MS Risk Blog

The Sahiwal Incident: Extrajudicial Killings in Pakistan

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On 19 January 2019 Pakistan’s Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) carried out an operation on a highway near Sahiwal in which a white car believed to be carrying Islamic State members was stopped. The following police operation or “encounter” resulted in the death of a couple, their teenage daughter and the driver. The victims were identified as grocery store owner Mohammad Khalil, his wife Nabila, their 13-year-old daughter Areeba and their friend, Zeeshan Javed. Their son Umair Khalil sustained bullet wounds while his sister Muniba’s hand was injured due to broken glass of car while Hadiba, their daughter, remained unhurt.

According to CTD’s statement the officers signalled the white Suzuki Alto car and a motorcycle to stop, but they did not pull over and instead opened fire at them. The CTD officers retaliated and four people were killed by the “firing of their own accomplices” in the ensuing firefight. However, later it turned out that except for Zeeshan, all other occupants of the car were members of an innocent family.

The incident triggered a nationwide scandal and the government felt obliged to come clean on this case. So a joint investigation team was formed to probe into the incident, which soon confirmed that the family had indeed been innocent and that CTD officials had been responsible for their killing. As a result, the government in Punjab removed some top CTD officials and suspended others, while announcing to charge five CTD officials with acts of terrorism and murder.

Although it was clear from the start that it had been a botched anti-terrorist operation and the CTD officials were squarely blamed for it, evidence suggests that the story behind the incident is much more complex than what has been told so far.

The killing of four innocent people in a “police encounter” has once again drawn attention towards the menace of extrajudicial killings in Pakistan. Police forces in South Asian nations are notorious for their high-handedness, torture in custody and killings in fake encounters. Unfortunately, the Police Order of 1861 still remains enforced in Pakistan as only some cosmetic changes have been introduced over the last few years. As a result, common people are still afraid of police instead of feeling protected and safe whenever they see them anywhere close to them.

The “War Against Terrorism” has even made things worse as it has provided another excuse for the police to stage extrajudicial killings with further impunity. In this particular case, officials of the Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) claimed that those killed in the shooting had been terrorists belonging to ISIS or Daesh.

According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan “an encounter killing occurs when the police justify the killing of a criminal suspect either as an act of self-defence or as a means of preventing suspects from fleeing arrest or escaping from custody … many are faked outright, and are not merely the use of excessive force but an extrajudicial execution.”

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan also claimed that 2,108 men and seven women were killed in police encounters across Pakistan during 2015. 696 suspects were killed in Karachi alone. Punjab was even worse where 1,191 men and 3 women were killed.

For Pakistani police, extrajudicial killing is an easy and quick way of bringing criminals to justice because they believe that otherwise they will get away and hardly get punished in the courts due to loop-holes in the judicial system. As a consequence, anyone can be branded an alleged terrorist or a facilitator offering a reason to be killed in a police encounter.