Rao Anwar is one of Karachi's most dreaded police officers. His recent target turned out to be a civilian who aspired to be a fashion model, triggering protests and raising doubts over his role in previous shootouts.
On January 13, a group of policemen led by Officer Rao Anwar raided a house in a crime-infested part of Malir, a district on the eastern ridge of Pakistan's Karachi city.
Later in the evening, the police revealed the outcome of the police raid in a press release. Rao and his team, according to newspaper reports, followed intelligence input leading them to the house, where they gunned down what they called "Taliban militants."
The police statement said there were four militants hiding in the house, who shot the first round of fire.
Pakistani people have grown immune to reading such news reports. The bloody war the state is fighting against Al Qaeda and other militant outfits since the 9/11 attacks has conditioned the public psyche to an extent that routine extrajudicial killings carried out by the police are largely ignored.
For newspaper reporters, the details — or lack of them — sound worryingly familiar, sometimes even scripted. Journalists often joke they have a fixed template for this kind of news and they just have to change the name and date whenever a fresh shoot-out happens.
Almost every police operation against militants in Pakistan pans out in a similar pattern. They start from a tip-off to a raid to a gun battle and end with the elimination of militants. In most incidents, no police personnel have been injured.
The police operation led by Anwar reflects a similar trajectory. No forensic evidence or eyewitness account was recorded. And the exact whereabouts of the alleged gunfight is still unknown.
Shah Latif town, the neighbourhood where Anwar claimed to have killed the militants, is full of bare brick-walled houses. The inhabitants in the area are workers, some employed in nearby textile factories. Police say militants hiding there frequently plan attacks.
But the vague and least fulfilling information about the shootout came from the police itself. They released it to crime reporters along with pictures of the alleged militants.
But, for the boastful police officers, the raid and its aftermath didn’t go as planned this time. One of the slain militants, Naqeeb Ullah Mehsud, had a penchant for taking selfies.
The 27-year-old, who didn’t study beyond eighth grade, had shoulder length hair, a neatly trimmed beard and thick eyebrows. He aspired to become a model and had amassed a small fan following on Facebook with his pictures and videos, some of which showed him dancing.
Naqeeb Ullah was not the stereotypical Taliban militant, people noticed. And definitely not someone connected with the much-feared Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud, as the police insinuated.
Has any media covered personnel #profile of #NaqeebUllahMehsud? Data from his #workplace #hobbies #modelling groups & #neighbors etc? When started working in a #garment mill? #JusticeForNaqeeb @AJEnglish @thenews_intl @dawn_com @etribune @shazbkhanzdaGEO @DunyaKKKS @HamidMirPAK pic.twitter.com/1d05czLt4n— Ijaz Ahmad Rao (@IjazAhmadRao) January 29, 2018
“They didn’t even bother to do a basic background internet search on this guy before killing him. His pictures were easily accessible. This just goes to show how ignorant, as well as merciless, our police can be,” said Asad Iqbal Butt, the vice chairman of the NGO Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
As Naqeeb Ullah’s pictures circulated on Facebook and Twitter, the issue became one of the most talked about on social media. Members from his powerful Mehsud tribe started to take out rallies across the country, blocking roads including Karachi’s main highway.
Rao Anwar, the police officer who led the raid, came under the spotlight, forcing the government to investigate the killings.
A high-level inquiry by the police department confirmed that Naqeeb Ullah was innocent and had been killed in a staged encounter.
According to his relatives, he was picked up from a roadside restaurant along with three friends on January 4.
“We kept looking for him at different police stations but no one would tell us anything. Then we saw his picture in newspapers,” Syed Badshah, Naqeeb Ullah’s brother-in-law, told TRT World.
As Naqeeb Ullah proved to be innocent, the Supreme Court, Pakistan's highest legal authority, ordered Anwar’s arrest on January 27.
But the police are unable to trace him. Anwar has gone into hiding.
The encounter specialist
Anwar holds the prestigious rank of Senior Superintendent of Police or SSP. He is known for bragging about killing "hundreds of people in 150 shoot-outs."
The rise of Anwar through the police ranks is rooted in the 1990s political turmoil in Karachi. The entire city descended into political violence after a fallout between the federal government and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a dominant political party in Karachi.
The military was sent in to crush the MQM.
Amidst the state-sanctioned crackdown against MQM activists, police officers such as Anwar started to climb the ranks — not on the basis of merit but on the premise of body bags, says Faraz Khan, a veteran crime reporter at one of Pakistan's leading newspapers, The Express Tribune.
“These were not commissioned officers who passed exams to get the [high-ranking] jobs. They are known as rankers. They get promotions because — trial or no trial — they don’t hesitate to kill a criminal.”
Some researchers say Anwar has killed more than 300 people. In his own words, one of his happiest moments was when he gunned down violent political activists Farooq Dada and Faheem Commando in 1990s. But investigations later found both men were killed in staged shoot-outs.
In so-called 'encounters', law enforcement agencies detain hardened militants and political activists only to kill them in fabricated shootouts.
From his debut as a low-rung assistant sub-inspector (ASP) to becoming the SSP, Anwar’s rise was swift and superseded other qualified officers.
He is among a batch of cops who made extrajudicial killings their trademark. Another such officer, Chaudhry Aslam, amassed a fortune of $831,000 as a bounty hunter, according to The Telegraph. He was killed in a car bomb attack in 2014, claimed by the Taliban.
Anwar has also come under scrutiny in the past. He has been suspended multiple times, as in 2015, when he accused MQM activists of working for India’s spy agency RAW.
“There are definitely political considerations behind Anwar’s action,” said Zohra Yusuf, a human rights activist. “He couldn’t have operated with such impunity without political backing.”
It’s not unusual for politicians in Pakistan to get the police officers of their choice appointed so they can use them for personal gain.
In recent years Karachi has been hit by a fresh wave of politically motivated murders, ethnic killings and gang wars, increasing street crime and the emergence of the Taliban.
Anwar led the charge on Malir, the city's largest district, encompassing a huge swathe of land on its eastern fringes, which includes the country’s biggest airport and is home to multibillion dollar real estate projects.
It’s an area where people dig wells for drinking water, trucks haul sand and gravel illegally extracted from a riverbed and factories flush out chemicals into rain drains.
HRCP’s Asad Butt says Anwar is accused of threatening villagers to sell their property to powerful real estate developers.
“Where do you think he gets all the backing from?”
Khan, the crime reporter, says Anwar is the most powerful police officer in the city, wielding even more authority than the Inspector General — the topmost officer of the police force in the province.
“Fifteen police stations came under Anwar’s charge. That’s the most any officer of his rank has ever commanded. No one could challenge him on the decision as to who gets deputed to lead those stations,” Khan said.
Anwar's most recent target, Naqeeb Ullah, was one of thousands of Pashtun tribesmen who moved to Karachi a few years after the 9/11 attacks. In the same period, Pakistan’s military waged a war against militants in the country’s north-western belt.
In Karachi, these Pashtuns drove trucks and buses and did menial labour at construction sites.
But the young man had a bigger ambition. “He was into modelling. Just a couple of days before his murder, he told me that an advertising agency had approached him,” said Badshah, Naqeeb Ullah’s brother-in-law.
“After he started putting his pictures on Facebook, young men from our town began to approach him for tips.”
Naqeeb Ullah came to Karachi in 2008, and did odd jobs for a brief period before heading back to his hometown. Soon after, he married and had three kids.
“He came to Karachi again a few months ago and wanted to open up a garment store,” said Badshah.
The Handsome #Pashtun #NaqeebMehsud Shaheed. Dear you will always be in thoughts and prayers.— Salman (@Salman_BBC1) January 31, 2018
Rest in peace and Sleep tight you handsome young man.#NaqeebMehsud #NaqeebullahMehsud #JusticeForNaqeeb pic.twitter.com/V24sOIVczK
So why did Anwar pick him for the staged shoot-out?
“Maybe it was due to the money,” said Badshah. A few days before Naqeeb Ullah went missing he had received about $5,000 from his brother to set up the garment shop.
Though the high-level police inquiry stated that Naqeeb Ullah was innocent, it does not say anything about what motivated Anwar to target him.
Many crime reporters and human rights activists are connecting the dots, noting that Naqeeb Ullah's upcoming shop was located in Anwar's jurisdiction and Anwar might have tried to extort money from him.
“It’s an open secret how the business of extracting gravel and sand from Malir's riverbed is also done under Anwar’s watch,” said Butt.
Police in Pakistan are accused of threatening the relatives of slain 'militants', asking them to maintain silence over their deaths. This type of intimidation is conveniently done under the garb of fighting terror.
“There are numerous reported cases of police extrajudicial killings of criminal suspects, torture of detainees to obtain confessions, and harassment and extortion of individuals who seek to file criminal cases, especially against members of the security forces,” the Human Rights Watch said in a 2016 report.
Failure on many fronts
Zoha Waseem, a doctoral researcher at King’s College London’s Department of War Studies, has closely looked into the wave of extrajudicial killings in Karachi.
“In my research, I found that the police are seldom fired at when there is a staged encounter, like the one Naqeebullah was killed in. There were no empties (bullet casings) found at the site where the criminals or militants were said to be hiding, thus demonstrating that they probably did not fire at the police.”
She also notes that such shoot-outs frequently take place along the Northern Bypass, a stretch of highway in an area that is sparsely populated. The highway came under Rao Anwar’s precinct.
“It’s not common to have eye-witnesses who can later identify the officials involved or recount the episode. Genuine encounters don’t necessarily take place on the outskirts of the city, because there a criminal is on the run or shooting at police officials. In a genuine encounter, the criminal needs population and geography to hide in.”
Even when relatives of the victims do want to come forward, they don't have a forum where they can register their complaints.
"We desperately need a public safety commission," says Jameel Yusuf, the former head of the Citizen Police Liaison Committee, which was set up in 1995, to assist people in kidnapping cases and other crimes.
"There should be a place where someone can go and say, 'my brother was picked up and he's innocent.'"
Farooq Sattar, a prominent leader in the MQM, calls Anwar’s killings “state-sponsored terrorism.” His party says Anwar has killed dozens of its activists in staged shoot-outs. At least 165 party activists are still missing, he says.
“I’m convinced many of them are detained in Rao Anwar’s fortress,” he said.
Anwar sits in a fortified office in the outskirts of Karachi, where visitors are body-searched twice and guards with AK-47s keep a close watch on the road. “It’s not an office, its more like a fiefdom,” says Sattar.
Sattar, who is in the opposition, sees the government as culpable in extrajudicial killings by Anwar and other officers. “It can’t say that the officer was running on autopilot. It has to take responsibility for this.”
The government has struggled to deal with officers like Anwar who have been instrumental in getting rid of terrorists. That’s also how the ‘encounter specialists’ have come to be regarded as heroes by ordinary citizens.
Rising frustration over street crimes and violence has also played in their favour.
“They (people) start romanticising about saviours who will bring stability and order to their lives again. And if criminal violence is so rampant that it disrupts your everyday life and livelihood, it is easy to become flexible in how you feel about the rule of law,” said Zoha Waseem, the researcher.
On its part, the police say the ‘encounter killings’ of terrorists become a necessity when they know the courts will let them off the hook.
But human rights activists say that’s just an excuse to cover up police corruption and brutality.
“If the police do a good job at gathering evidence, then obviously courts won’t let these terrorists walk away," the human rights activist, Zohra Yusuf, said.