Encounter killing cannot be collateral damage

Why all the lies, especially from the government?

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Published: Wed 23 Jan 2019, 8:38 PM

Last updated: Wed 23 Jan 2019, 10:40 PM

Pakistan's Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) has proved, yet again, that no matter how much money and training you throw at the police department, it will remain one of the most corrupt, incompetent and abusive powers in the country. Now the CTD is not supposed to be your average, run-of-the-mill security outfit. It was designed specifically to counter and control rapidly growing urban terrorism as the country's mini civil war started spilling out of the tribal area into main cities.

Nobody believed for a second that the conventional police force was up to the task. You can't control the Al Qaeda and TTP (Tehrik-e-Taleban Pakistan) types with career extortionists and target killers, can you? That's why the military manned check posts up and down the country. But, extended as the army was, it was decided to give the police a dose of value-add - take them to other countries for training, get them more advanced weapons, better salary; the whole nine yards - so the brass could commit completely to the war.

And, for a while, much seemed well. Sure, the terrorists continued to strike more or less where they liked, but less frequently and with far less success. But the image of a competent anti-terror force was shattered last week not just because CTD personnel gunned down an innocent family in front of their children, but because of the way senior police officials and Punjab government ministers lied to cover the crime.

First bit of news indicated a heroic CTD chase on the historic GT (Grand Trunk) Road that resulted in a cross fire with Daesh militants and a victory for the good guys not very far from Lahore. Senior ministers duly lined up before cameras and microphones and spoke of an intel-based operation that had been in the works for days. And just as valiant CTD personnel returned fire, the militants were killed by shots from their own car and an accompanying motorcycle. Everybody felt safer no doubt.

But soon different versions began flooding the newsroom. The federal information minister said the bad guys were using little children as human shields; but the police were having none of such tactics and not only nailed the terrorists but also saved the children. Then we heard that police were not letting the Press anywhere near the children, who had by then been shifted to a hospital.

Then, suddenly, a TV channel ran a clip of a sobbing child claiming that those killed were his mother, father, 13-year-old sister and a friend of his father's. And that they were going to another city to attend a wedding. He and his two younger sisters were wounded, but survived.

That resulted in yet more spin from the government. The car had tinted windows, and they and some people on motorcycles fired on the police, said the Punjab law minister, and that the CTD had recovered ammunition, rifles and suicide jackets, like every raid, from the car.

Not much later another video went viral on the Internet. Turned out that a bus driver had filmed the whole thing from a few meters away. The car did not have tinted windows, there was no firing from the inside, and there was no accompanying motorcycle. Worse, the CTD boys simply opened fire at the car. Then stopped for a bit, removed one boy and two little girls from the car, and resumed indiscriminate firing at the car. Their father got 13 bullets, mother four, sister six, and the father's friend a good 10. And no rifles, jackets or ammunition was found on any of them.

The law minister, after revising the government's version yet again, claimed that the father's friend was indeed a Daesh affiliated terrorist and the family, though innocent, was at the wrong place at the wrong time and could be counted simply as 'collateral damage'. His remarks sparked a wave of hate from the people and the country's leading English newspaper $$$Dawn$$$ described it, in its lead editorial, as an "astoundingly tone-deaf spectacle."

Having spent roughly two decades in journalism, mostly inside the country, I came to understand long ago just why the police could run riot as they pleased. Politicians, hardly the cleanest lot, have always used them for their own purposes and businesses. In return the more loyal would get better promotions and a bit of freedom on the side, so to speak. And nothing would ever change this arrangement. Why do you think the country's most famous policemen are the highest profile target killers?

Imran promised changing the police, like everything else, but a bigger problem might lie with his ministers. An inquiry team, which was given three days, has asked for more time. Meantime they've suspended a couple of officials, as always, but nobody has answered a few simple questions.

Even if they had actionable intel, does the CTD's standard operating procedure prescribe killing on the spot instead of arresting and interrogating? Why all the lies, especially from the government? When they removed the children, why'd they leave the 13-year girl in the car? And how do you get justice for a little boy and two little girls who saw the law cut down their families in front of their eyes?

Shahab Jafry is a senior journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan

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