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Updated Apr 27, 2015 07:35pm

Police prepare for an operation against suspected criminals in Karachi on July 5, 2013 | White Star
Police prepare for an operation against suspected criminals in Karachi on July 5, 2013 | White Star
“Hyderabad?” asks the man in a thick Pashto accent, looking quizzically towards other passengers in the economy compartment of a train as it trundles from Peshawar to Karachi. His clothes are tattered and his beard is unkempt; his teeth are stained yellow. He hands over his cell phone to the passenger next to him. “Tell [the man on the other end of the line] where we are; I can’t comprehend,” he requests in broken Urdu.

By then, everyone in the compartment is curious about him. They want to know where he is coming from and where he is headed. In a few halting sentences, he tells them that he lives near Peshawar in an Afghan refuge settlement. An acquaintance in Hyderabad has found a job for him in the city, he says.

He is obviously lying.

Hyderabad comes and goes. The man does not alight from the train. Instead, he begins asking fellow passengers the time to Karachi. Disembarking at Karachi’s Cantt station, the train’s final destination, he melts into the multitude: mostly Pakhtun men of different ages exiting into the city.


Two months later – in February 2013, to be exact – the same man was spotted in Kunwari Colony, a Pakhtun-dominated locality near Manghopir area in Karachi’s district west. Along with many other Pakhtun men, he was living at a dera (a male-only house or portion of a house) near a concrete pipe manufacturing factory. No one knew precisely what brought the men to Karachi but the proprietor of their dera, Mohammad Mushtaq Mohmand was known to have close connections with a Taliban group operating in Karachi.

Pakhtun elders in many northern and north-western neighbourhoods of Karachi tell the Herald that at one stage in 2013, Mohmand was heading one of the two Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) factions in the city. On the surface, he was running an illegal hydrant and a social welfare organisation; behind the curtains, he was facilitating – and sometimes ordering – targeted killings and suicide blasts. He would provide accommodation to militants shuttling between tribal areas and Karachi and raise funds for terrorist attacks through criminal activities in the city, say many prominent Pakhtun residents of areas such as Manghopir, Pirabad, Mominabad, Pakhtunabad, Ittehad Town, Metroville and Frontier Colony.

After the death of TTP founding chief Baitullah Mehsud in 2009 – in a drone attack in the tribal areas – most Taliban fighters based in Karachi supported Waliur Rehman in his bid to become the new TTP head. By the early part of 2013, they were able to overshadow the Karachi-based supporters of the other claimant to the post, Hakimullah Mehsud, at least in some localities.

“With help from local Pakhtuns who have been living here for decades, the militants of the Waliur Rehman group set up a peace committee in Pakhtunabad and ordered Hakimullah’s men to leave Pakhtunabad within a week,” says a local resident. This eviction order led to frequent clashes between the two Taliban factions all over Manghopir, he says.

In retaliation, militants belonging to the Hakimullah faction consolidated their support in another neighbourhood – Sultanabad – and launched an operation against their opponents there. In this way, all of Manghopir was carved into localities strictly demarcated on the basis of loyalty to one Taliban faction or the other, say local residents.

Mohmand was an important operator in all this factional fighting. He was instrumental in setting up the Pakhtunabad peace committee, soon earning the trust of Waliur Rehman, say local residents. He not only took on Hakimullah’s men but also played a central role in arranging logistical and financial resources for the operations of Waliur Rehman’s followers .

Then he switched sides.

Mohammad Mushtaq Mohmand with police officials at a public gathering in Manghopir
Mohammad Mushtaq Mohmand with police officials at a public gathering in Manghopir

Mohmand’s family has been living in Kunwari Colony for three decades or so — the local police know him well. Some officials are said to have convinced him to work for law-enforcement agencies in return for letting him operate his illegal hydrant with impunity. By April 2013, his relationship with the local police had become so close that he started flaunting these ties in public. Chaudhry Aslam – a senior superintendent of police known for his anti-Taliban ‘arrest-and-kill’ operations – used to visit Mohmand’s residence in Manghopir quite frequently. So did many other high-ranking policemen. A number of policemen shared the stage with him in one of the many public gatherings he arranged during those days.

In order to add political salience to his social clout and police connections, he also became an independent candidate for two provincial assembly constituencies, PS-96 and PS-97, comprising many Pakhtun-majority localities.

Pakhtun elders in the area tell the Herald that Mohmand was instrumental in the capture and killing of many Taliban operatives in Karachi. He was, however, careful. Initially, he did not inform on the militants of the Waliur Rehman group and, instead, helped the police locate the hideouts of militants affiliated with the Hakimullah group, local residents say.

In May 2013, the situation took another turn. Waliur Rehman died in a drone attack and police officers started putting pressure on Mohmand to help them arrest or kill militants belonging to that group, too. City government officials demolished his hydrant twice during this period; the police also started arresting many men close to him. To win back official patronage, Mohmand relented and helped police arrest and kill some of Waliur Rehman’s militants.

This cost him dearly. He lost control over his own men and the people he had been protecting and facilitating turned against him. Mohmand’s roots in Manghopir, however, ran deep and his social stature helped him avert threats to his life — for some time, that is.

On December 3, 2013, Mohmand was dead.

Mohmand was an important operator in all this factional fighting. He was instrumental in setting up the Pakhtunabad peace committee, soon earning the trust of Waliur Rehman, say local residents.

Unknown gunmen killed him in an ambush in Sakhi Hassan neighbourhood. Mohammad Akhtar, the superintendent of police in North Nazimabad, where Sakhi Hassan is located, is reported to have said after his killing: “Mohmand was associated with the slain TTP leader Waliur Rehman. He used to live in Manghopir’s Kunwari Colony from where he used to operate and generate funds for the Taliban.”

Thrillers like this abound in the ongoing anti-Taliban operation in Karachi. A year and a half after law-enforcement agencies started proactively taking on the Taliban in Manghopir, the local landscape is littered with many similarly deadly stories. From factional rivalries among the Taliban to police informants planted within militant groups, from staged police encounters to hit-and-run attacks on security forces, the operation has passed through a whole gamut of moves and counter-moves. Hundreds of people have been arrested in the process. Scores have died, including many security officials.

The outcome of all this bloodshed has been a partial – and tenuous – peace, at best. The Taliban control has diminished “to some extent”, says Bashir Jan – a leader of the Pakhtun nationalist Awami National Party (ANP) – who also unsuccessfully contested the May 2013 election for a provincial assembly seat from Manghopir. The situation was so bad at the time of election that Jan and many other ANP candidates could not even properly canvass votes. “The operation has still not achieved what most people had expected of it,” he tells the Herald at his home in Metroville.

When the Taliban first started consolidating their position in Pakhtun localities in northern and north-western parts of Karachi in 2008, many local residents were frightened and wanted law-enforcement agencies to take immediate action against the militants. “In those days, people would point out the presence of Taliban militants in a house or in a locality. Law enforcers would arrest the militants but free them a few days later, letting them return to the same localities from where they were arrested,” says an ANP leader in the neighbourhood of Frontier Colony. Given the security threats, he does not want to be named. The militants freed by the police would then threaten those who had informed on them – and in some cases – had forced the informers to leave their homes, he adds.

In a few instances, the police would arrest the militants but later call in the people who had pointed out their presence. “These people were then told to give in writing that those arrested were, in fact, ordinary people who had committed no crime,” says the ANP leader.

His party was one of the first targets of the Taliban in Karachi. Between 2008 and 2013, militants killed many ANP leaders and activists in Pakhtun areas of the city and forced almost all the party offices there to shut down. Leaders such as Jan came under multiple attacks. He was lucky to have survived.

Khurram Waris – who was then heading the counterterrorism unit of the Karachi Police’s crime investigation department – is reported in the media to have claimed that Noor Alam and those arrested with him were involved in terrorist activities, ranging from kidnapping for ransom, sectarian killings and murdering police personnel.

The Taliban also warned two other political parties in Karachi – the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) – against holding rallies and public gatherings during the run-up to the election. This ‘ban’ on political activities has not been removed yet. “No, we haven’t been able to reopen our party offices in Pakhtun localities,” admits Jan.

Local residents echo his views. “There was hardly any visible improvement in law and order in our area prior to the Taliban attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar,” says Anwar Khan, a resident of Machar Colony near Sohrab Goth. The militants, he claims, would roam around freely, brandishing weapons. “But during the last two months, police and [paramilitary] Rangers have stepped up action against the militants,” he says.

This has resulted in a situation that has repeated itself quite frequently during the last six years or so. Like a train rattling south from north and then going back up – again and again – Karachi’s self-perpetuating spiral of violence seems merely to be at one of its cyclical ebbs.

Most militants have gone into hiding. Others have fled to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal areas and many others have either been arrested or killed in encounters with police and Rangers, says Khan. The ANP leader in Frontier Colony, however, insists that the arrests and killings of Taliban haven’t really hampered the militants’ activities. “They have only reduced their visibility,” he says, “but they are still attacking health officials administering polio drops in Pakhtun neighbourhoods.”

On January 20, 2015, unknown militants killed three polio workers in Qayyumabad; less than a week later, a policeman guarding a polio vaccination team was killed in Paposh Nagar. “The Taliban also continue visiting markets and factories in Pakhtun neighbourhoods to collect protection money,” the ANP leader says.

Other complaints are even more serious — and personal. Those who supported Mohmand when he was helping the police pin down Hakimullah’s militants say that law-enforcement agencies had assured them that they would be protected against any reprisals from the Taliban. After Mohmand’s death, they say, they appear to be on their own.

“Many members of the vigilance groups [that helped the police] have been killed during last two years by militants while others cannot go out of their areas of residence for fear of being killed,” says a Pakhtun elder in Manghopir. “The policemen who used to be Mohmand’s guests every other day are nowhere to be seen now,” he complains.

“In those days, people would point out the presence of Taliban militants in a house or in a locality. Law enforcers would arrest the militants but free them a few days later, letting them return to the same localities from where they were arrested,” says an ANP leader in the neighbourhood of Frontier Colony.

Captain (retd) Tahir Naveed, deputy inspector general of police in Karachi’s district west, does not agree with this assessment. “[Law and order] have improved and will gradually get even better,” he tells the Herald. The reason why police have been unsuccessful in tackling the situation effectively is due to a lack of logistical support, training and weapons. This is changing, albeit slowly, he adds. “We have already procured some equipment but need more so that we can effectively control militancy and violence.”

Noor Alam had been driving his pick-up van regularly from his residence in Hawke’s Bay area to Purani Sabzi Mandi (the old fruit and vegetable market) near Central Jail for the last many years. Every morning, he reached a designated space at the mandi, loading crates full of fruits and vegetables, then distributing them to shops and handcarts in different localities across the city.

On December 30, 2014, at about eight in the morning, Noor Alam was going about his daily chores at the market when eight people in two private cars and an unnumbered police patrol van encircled his vehicle. They dragged him from the driver’s seat and pushed him into the police van, immediately driving away. Three hours later, the same police contingent in the same vehicles stormed into Quaid-e-Azam Truck Stand at Mauripur Road, looking for three people who worked there: Gul Pir Khan, son of Tarkhi Gul, Amir Mohammad, son of Shadir Khan, and Hakimullah. They rounded up the three, checked their identity documents and sped away with them.

By late night on January 6, 2015, the police had killed three of them. “We saw news flashing on a private television channel that said the police had killed Noor Alam, Gul Pir and Amir Mohammad in an encounter,” says Noor Alam’s brother, Sher Alam.

He had been trying to move every forum within his means after his brother’s arrest. Immediately after Noor Alam had been taken away by the police, Sher Alam sent letters and applications to the station house office (SHO) of Mauripur Police Station, the inspector general of police, Sindh, and even the chief of the army staff for the recovery of his brother. He did not receive a single response.

He then filed a petition at the Sindh High Court, challenging Noor Alam’s arrest and seeking information about his whereabouts. The court had scheduled the first hearing of the petition on January 8, 2015 — two days after Noor Alam turned up dead.

Rangers personnel stand next to suspects and recovered weapons at Baloch Colony.
Rangers personnel stand next to suspects and recovered weapons at Baloch Colony.

Khurram Waris – who was then heading the counterterrorism unit of the Karachi Police’s crime investigation department – is reported in the media to have claimed that Noor Alam and those arrested with him were involved in terrorist activities, ranging from kidnapping for ransom, sectarian killings and murdering police personnel. He is also said to have accused them of planning terrorist attacks on two private English-medium schools in Karachi — their names and locations remained undisclosed.

Sher Alam, however, insists that his brother, as well as those killed along with him, could never have attacked a school. “Their own children are studying in private English-medium schools,” he says. “They were not religious militants that the police are trying to portray them as.” The police may have had evidence to prove otherwise — but that has not been made public so far.

The incident also raises another question — one that many people have asked multiple times after similar encounters in Karachi and elsewhere in Pakistan. How could the arrested suspects have managed to engage the police in an ‘encounter’ whilst in custody? The police response is always the same — “the suspects tried to escape during an attack by their accomplices on the policemen holding them in detention.”

On April 17, 2014, the police claimed killing two young men in an encounter on MPR Road in Orangi Town. When initial reports of the encounter came in, many senior police officers went on record, appreciating the policemen who had taken part in the encounter and claiming that those killed were dangerous criminals. They were said to be carrying pistols and robbing people when the police engaged them.

A brief video clip made from a cell phone surfaced soon. It belied the police story, entirely. The clip showed police personnel in uniform and a civilian standing next to a white car. Next, some policemen were shown frisking two young men — the footage showed no weapons being discovered. In the second-last scene, policemen in plain clothes were firing in the air. In the last scene, the young men being frisked were lying in an ambulance — dead.

The clip was so incriminating that the police department had to set up an internal investigation team, headed by Irfan Baloch, senior superintendent of police in Karachi’s district west where the incident had taken place. The investigation team found that the encounter claims were untrue and that the young men were actually victims of extrajudicial murder committed by the law enforcers. The investigators recommended that the policemen responsible for the incident be dismissed from service and prosecuted under murder charges.

The policemen were duly fired and a murder case was registered against them. At least two of them were arrested, along with some civilians. Less than two weeks after the fake encounter, however, they managed to flee from custody. The relatives of the killed young men allege that senior police officials were complicit in their escape — a claim impossible to verify in the absence of evidence.

In another case, police officials are said to have pressurised the family of a young man killed in a fake encounter to withdraw the case against the concerned police personnel.

Rangers officials during an operation in Pakhtunabad
Rangers officials during an operation in Pakhtunabad

Aneesur Rehman Soomro, a 17-year-old schoolboy, was picked up along with two of his friends on June 12, 2014 by personnel of Sachal Police Station, from the Safoora Goth neighbourhood of Gulistan-e-Jauhar. Ten days later, he was killed in a police encounter near an Afghan refugee camp in Sohrab Goth. The police claimed he was a Taliban operative.

His father, Anwer Ali Soomro, tells the Herald that he visited Sachal Police Station a number of times to know the reasons for his son’s arrest but never got a satisfactory answer. He also moved a petition at the district and sessions court in Malir for the boy’s release, bringing on record his fear that the police might kill him in a staged encounter. The court ordered its bailiff to conduct a raid at the police station but the raiding party did not find Aneesur Rehman there.

After his son’s death, Anwer Ali filed a petition at the Sindh High Court alleging that Aneesur Rehman was killed after his failure to pay 500,000 rupees that police officials were demanding for his release. When the high court ordered an inquiry into the killing, one of the police officials allegedly involved in the incident moved the Supreme Court against the initiation of the inquiry.

During a hearing at the Supreme Court’s Karachi registry on February 4, 2015, Anwer Ali complained that some police officials and their relatives were threatening him of dire consequences if he didn’t withdraw his case against them. He claimed that he was being followed by the police and that his life – as well the lives of other members of his family – were under threat. The apex court ordered senior Karachi police officials to ensure that no harm was done to him and his family.

Incidents such as these have led to many questions about the authenticity of scores of encounters that the police in Karachi have been involved in since September 2013, when the latest security operation to improve law and order was launched in the city. According to the police’s own statistics, they have killed 771 suspects in 497 days of the operation. The impact of such large-scale bloodletting remains negative, if any.

Encounters create a complex situation, says Fateh Mohammad Burfat, chairman of the criminology department at Karachi University. Even the most well known criminals could be portrayed as innocent if they are summarily killed in an extrajudicial manner, without getting the opportunity to defend them in a court of law or without being proven guilty beyond a shadow of doubt, he explains. “Everyone has the right to a fair trial,” he says.

Burfat is aware that this argument has been made before and that the law enforcement agencies always counter-argue that the judicial system is so flawed it ends up denying justice by perpetually delaying it. “In circumstances such as these, police are tempted to resort to extrajudicial killing.”

According to the police’s own statistics, they have killed 771 suspects in 497 days of the operation. The impact of such large-scale bloodletting remains negative, if any.

He insists, however, that the state must undertake measures and devise policies to discourage extrajudicial murders. Even when there is nothing that can be immediately done to fix the myriad problems afflicting the judicial system, the state can still improve the police’s professional capacity to investigate and prosecute. The problem is the police are totally dependent on confessional statements and oral testimonies for investigating and prosecuting suspects. The courts, on the other hand, cannot convict and punish people in the absence of evidence that can stand a fair and free trial, says Burfat. One way to change this is to focus on collecting and analysing forensic evidence – fingerprints, footprints, blood samples, weapons, detailed maps of the crime scenes – as well as data mining and digital identity verifications. “The police should be trained in all these skills and enough laboratories and facilities should be set up to facilitate them,” Burfat remarks.

By not taking such small but important steps, the state ends up promoting extrajudicial killings which, as a tool to advance and implement the state’s writ, may create many unintended consequences. “In recent history, Sri Lanka has adopted extrajudicial killings as a state policy tool. It is too early to say if such killings will cement national unity in that country or promote further fragmentation. In places such as Eastern Europe [under communism] and in the defunct Soviet Union, however, such policies had led to the break-up of countries.”

In a city such as Karachi – which is more polarised on the basis of politics, ethnicity and religion than any other place in Pakistan – state authorities must exercise additional restraint in resorting to extrajudicial killings, says Burfat. Such a policy can easily backfire. Already, he says, most killings in the city – whether by law-enforcement agencies or by militants and criminal elements – are already portrayed in political, ethnic or sectarian colours. “Those deaths that cannot be linked to these three factors generally go unreported in the media.” Extrajudicial killings, too, are increasingly getting one or the other of the three hues and are widening the city’s existing fault lines.

The remedy Burfat suggests is rather simple. There should be an independent, politically impartial entity which investigates all the various police encounters about which doubts are being raised and questions being asked. “This entity should also explore whether encounters are at all necessary to curb crime. If not, then what can be done to avoid them?”

Naveed, the police chief in district west, does not like the fact that his subordinates kill suspects in encounters but he also believes that they do not do so according to any plan. “The criminals don’t surrender when the police – acting on credible intelligence reports – conduct raids to arrest them. Instead, they attack police personnel,” he tells the Herald. This leads to encounters, he seems to suggest. In the case of the Taliban, there is an additional element to contend with. “They are trained to die while fighting instead of getting arrested alive. They are always ready to die.” says Naveed. The Taliban are also trained to take revenge. “That explains why so many policemen have been martyred in targeted killings [by the Taliban],” he adds.

The police’s knee-jerk reaction to the Taliban’s tit-for-tat measures resemble the turbulent moves and swings of a rickety train running out of control on a rusty railway line. Along the way, there are ominous signposts that no one seems to be able to read.

This was originally published in Herald's March 2015 issue. Subscribe to Herald in print.