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Impunity must end

THIS week, the prime minister was photographed handing out compensation cheques to family members of the victims of the Punjab CTD staged shootout on the Motorway in January. Four people were killed in the incident.

Those killed included a man, his wife and 14-year-old daughter, and their neighbour who was driving them from Lahore to Sahiwal to attend a family wedding. Three minor siblings of the slain teenager escaped alive, but not before two of them were wounded by police bullets.

The police first claimed that the occupants of the car, and motorcyclists accompanying them, fired at the police when asked to stop and were killed in retaliatory firing. The Punjab law minister echoed the police claim and also said the whole operation was based on an ‘intelligence agency’ tip-off.

Threat and attacks come from many directions, and mistakes do happen when responding to them. But still, the loss of innocent lives can never be justified.

Later videos shot by passengers travelling in a bus which happened to be not far from the car showed the police version to be utterly fabricated as it became apparent that the occupants were shot in cold blood.

The media spotlight on the case, especially since the events took place on a busy motorway in broad daylight, not only meant the truth became widely known but also that the demand for justice for the innocent victims gained momentum.

Rather than order a judicial commission to inquire into the incident as the family members of those killed had been demanding, a joint investigation team was set up with three police officials and one ISI and IB officer each as members.

It did appear strange that three police officials were being asked to inquire into a case involving their very own counter-terrorism department and intelligence officials were made part of the probe where their own organisation(s) were supposed to have provided the ‘tip-off’ that led to the tragedy.

Three months on, the trial of the five policemen (a sub-inspector being the highest ranking among them) who were involved in the shooting is under way in Sahiwal. Since the minor children of the victims are the only witnesses of the atrocity, they have to suffer the trauma of traversing the same road their parents and sister were killed on for each hearing.

The affected family’s lawyer Ihtasham Amiruddin passionately pleaded for justice for the victims and lamented that the children had not even been paid the promised compensation, when he appeared on DawnNews TV’s programme Zara Hat Kay which did a detailed segment on the case last Tuesday.

He said after the initial media spotlight on the case faded, the government seemed to have lost interest in the matter and Shahbaz Gill, who said he’d been designated by the prime minister to assist the family, stopped taking their calls.

Ihtasham Amiruddin also said he’d approached the Lahore High Court to have the case moved to a court in Lahore as the children suffered taking the tragic route for hearings in Sahiwal. He was also concerned about the safety of the ‘star witnesses’ as they’d received many threats.

It was against this backdrop that many saw the Lahore meeting between the prime minister and the murdered family’s relations, even though it was not clear whether the handing over of the cheques was already planned or followed the TV reports the day earlier.

Several weeks ahead of this meeting, the prime minister had already rescinded his own order of holding to account the Punjab CTD head Rai Tahir and transferring him out. The police officer was posted back to his job.

We already know what happened in the case of Naqeebullah Mehsud who was murdered in Karachi by a police party under the command of SP Rao Anwar where he is on bail and the trial is proceeding at a snail’s pace.

Inside sources say the matter would not have even come this far had it not been for infighting in the Sindh police among two groups aligned with and against the former IGP. Equally, the agitation of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement and the murdered man’s family also played a major part.

There can be no doubt Pakistan has braved an unprecedented onslaught from well-organised terror groups over the past decade and eventually took the fight to them in their own safe havens in the erstwhile tribal areas.

Punjab police’s CTD has been in the forefront of this fight in the province, whereas other provinces have also called on the paramilitary Rangers’ assistance in trying to crush the terrorists and protect the citizenry.

Conceded that fighting such wars is never easy because the threat and attacks come from any direction and not an easily-recognisable, uniformed enemy. In such circumstances, mistakes can, and do, happen. Even then, the loss of innocent lives can never be justified.

Therefore, it is incumbent on the authorities to have a redressal mechanism in place. It is not difficult to understand the significance of such a move. The two incidents we discussed happened in Punjab near Lahore and in Karachi where information flows far easier than remote parts of the country.

Imagine ‘encounters’ similar to these involving law-enforcement agencies in a distant district in Balochistan or in equally inaccessible erstwhile tribal areas. It is highly unlikely word would get out so quickly and, with no media spotlight, the official version would unravel as easily.

Nonetheless, the wound, the serious grievance of the victim, would remain untreated, leading to alienating of people winning whose hearts and minds must be at the centre of any counterterrorism strategy. As a result we are likely to hear slogans we don’t particularly find palatable.

Next, many of us to start questioning the motives, even the patriotism of those asking to be treated as equal citizens of the Islamic Republic. This leads to a no-win spiral. Surely, this is not what the several thousand law-enforcement personnel laid down their lives for.

The sooner this is understood and the culture of impunity stamped out the better it will be for national cohesion. n

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