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Revisiting a confessional jigsaw: Is Saad Aziz guilty as charged?

Updated Sep 25, 2016 12:49pm

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Inside Sabeen Mahmud's car after her murder | M Adil, White Star
Inside Sabeen Mahmud's car after her murder | M Adil, White Star

On the morning of May 13, 2015, some 45 minutes after gunmen had attacked a bus carrying the members of Ismaili Shia community at Safoora Goth, Saad Aziz descended the stairs into the living room of his home in Karachi’s Gulshan-e-Iqbal area. It was quarter past ten in the morning and he had just woken up, his family says. News channels were flashing the aftermath of the massacre; at one point, overwhelmed by the relentless portrayal of gore, his mother asked for the television to be switched off. “Who are Ismailis?” she remembers Aziz asking — he was perhaps more familiar with the term Aga Khani, explains his father.

Seven days later, on May 20, 2015, spurred by a tip-off, a police contingent left the Crime Investigation Department headquarters in Civil Lines for Gulshan-e-Maymar at 15 minutes past midnight. The area had been under surveillance since the massacre at Safoora Goth and on that day, police had been told, the mastermind of the attack, one Tahir Minas alias Saeen, was going to pass through there. So, the contingent waited. At six in the morning, a silver Alto car carrying four passengers neared a Hascol petrol station. A motorcycle preceded the car. Another trailed it.

Peering at the car, the informant confirmed the driver’s identity. As the police moved to capture Minhas, firing erupted from the vehicle. Then, someone inside the car threw a hand grenade at the police van, bursting its two tyres. Gunfire by the police, the first information report (FIR) of the incident insists, was purely retaliatory, aiming at the tyres of the car. The police brought it to a halt by managing to burst its tyres. In the back seat, clasping Kalashnikovs, were Azhar Ishrat and Hafiz Nasir. On the passenger seat, next to Minhas, carrying a loaded 9mm pistol in his right hand, two magazines hidden in the belt of his shalwar and a hand grenade stuffed in the pocket of his kameez, sat Aziz.

This is the version of the events as recorded in the FIR registered by the police at 8:30 am on May 20, 2015.

Saad Aziz and Aliur Rehman at T2F | Courtesy T2F
Saad Aziz and Aliur Rehman at T2F | Courtesy T2F

At least one senior police officer contradicts, by implication, that the arrests took place that day. On May 19, Karachi police chief Ghulam Qadir Thebo told the media that the “Counter-Terrorism Department has arrested four militants, including the mastermind identified as Tahir, for their involvement in the killing of 45 members of the Shia Ismaili community last week.” As reported by Dawn, he said those arrested were also involved in the killing of T2F founder-director Sabeen Mahmud and a number of policemen in the city besides attacks on the Bohra community and American academic, Debra Lobo. He, however, did not give any details of how and wherefrom the four were arrested.

Sindh Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah also announced the arrest of the same group on May 19. Addressing the media in Nawabshah at a university function, he is reported to have said that “the four people who planned, conspired” to perpetrate the attack on Ismaili Shias “have been arrested.”

Aziz’s family, too, insists he was taken away on the morning of May 19.

This is what the family says: On May 19, two dozen men in plainclothes stormed their house. They split into two teams. One began searching the ground floor; the other rushed upstairs towards Aziz’s bedroom. “They told us there were daakus on the roof and they were going upstairs to catch them,” says Aziz’s young wife. While some of them searched the bedroom, the others grabbed Aziz and took him to the roof. His wife stayed upstairs along with her children — a two-year-old daughter and a nine-month-old son. The rest of the family was downstairs: Aziz’s bedridden grandmother and her maid, his mother, his sister and his brother. His father was abroad at the time. The raiding men continued searching the house. On their way out, they asked for keys to the two family cars and motorcycle.

Minhas told his investigators that he “carried out many guerilla operations along with the Taliban and the al-Qaeda against the Northern Alliance and Russian army”. The last statement seems fanciful because, given that he was around 27 years old in 2007-08, he would be only nine when the Russian army left Afghanistan in 1989.

When Aziz’s wife came down, she asked the others where he was. “They asked me where he was,” recalls his wife. The family believes police led Aziz up to the roof and out through a neighbour’s house. Also taken from the house were laptops and mobile phones, a telephone set and modem, a toolbox, four wristwatches and one licensed pistol belonging to Aziz. The family’s vehicles – a Toyota Vitz, a Suzuki Alto and Aziz’s motorcycle – were also gone. Two days later, at two in the morning, police arrived again; they were masked this time. Breaking down the gate, they seized more items from the house, including cash and jewellery, the family claims.

Five weeks after they last saw him, Aziz’s family sits in the living room of their house and recounts the two raids: father, mother and wife, striking only in their ordinariness. At no point does their account converge with the police’s version of events: raid versus armed encounter, Gulshan-e-Iqbal versus Gulshan-e-Maymar, May 19 versus May 20. Aziz’s father has lodged a constitutional petition, requesting the Sindh High Court that a lawyer be allowed to meet with his son, that the items seized from his home be returned and a case registered against officials who indulged in “dacoity and looting on the pretext of investigation and search”. An earlier application to meet Aziz was denied by an anti-terrorism court judge.

But the family has issued no public statement, a move that has been interpreted in varying ways: an implicit admission of guilt, an exercise in prudence, an attempt at preserving dignity. “On the whole, we feel the media is not very professional,” explains Aziz’s father, choosing his words carefully. “Minor things are sometimes blown out of proportion and we did not want that.” When the first television van rolled into the neighbourhood after Aziz’s arrest, the family politely said they had nothing to say. But newspapers and news channels continued to talk anyway, choosing to focus on Aziz’s personal trajectory at elite co-education academic institutions – Beaconhouse, Lyceum, Institute of Business Administration (IBA) – and on his purported religious transformation, holding every available detail up to the light.

“Everyone goes through some sort of transformation at that age,” says his father, when asked about Aziz’s growing interest in religion during his university years. He doesn’t betray any indignation at the sort of questions that are being asked of him about his son — he is happy to answer what he can, only wary that the meaning of his words may be morphed. “[Aziz] did keep a beard, he did begin reading the Quran with its translation — is that what you mean by radicalisation...?”

Police inspect Sabeen Mahmud’s car after she was shot |M Adil, White Star
Police inspect Sabeen Mahmud’s car after she was shot |M Adil, White Star

The eldest of three siblings, Aziz is a young man you have to rack your brains to recall. He wasn’t particularly fond of reading books; school friends say he loved listening to American rock band Pearl Jam. His mother did not let him play cricket on the street; when girls began calling him on the landline, she sternly asked him that they call on his cell phone. His nonchalance during exams, characteristic of many boys, used to astonish her: she would drag him out of bed and send him to school. Despite this, he sailed through his O-levels, clinching seven As. “He was the most amazing guy,” says one friend who was close to him at Lyceum, where he studied for his A-levels. “He was really sweet with such a gentle temperament. I can’t imagine the Saad I knew ever being capable of hurting someone, let alone murder.”

At IBA, his academic performance remained consistent; he graduated in 2011 with a grade point average of 3.3. During his time there, he became involved with the Iqra Society, described by students as a benign club formed to discuss religion, distancing himself from his football-playing friends. He served on the editorial board of the society’s journal, Reconnection; previous issues of the journal are currently unavailable online but the Herald has the copy of one article written by Aziz in January 2011. It explores the challenges faced by “political Islam”, particularly due to “laicism” which he describes as “a hard, interventionist stance taken by a secular government against a religious minority or majority”. Quoting Samuel Huntington and invoking conflicts in Bosnia, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and Kashmir, he earnestly professes a “clash of civilisations” view of the world, noting that “Muslim values are a threat to a Western civilisation based on Judeo-Christian values”. Citing Quranic verses and Hadiths pertaining to jihad, he concludes: “The Judeo-Christian West with all its technology and power can’t inculcate these feelings of martyrdom in its followers because they fear death, unlike Muslims, who view death as a means of meeting Allah.”

Yet none of Aziz’s peers that the Herald spoke to can recall any instance where he attempted to proselytise, though some did note an increase in religion-related posts on his Facebook page. “There were absolutely no signs that would suggest extremism or violence of any kind,” insists his friend from Lyceum, who lost touch with him but reconnected, for a brief stretch, in the beginning of 2012. “He was still the same lovely Saad.”

At no point does Saad Aziz’s family’s account converge with the police’s version of events: raid versus armed encounter, Gulshan-e-Iqbal versus Gulshan-e-Maymar, May 19 versus May 20.

At his restaurant in Karachi’s Sindhi Muslim Society, which he took over from his father after graduation and rebranded as a Mexican-themed eatery, employees speak of Aziz fondly, lamenting the void left by his absence. He would spend his day overseeing operations, only ever stepping out to say his prayers, they say. He actively interacted with customers, sometimes chatting with them about pop culture, they add. One employee distinctly remembers seeing Aziz at the restaurant on the day of the Safoora Goth incident, the most recent act of terrorism being attributed to him. Nearly everyone expresses bewilderment at the turn of events.

“Our domestic servants are Shias. They were so upset when they found out [about his arrest]. They say Saad never so much as lifted an eye and looked at them,” says his mother. “The man who cleans his motorcycle came here in tears the other day. Saad always spoke to him with kindness, he said. In this day and age, who looks after a man who cleans motorcycles?”

At the Unsilencing Balochistan: Take Two talk at T2F | Courtesy T2F
At the Unsilencing Balochistan: Take Two talk at T2F | Courtesy T2F

Still, there are questions that the family doesn’t have answers to. They admit that they don’t know much about Aziz’s friends, old or new. They don’t know whether he ever visited Waziristan, though he did go up country for some months, confirms his father, ostensibly for tableegh. They have no knowledge of him ever having translated extremist literature. At some point, he translated the writings of his mother’s uncle, a prominent Jamaat-e-Islami leader, says his mother, but that is all she knows. He never mentioned Mahmud at home or that he ever visited T2F. “Even if he did attend an event or two, so what?” says his father. “Aren’t all sorts of people welcome there?”

If Aziz is being framed (as most of his friends and family seem to believe), if there are gaps in what the police is saying (the nature of his arrest, the date of his arrest) and if his family can vouch for his presence at home just after the Safoora Goth attack, why is he coolly confessing to cold-blooded murder? He speaks without prompting, he is able to recount and repeat all the details and the Herald can verify that he bears no visible signs of torture.

“Someone has seen him?” Saad’s mother asks, stricken. “You have heard him confess to all this?”

It is the only time her composure cracks.

“You know how this works,” she continues, her voice rising in alarm. “Who knows what he has been threatened with?”

In his well-publicised confession before the police, Aziz says how three other people helped him kill Mahmud. Haider Abbas, alias Omar Jawad, provided him a pistol; Mahmood and Tayyab kept any eye on her movement as she left T2F after the session on Baloch missing persons had ended; and Aliur Rehman, alias Tony, drove the motorcycle Aziz was riding when he shot her. All his reported accomplices, the police say, remain on the run.

Those arrested with him remain tightlipped. At the very least, the police have attributed no confessional statements to any of them — not as yet. This sounds odd, given that their reported ringleader, Minhas, has a self-confessed criminal history that he shared with his interrogators a few years ago.

In early 2007, Minhas was arrested in Hyderabad, along with two of his brothers and some others. He was charged for the August 7, 2006, abduction and murder of Girish Kumar, the son of a well-off Hindu trader, but in January 2008 an anti-terrorism court in Hyderabad acquitted him and those arrested with him because the police could not prove the allegation.

Either during his trial or sometime later, a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) probed Minhas in detail. A copy of the team’s undated report puts his age approximately at 27 and his education as BA/BCom. His biographical sketch at the beginning of the report cites Kashmir-focussed jihadi organisations, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Hizbul Mujahideen, as the sources of his early radicalisation and initiation into terrorist training. He is also reported to have received four rounds of guerilla and intelligence training at various camps in Afghanistan including one in Helmand and another in Kandahar. He told his investigators that he “carried out many guerilla operations along with Taliban and al-Qaeda against the Northern Alliance and the Russian army”. The last statement seems fanciful because, given that he was around 27 years old in 2007-2008, he would be only nine when the Russian army left Afghanistan in 1989. By the same measure, his statements about receiving training in Afghanistan and Azad Kashmir even earlier become highly suspect.

Photo Malika Abbas, White Star
Photo Malika Abbas, White Star

In the very second sentence of the JIT report, Minhas is said to have started his poultry business after passing his intermediate exams. In the last sentence, though, he changes his stance and claims having started his poultry farm after returning from Afghanistan in the wake of the American attack on that country in 2001. In the JIT report, he confesses to have committed, or at least attempted, many crimes, including Kumar’s abduction and murder, two incidents of mobile phone snatching in Karachi in November 2006, and planting bombs at an eatery and a Sufi shrine, both in 2004 — the bombs did not go off because of manufacturing flaws. The police are not known to have pressed any of these charges against him after his acquittal in Kumar’s abduction and murder.

Where others among the arrested – Azhar Ishrat and Hafiz Nasir – are concerned, there is little that is available in the media about them beyond what the police have made known — mainly their academic qualifications and the universities they have attended.

On a recent Sunday, a young guard sits behind a table, with a register open in front of him, at the far end of a passage inside a multi-storey apartment building along Sharae Faisal in Karachi. Ishrat lived here — an apartment in the building is recorded as his family’s residence in a directory of Sir Syed University of Engineering and Technology where he studied electronics. “The family does not live here any longer. They shifted to Gulshan-e-Iqbal two years ago,” says the guard, wearing an off-white shalwar kameez. “The house is empty and locked now.”

When asked about the possibility of visiting the apartment any way, the guard calls someone on the phone. Seconds later, a burly man, with curly locks parted in the middle, and a bushy stubble, exits an elevator in the passage, charging straight ahead. In rushed sentences spoken in flawless English, he claims being a tenant in Ishrat’s family apartment. “I have been living here for the last five years. The family has shifted to Gulistan-e-Jauhar. I only occasionally meet [Azhar Ishrat’s father].” Asked to provide any contact information of the family, he says: “I have a cell phone number but I can’t provide that to you.”

He, then, briskly moves out of the building, saying “this area must be under surveillance” so “we must talk in [a] car”. Once inside the vehicle, he starts speaking, almost unprompted, about how radical elements had made inroads, as early as the start of 2000s, into the university Ishrat attended. “I went to the same university three years after Azhar,” he says. When he mentions his batch, however, he gives years which don’t match his earlier statement. Sitting in the car next to the driver, he speaks in a hurry, mostly answering unasked questions. “I only came to know about [his arrest] two days ago. If I had known earlier, I would have packed my bags and left immediately,” he says more than once. “I don’t want to have anything to do with such elements.”

Continue reading our two-part cover story: Anatomy of a murder: An investigative look into Sabeen Mahmud’s assassination and its aftermath


This article was originally published in the Herald's July 2015 issue. To read more, subscribe to Herald's print edition.