A family’s killing by police highlights the use of excessive force where trigger-happy policemen claim taking down hardened criminals for the sake of rewards.
If it weren’t for the video of a boy shared on Twitter, no one would have known how police in Pakistan shot dead his parents in cold blood.
“Papa said take money and spare us, but they fired,” nine-year-old Muhammad Umair said from a hospital bed in Lahore on Saturday.
Umair's parents, a 13-year-old sister and a neighbour were killed after the car they were travelling in was fired upon by police in Sahiwal city in the Punjab province.
Initially, authorities claimed they were chasing kidnappers, and a shootout ensued. But witnesses who recorded the incident on their cellphones say they only saw police shooting at the vehicle.
The police later changed their statement saying that the family's neighbour Zeeshan Javaid was linked to the terror organisation Daesh and the car was used in the killing of intelligence officers. They allege that Javaid fired the first shot.
This case is one of the hundreds where, human rights activists say, police have killed unarmed civilians in fake shootouts often under the pretext of killing terrorists.
Just like in many previous cases, the police presented a similar explanation of how the alleged shootout took place: they acted on a tip-off from an intelligence agency, tracked down the suspects who were the first to fire the shots and they had no option but to retaliate.
“It comes down to the question of credibility of our police, which has time and again killed innocent men after labelling them as extremists,” Inam Ur Raheem, a lawyer who represents people unlawfully detained by security forces, told TRT World.
“You hear all the noise around this case because videos and pictures came out on social media. Think about all the other incidents where we didn’t have such evidence. They go mostly unreported.”
Raheem, a retired military officer, says police officers are eager to hunt down militants because of the head money they get as a reward.
According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), more than 3,300 people have been killed in armed 'encounters' with police between 2014 and 2018. The word 'encounter' is commonly used in Pakistan to describe shootouts between police and criminals - many of these are alleged to be staged.
“In my experience, around 70 percent of these shootouts are fake. We never get to know the facts — were the victims even terrorists, were they armed,” says Raheem.
Last year the police’s role in the province of Sindh came under scrutiny after the killing of Naqeeb Ullah Mehsud, an aspiring model who was executed in a staged encounter.
Rao Anwar, a dreaded ‘encounter specialist’, found responsible for that killing hasn’t been put on trial despite all the evidence against him, Jibran Nasir, a lawyer and rights activist, told TRT World.
“These cases drag on for years, families get frustrated and give up pursuing it in courts. That’s the reason why we have such a low conviction rate.”
Pakistan’s police, mostly equipped with assault rifles like AK-47s, are also accused of using excessive force.
In August 2018, a 10-year-girl was killed in Karachi while she was with her parents in their car after police fired indiscriminately at robbers.
The government has now come under increasing pressure to investigate the police officials who shot at the family car.
But according to a research report published by the London-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) in 2016, departmental enquiries to hold police officers responsible are extremely rare in the absence of an independent probe mechanism.
Nasir says there is a need to create an independent system within the police department to investigate all such encounters.
“Instead of taking stopgap measures of creating special teams after every incident, there should be a permanent system in place.”
The HRW has recorded multiple incidents, many of them in Punjab, where the police were accused of incriminating men on fake charges. The families are then asked to pay bribes for their release and if they can’t come up with the money, the men are often killed in staged shootouts.
Still shocked at seeing the traumatized children who saw their parents shot before their eyes. Any parent would be shocked as they would think of their own children in such a traumatic situation. These children will now be fully looked after by the state as its responsibility.— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) January 20, 2019
The anger over the recent killings poured out onto the streets as relatives blocked roads and protested in Lahore on Sunday — something that’s unusual as families of hardened militants avoid the limelight and don’t like giving interviews.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan said he was “shocked at seeing the traumatised children who saw their parents shot before their eyes” and promised to take action against responsible officers.
Nasir says increased scrutiny of police actions does lead to positive results as the number of people killed in clashes with police in Karachi has come down by 75 percent since Mehsud’s killing, which prompted widespread protests.
But Raheem, the lawyer, says the government must change its attitude towards policing if it needs to bring any substantial change.
“For instance, an FIR (first information report) was registered against police officers involved in the Sahiwal case. But no one was nominated by name because apparently it wouldn’t be good for police’s morale,” he said.
This still sends out a message that “in the name of terrorism everything is justified,” he said.