July 22, 2016 was like any other Friday in Hyderabad until news of a bank robbery broke on television. Journalists rushed to the scene of the crime — the Liberty Market branch of a private bank. A lone policeman there engaged the robbers in a shoot-out as they were fleeing with money, wounding one of them. All the six robbers, however, managed to escape on motorcycles with 1.3 million rupees, according to the police.
Later that same day, the police claim, another ‘shoot-out’ took place in Wanki Wasi, a village about 10 kilometres to the north-east of Hyderabad city. Three men were killed in the incident, according to a First Information Report (FIR) registered at Hatri police station, a few kilometres to the west of Wanki Wasi (which falls in the jurisdiction of another police station). The dead men, all in their twenties, were identified as Fahad alias Saad Memon, a resident of Wahdat Colony, Hyderabad; Asadullah Pathan alias Khalid, a resident of Quetta; and Manzoor Arain alias Naseebullah, a resident of Iqbal Shah Colony, Hyderabad.
The police say they were involved in the bank robbery. They were also suspected to have links with religious and sectarian militant organisations such as al-Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al-Almin, Irfan Baloch, Senior Superintendent Police (SSP) in Hyderabad, later told the media.
The police also claim that the three dead men’s alleged accomplices – identified as Naeem alias Noman Pathan, Shahzeb alias Abdul Rafay and Hamza – had attacked the police party in Wanki Wasi, resulting in the shoot-out there. According to police records, the three remain on the run in the bank robbery case. Insiders say seven men were, in fact, picked up by the police from separate locations. One group was taken into custody from a flat in Bhittai Nagar neighbourhood of Hyderabad. Others were arrested from a restaurant opposite the central prison in the city. One of Fahad’s cousins, Ashhar Shahani, was also arrested along with the second group.
When Hamza came back home three months later, the police did not make any effort to arrest him. Shahani and Shahzeb surfaced in Karachi where they were being tried for cases unrelated to the robbery. While the former was released on bail in October 2016, the latter is still in jail in Karachi. Their fourth alleged accomplice, Pathan, has been taken by intelligence operatives to Quetta where some cases are pending investigation and trial against him, sources say.
The families of most of the men claim they were in the custody of the police and intelligence agencies all this while, contradicting the official story that they were absconding from the law.
The bodies of Usman Rajput, 38, and Faheem, 35, both residents of Latifabad area of Hyderabad, were found off the Super Highway in the jurisdiction of Kotri police station in Jamshoro district on November 26, 2014. Usman owned a grocery shop while Faheem was a rickshaw driver; they had three children each.
The two had gone missing 12 days earlier. They were returning from a mosque at 5:30pm when some unidentified men riding a car and a motorcycle whisked them away, Usman’s younger brother Imran Rajput says.
Yunus Kaimkhani, a first-class cricketer from Phuleli area of Hyderabad, met with a similar fate. His family received his body, which bore marks of torture, from Karachi’s Edhi morgue. It was said to be found in Karachi’s Steel Town area on March 15, 2015. Kaimkhani’s father says his son was picked up by men in plain clothes from the Civil Hospital, Hyderabad in December 2014.
The story of Mohammad Ali Ansari, prayer leader at Mohammadi Masjid (of the Ahl-e-Hadith sect) in Latifabad area of Hyderabad, differs only in minor detail. He went missing on July 25, 2015. More than a year later, on November 4, 2016, he was found near Mehboob Ground, Latifabad, in critical condition. He breathed his last two days later.
None of these men were required by the law enforcement authorities in any case — at least that is what the families of two of them claim. It was also not known which security or intelligence agency had taken them away and where they had been kept in custody.
His family claims he never exhibited any signs of being a militant. They only knew he was attending missionary congregations in Raiwind regularly
The case of four other men – Shaukat Khan (a resident of Mohmand Agency temporarily residing in Kotri’s industrial area in Jamshoro district); Kabir Khan (originally from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa but living in Jamshoro town); Shamim and Mohammad Umer (both residents of Hyderabad) – is even more mysterious.
Their bodies were found from Malir area in Karachi – on the same day, at the same place — earlier this year. It is not clear if they were arrested and were in custody before they were found dead. Equally unclear is the identity of their killers.
If a senior police official based in Hyderabad is to be believed, they were all ‘high-value’ religious and sectarian militants. According to him, another five to 10 people from Hyderabad are also ‘missing’ from their homes due to their links with religious and sectarian militancy. He does not confirm or deny if they are in official custody.
Some of these men have links to Tableeghi Jamaat – an Islamic missionary organisation headquartered in Raiwind, near Lahore. Yunus Kaimkhani, according to his father Shamsher Kaimkhani, also “went to Afghanistan” to fight against the Americans after 9/11 — as did three of his brothers who died there fighting.
The manner in which they first went missing and then turned up dead suggests a pattern usually seen in extrajudicial kidnappings and killings by intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Shamsher Kaimkhani perhaps knows that and is no longer trying to find out about the circumstances of his son’s disappearance and death after his body has been found. “Since we know that he was murdered, I am least interested in pursuing a petition [filed over his disappearance].”
Youngest of three brothers, Shahzeb is an unassuming boy in his twenties. He is a former student of a Deobandi seminary, Muftahul Uloom, in Latifabad, and was working at a local confectionery before his arrest. “He has no school education,” says his maternal uncle Zahoor Khan, a bearded man in his early sixties.
“It is through the police that we learnt that he used to be called Abdul Rafay at the seminary.” Shahzeb’s family migrated from Rajasthan, in India, to Liaquat Colony, Hyderabad, after Partition. He and his brothers were all minors when their father died 17 years ago. He gave up studying at the seminary after financial constraints forced him to find work. When his mother met him in prison in Karachi recently, he told her that he had “received training for jihad,” says Zahoor Khan.
His family claims he never exhibited any signs of being a militant. They only knew he was attending missionary congregations in Raiwind regularly. “I just knew he regularly attended the seminary and the Raiwind gathering,” says his mother, sitting on a plastic chair in the upper portion of her small house in Hyderabad’s Noorani Basti.
She came to know about Shahzeb’s arrest three months after he disappeared in the wake of the Hyderabad bank robbery. Towards the end of 2016, Karachi’s Manghopir police station presented him in a court of law. He was accused of orchestrating some grenade attacks. He sent a message to his family about his trial and imprisonment through someone he had met at the court. “We do not know how true the police claims against him are,” says Zahoor Khan.
His relatives say they first spotted lifestyle changes in him after he had done his matriculation. He started fasting for two months, for instance, though his family later convinced him that fasting in the month of Ramzan alone was sufficient
Because of his imprisonment, Shahzeb could not attend his brother Naeem’s wedding on March 25 this year. That makes his mother sad. He wanted to die fighting in jihad, she says as she talks about her meeting with him in jail. “I was not fated to become a martyr otherwise you would have been called the mother of a martyr,” she quotes him as telling her.
SSP Baloch says Shahzeb admitted to his association with al-Qaeda and confessed to having received training for handling firearms. He is also said to have confessed that Fahad, who was killed in the ‘shoot-out’ following the robbery, was his emir.
Fahad’s father Rafiq Memon disputes that claim. “How can he do [that]? ... He was ready to proceed to Canada for studies,” says Rafiq Memon, sitting in the sprawling courtyard of Noor Masjid, that houses the Hyderabad headquarters of the Tableeghi Jamaat. “We sold our farmland for 3.5 million rupees to bear his educational expenses in Canada.”
Fahad, who hailed from a Sindhi Memon family from the Matiari district of Sindh, completed his intermediate education in pre-engineering from the Muslim College, Hyderabad. He had enrolled for a diploma as well and was deemed a ‘burger boy’ while in school. He followed the latest dress fashion and was not known to be particularly religious.
His relatives say they first spotted lifestyle changes in him after he had done his matriculation. He started fasting for two months, for instance, though his family later convinced him that fasting in the month of Ramzan alone was sufficient. “He was attending the seminary located inside Noor Masjid as well as another one in Latifabad,” says his father. “He also attended the Raiwind congregations regularly and spent 40 days as a missionary,” says Rafiq Memon.
Noor Masjid is a huge complex of buildings not far from Qasimabad police station in Hyderabad. Built sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s, the mosque covers around five acres of land. It houses a seminary called Madrasa Noorul Islam.
Abdullah Siddique Magsi, who heads the seminary at Noor Masjid, is part of a 10-member committee responsible for the administration of the mosque as well. He admits to seeing Fahad at the mosque. “He used to visit us occasionally,” says the soft-spoken cleric in his forties. But, he insists, Fahad was never enrolled at the seminary. “We don’t think anyone involved in any objectionable activity is linked with this mosque or with the Tableeghi Jamaat,” Siddique says.
Police believe otherwise. Noor Masjid is one of the 94 seminaries/mosques on a Sindh government’s watch list, says Sanaullah Abbasi, Additional Inspector General Police (AIGP) of the Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD). He says Tableeghi Jamaat’s gatherings offer an “enabling environment” for infiltration by jihadi elements wanting to indoctrinate students. “Such elements can easily blend in with others, making it difficult for authorities to single them out.”
He then gets more specific. “We have reports that elements in the faculty of Noor Masjid’s seminary were indoctrinating students till last year,” he says. “Incidents before July 22, 2016 clearly pointed towards the existence of sleeping cells of banned outfits.”
This was originally published in the Herald's April 2017 issue under the headline "Murder by another name". To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer has been Dawn's Hyderabad bureau chief since February 2012.