In-Depth Arena

Police 'fry' suspects to fight crime

Updated 21 Sep, 2016 12:39am
Illustration by ZC
Illustration by ZC

Fayyaz Mugheri sits in a white plastic chair in a small rectangular room. The unpainted walls of the room are discoloured by the moisture and its floor has become a rusty brown layer of cement due to lack of maintenance and cleaning. A snooker table, with its deep green baize and thick wooden legs, covers half the room. When Fayyaz has to move about to facilitate snooker players, he uses a wooden crutch. His right leg is severed from the thigh down.

According to the increasingly popular lingo spoken in many parts of Sindh, he is ‘half fry’. There is also the more horrific variation of it — ‘full fry’.

Fayyaz, in his mid-teens – the hint of a moustache lining his upper lip – was walking on both his legs on the evening of July 26, 2015 when, according to him, his mother sent him to get some groceries. As he was going towards the grocery store in his Islamia Colony neighbourhood of Hyderabad city, he says, police personnel approached him and took him away blindfolded in a car. “They took me to some unknown place where they kept me handcuffed. They also beat me,” Fayyaz says.

Three days later, they blindfolded him again and took him out in a police van. When the van stopped, he was made to step down. “I heard a gunshot but did not feel much — just a burning sensation in my thigh,” he says. Then he fell to the ground and lost consciousness. When Fayyaz came to his senses, he found himself at the Civil Hospital, Hyderabad. It was there that he came to know that a bullet had pierced through his leg.

“There was no encounter,” Fayyaz insists. “They just picked me up and put a bullet through me.”

The police say he received the injury as a result of retaliatory fire. A First Information Report (FIR) lodged by Hyderabad’s City Police Station states that Fayyaz was standing in a street by a motorcycle along with another man on July 29, 2015. When they saw a police patrol van approaching them, they opened fire at it; the police returned fire with sub-machine guns; a bullet hit Fayyaz who fell to the ground; the other man managed to flee from the scene. The police arrested Fayyaz who was in possession of a loaded pistol, the FIR claims.

Fayyaz’s father, Bakhshal Mugheri, says his son was in police custody when he was shot. He claims he went to the Baldia Police Station, responsible for policing the area where he lives, the very next day after his son had disappeared. He did not find Fayyaz there. He went to a couple of other police stations as well but the boy was not there either. He submitted an application on July 28, 2015 to the Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Hyderabad, the senior most police officer in the district, regarding his son’s disappearance.

It is impossible to judge the veracity of the police version of events or the one offered by the Mugheris. Whatever the truth, it is certain that Fayyaz could not have been at two places at the same time — in the street where the police say the encounter took place or, as he claims, in detention where he was shot.

“There was no encounter,” Fayyaz insists. “They just picked me up and put a bullet through me,” he adds. “The encounter was genuine,” says Hyderabad district’s SSP Irfan Baloch. Fayyaz says there was not a single FIR registered against him before he was shot. The police, however, say he was involved in street crimes. “Fayyaz is a notorious criminal,” Irfan Baloch insists, though the victims of his crime had not bothered to lodge reports against him.

The case against Fayyaz for allegedly firing at the police is pending hearing in a trial court that has released him on bail. He has stopped going to school. An alleged encounter with the police and two amputations later, his educational prospects did not look good. His father has got for him a snooker table that helps him earn a meagre income.

The police are happy: Fayyaz can no longer roam the streets, snatching mobile phones, they say. That, indeed, has been their objective to ‘half fry’ him — to stop him from committing crime.

Fayyaz has launched a judicial battle against the policemen responsible for making him ‘half fry’. The proceedings are pending at the Sindh High Court. His, however, is one of hundreds of cases of ‘half fry’ and ‘full fry’ – that means death by a police bullet – recorded in different districts across Sindh. In Mirpur Khas district alone, 13 cases of ‘full fry’ were reported in 2015. There were 25 cases of ‘half fry’ in the district during the same year.

In spite of the alarmingly high number of cases, their details remain more or less similar. Consider the following: Ghulam Nabi Marri was on his way to Mirpur Khas city from his village in a nearby tehsil when he went missing, says Muhammad Khan Marri, a member of his family. His relatives immediately filed a habeas corpus petition at the Sindh High Court. Three or four days later, the police shot him, leaving him seriously wounded, Muhammad Khan Marri says. Ghulam Nabi died of his wounds on April 9, 2015.

Justice should be dispensed in courts and not on the streets.

The police say Ghulam Nabi received a police bullet during a shoot-out in the jurisdiction of Mirwah Police Station of Mirpur Khas district. The police suspected he was involved in the murder of a police constable, Qutub Rajar. The FIR lodged by the latter’s family, however, does not mention Ghulam Nabi’s name as a suspect.

Ghulam Qadir Marri, aged 32, died after police shot him in similar circumstances on July 12, 2015 — also in Mirpur Khas district.

“Ghulam Qadir was not wanted in any criminal case,” says Yaqoob Marri, a cousin of the deceased. When his family moved the Sindh High Court, seeking an investigation into Ghulam Qadir’s death, Yaqoob claims, the police implicated him and Ghulam Qadir’s twin brother, Shah Haq, in false cases. “We withdrew our application for investigation to avoid harassment by the police.”

Illustration by VC
Illustration by VC

Mitho Zardari, a wiry young man with curly hair and a lean face, entered a shop in Shahdadpur on July 30, 2016. He says he had a dispute with the shopkeeper over money; the shopkeeper says Mitho wanted to rob him. A gun is also mentioned by eyewitnesses — Mitho is said to have aimed it at the shopkeeper. Hearing the noise coming from the shop, a large crowd gathered. Some of them grabbed Mitho and started beating him up.

The police soon arrived at the scene. They retrieved him from the mob and took him away. A bleeding Mitho, with a big red blotch on the front of his shirt, can be seen being escorted by a policeman in a photo taken by an eyewitness.

Two hours later, the police took Mitho to a local hospital. His right leg had a bullet wound. Local media reports cite the police record to show that he got hurt in a shoot-out that ensued after the police caught him committing a robbery. He also had an unidentified ‘accomplice’, according to official documents, who could not be arrested.

The police certainly did not invent Mitho’s act of causing a ruckus at the shop — regardless of whether he did it with criminal intent or otherwise. They still invented the story of the encounter — to justify his ‘half fry’ condition.

In at least two other cases, it was not necessary for the suspect to be caught red-handed committing a crime. Mere reputation of being a criminal was deemed enough reason by the police to inflict punishment on them.

In spite of the alarmingly high number of cases, their details remain more or less similar.

One of them, Farooq Nizamani, in his early thirties, was picked up by the police in the summer of 2015 from his neighbourhood in Sanghar city. Interviews with his neighbours suggest he had a track record as a criminal. He claims he was taken into custody to milk money from him. “The police hit me with their rifle butts and asked me to pay 300,000 rupees if I did not want to be a ‘half fry’ case.”

When Farooq Nizamani refused to oblige, he says, the police told him they planned to ‘half fry’ him. A policeman standing behind him fired a bullet to do just that but, because Farooq was trying to free himself from their grip, the bullet went through his calf, he adds.

He claims he has gone through three surgeries and has spent 800,000 rupees on treatment. Even though he does not have documents to prove that, he visibly limps when he walks.

The other story is of Naseer Ahmed Nizamani, another man in the same age group and from the same city. The police took him to the town of Tando Adam, about 50 kilometres to the south of Sanghar city, and kept him there for two days. “They accused me of participating in a clash during a political rally. They demanded 50,000 rupees if I wanted to avoid becoming ‘half fry’,” he says.

Naseer Ahmed says he did not have the resources to pay that much money in bribes. When he refused to give in, he claims he was blindfolded and put in a van. After 15 to 20 minutes, the policemen made him get off the vehicle and asked him to sit on a motorcycle parked where the van had stopped. When he refused, he got a bullet in his leg, he says. “They also fired seven or eight shots in the air.”

Later, the police lodged an FIR against him, saying he was shot because he did not comply when he and his alleged accomplice were signalled to pull over their motorcycle. He allegedly fired at the police and his accomplice is reported to have escaped.

The terms ‘half fry’ and ‘full fry’ came into use in 2009, say policemen in Hyderabad city. These were imported from Punjab, according to a source in the police force.

The terms suggest a system of instant justice dispensed by the police to either kill or maim those whom the police believe to be involved in crime. In some cases, it does not matter if anyone has filed an FIR against them or if there is any evidence against them.

The killing of alleged or perceived criminals in fake encounters has been going on since the early 1990s, at the very least, but nobody called them ‘full fry’ in the past. As far as ‘half fry’ is concerned, it appears to be something recent — both as a term and as a stopgap method to reduce crime.

Evidence suggests that the use of ‘full fry’ and ‘half fry’ methods to curb street crimes, robberies and kidnapping for ransom is common in those districts of interior Sindh which fall under the jurisdiction of certain superintendents of police (SPs). The rationale put forward by those SPs is straightforward: Criminals arrested by the police do not get convicted due to lack of evidence, absence of eyewitnesses and flawed investigation; they either get released on bail or are acquitted, after that they resume their criminal activities. Something must be done to prevent that outcome — be it damaging their limb so they cannot walk or fire a gun, or opt for the more permanent solution of putting them to death.

Wherever these SPs are posted, they adopt this extrajudicial strategy and flaunt the temporary decrease in crime rates as proof that their methods are successful. A senior officer working with the Punjab Police says he knows some of the SPs personally. They are all honest officers and want to curb crimes sincerely, he says. “They will never ‘full fry’ or ‘half fry’ anyone merely for personal reasons. They will do that only to eliminate notorious robbers, rapists, kidnappers and those who kill cops,” the officer says in a phone interview. And these SPs, he says, make their picks “after thorough investigation.”

When Farooq Nizamani refused to oblige, he says, the police told him they planned to ‘half fry’ him.

The easiest way to give these practices a semblance of legality is to call them police encounters. That explains why the total number of encounters reported from the five police ranges in Sindh – Hyderabad, Mirpur Khas, Shaheed Benazirabad (Nawabshah), Sukkur and Larkana where ‘half fry and ‘full fry’ are most common – stands at a staggering 8,632 over a period of five years between 2011 and 2015. The highest number of encounters was recorded in 2014 at 1,950 and the lowest in 2015 at 1,392. During the first eight months of 2016, the number of encounters reported from these ranges stands at 643. Thousands of suspects have been killed or have been injured in these incidents.

The encounters take place in a specific way: the suspect is travelling on a motorcycle when police try to intercept him; instead of stopping, he opens fire on the police who fire back, resulting in the maiming or killing of the suspect. In cases where one suspect is shown as injured, his alleged accomplice is almost always shown to have fled. No one from among the police gets hurt. In most cases, the injured suspect gets a bullet through his right knee. Afterwards, the killed or injured suspects are booked for exchanging fire with the police and keeping illegal weapons.

Recently, another variation of ‘half fry’ has become current. It is called ‘leg fry’ and it results from a compromise – facilitated by bribes – between policemen and suspects. After taking the money from a suspect in custody, the policemen shoot at him in a manner that does not impair his mobility much, sources in the police say. This way they can tell their SP that his orders to ‘half fry’ the suspect were carried out, while simultaneously lining their pockets, the sources add.

Not every policeman indulges in – or even endorses – ‘full fry’ and ‘half fry’. The SPs who promote these forms of instant punishments have formed special teams for the purpose. These teams include policemen who do not hesitate to pull the trigger on any suspect. “Those policemen are willing to do the task ruthlessly,” says a police officer posted in Mirpur Khas, without wanting to be named.

He himself does not approve of any extrajudicial steps to control crime. “If policemen act as judges and executioners then the government should abolish laws courts,” he says. In his opinion, the solution to law and order problems can be found by implementing the existing laws properly and by amending those that need to improve. “If action against criminals is taken indiscriminately as per the law, then the law and order situation will automatically improve.”

Many members of the police force fully support the idea of ‘half fry’ and ‘full fry’ as effective methods to overcome crime. “The strategy has worked miraculously in bringing down the crime rate, in boosting police morale and in restoring the confidence of the public in the police force,” says a mid-ranking police officer working in Sukkur range. He does not want his name mentioned. “The civil society, whose members raise a hue and cry over extrajudicial killings, must realise that these [methods] have helped police rescue the public from being held hostage by criminals across the province.”

The police used to be totally helpless, unable to do anything, even when they knew about someone being a habitual or hard-core criminal, he says. When arrested, the officer adds, these people get out of prison easily because no witnesses come forward to testify against them. “Otherwise, the witnesses risk losing their lives.”

In some cases, it does not matter if anyone has filed an FIR against them or if there is any evidence against them.

People on the street also seem to be sold on the idea. In districts where ‘half fry’ and ‘full fry’ are commonplace, the general perception is that policemen are doing the right thing. “You cannot understand the sentiments of poor people who were being robbed of their cash and belongings,” says Muhammad Nawaz, a teacher in Sanghar city. People want to see all criminals turned ‘full fry’ rather than left to live as ‘half fry’, he adds.

A senior journalist in Sukkur disapproves of the media covering the issue of extrajudicial killings. That, he says, may ruin the “sincere” efforts of the police to rid citizens of robbers who terrorise the general public.

K B Leghari, a lawyer in Hyderabad, on the other hand, is worried about the impact the practice of ‘full fry’ and ‘half fry’ has on the judicial system. “Justice should be dispensed in courts and not on the streets,” he says. “If the police are allowed to continue this unjustified policy to eradicate crime then people may lose confidence in the judiciary.”

On a recent August day, a cigarette vendor in Hyderabad’s Wahdat Colony neighbourhood and his customer, a young man from the same area, are talking about local law and order. “There have been a couple of cases of cash and cell phone snatching,” says the vendor. “Yes, I have also heard about those,” responds his customer. “We should approach Irfan sahab and request him to ‘half fry’ the culprits,” the latter suggests.

Irfan sahab in this case is Irfan Baloch, the SSP Hyderabad and one of the most enthusiastic advocates of ‘half fry’ and ‘full fry’ methodology for crime-busting. The official data on police encounters under his watch only confirms his predilection for this approach. The police in Hyderabad district killed 55 suspects in encounters between November 29, 2014 and August 22, 2016. Another 248 suspects were injured in encounters during the same period.

Irfan Baloch is not defensive. “The district police had to take strict action against criminals in a bid to control crime. That is why the number of encounters has remained high till last year,” he says. He insists that he does not advocate “glamourising encounters or counting the dead bodies with pride” but repeats what has become almost conventional wisdom across many parts of Sindh: “Encounters have resulted in reducing street crimes and other criminal activities by 95 per cent.”

This article was originally published in the Herald's September 2016 issue under the headline "Bullet points". To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.