decision has categorically pronounced as a fake encounter. Lives like those of Amal Umer and Intezar Ahmed are lost because of a mindset nurtured by law enforcement that says, ‘shoot first, think later’.
The sooner we stop treating ‘encounter specialists’ as heroes, the better.
The other cause of this malaise is our society’s constant feeling of fear. Fear is one of the biggest reasons behind people wanting to sacrifice constitutional rights. Fear enables an atmosphere in which people casually pronounce ‘to hell with their right of due process’. Fear is a strong emotion, but do not forget its power to cloud judgment. It was fear, fear of the elite, fear of the other, fear of immigrants, that has allowed power hungry autocrats to take hold of many nations across the world. Fear was one of the most dominant themes underlying Donald Trump’s campaign. Let your sense of fear overcome your sense of reason and this country shall mourn many others like Naqeebullah Mehsud.
The single biggest reason behind our abdication of due process for extrajudicial killing is the fact that we have a broken court system. A system in which powerful criminals and terrorists can threaten judges, witnesses and prosecutors to gain freedom. A lack of trust in the court system creates a vacuum for some other form of justice to step in. Enter the police encounter.
The blood of the innocent people killed in police encounters is on every government that has come and gone without doing a single thing regarding criminal justice reform. This includes the current opposition, who are decrying the Sahiwal incident, even though it is no secret that during the PPP and PML-N governments tenures extra-judicial killings happened just as frequently as they happen now. Until the people and the police begin to trust that a system of due process works, they will continue to resort to extra-judicial killing.
This is a point that needs to be understood. Due process is important. Its value as a constitutional right in a democratic system cannot be understated. But no amount of veneration for due process will convince people to trust the court system until it is actually seen to work. If the killing of innocent people like Naqeebullah Mesud and the family in Sahiwal does not galvanise us to think seriously about reforming our criminal justice system, then, I am pessimistic that it will ever happen.
The JITs and cash compensations can neither bring back innocent lives nor can they prevent future incidents. If the PTI truly wants to be different than everyone else, it needs to consider criminal justice reform seriously.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 29th, 2019.
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