Too scared to tes­tify…

The Pak Banker - - Front Page - Huma Yusuf

WITH ev­ery few hun­dred deaths in Karachi, the pow­ers that be latch on to a new idea to stem vi­o­lence in the city. A favourite has been a wit­ness-pro­tec­tion pro­gramme. In yet an­other spe­cial meet­ing con­vened to dis­cuss Karachi’s de­te­ri­o­rat­ing law and or­der sit­u­a­tion, Pres­i­dent Asif Zar­dari ad­vised the Sindh law min­is­ter to con­sult stake­hold­ers and en­act leg­is­la­tion guar­an­tee­ing pro­tec­tion for wit­nesses in crim­i­nal cases. Un­for­tu­nately, calls for such a pro­gramme seem like lip ser­vice, in­di­cat­ing that po­lit­i­cal par­ties are not tak­ing the car­nage that is dev­as­tat­ing Karachi se­ri­ously enough.

No doubt, there is a great and ur­gent need for an ef­fec­tive wit­ness-pro­tec­tion pro­gramme. Most crim­i­nals ac­cused in anti-ter­ror­ism courts (ATCs) are ac­quit­ted be­cause wit­nesses refuse to tes­tify fear­ing re­tal­ia­tory ac­tion by a sus­pect’s po­lit­i­cal party or crim­i­nal gang. Know­ing this, the Sindh Home Depart­ment sub­mit­ted a pro­posal for a Wit­ness Pro­tec­tion Unit to the pro­vin­cial cab­i­net in Jan­uary this year. The fact that the idea is still only be­ing put up for con­sul­ta­tion sug­gests that a se­ri­ous in­tent to es­tab­lish such a pro­gramme does not yet ex­ist.

The pro­gramme thus joins a long list of good ideas that go nowhere. In re­cent years, as I de­scribed in a re­cent re­port Con­flict Dy­nam­ics in Karachi, spe­cial com­mit­tees have rec­om­mended a plethora of ini­tia­tives to re­duce vi­o­lence in Karachi: deweapon­i­sa­tion, digi­ti­sa­tion of arms li­cences, spe­cial polic­ing pow­ers for Rangers, ex­pe­dited po­lice re­cruit­ment, ban­ning of politico-crim­i­nal groups, and even an­nounce­ments of boun­ties on crim­i­nal heads. All these ideas have failed to take ef­fect ow­ing to poor or non-im­ple­men­ta­tion and a lack of com­mit­ment to ad­dress­ing the city’s in­tense po­lit­i­cal tus­sles.

A wit­ness-pro­tec­tion pro­gramme stands even less chance than other pro­posed ini­tia­tives of mak­ing a dif­fer­ence for var­i­ous rea­sons. Pri­mar­ily, wit­nesses are not the only ones need­ing pro­tec­tion. Po­lice of­fi­cers are afraid to take ac­tion against armed party ac­tivists and af­fil­i­ated crim­i­nal gangs; their fear is com­pounded by the fact that 92 po­lice of­fi­cers in­volved in Op­er­a­tion Clean-Up, which aimed at cleans­ing the city of mili­tias in the early 1990s, have been ab­ducted or killed since 1992. Judges, state pros­e­cu­tors, and de­fence coun­sels have also been known to end­lessly post­pone hear­ings or dis­miss cases ow­ing to per­sonal se­cu­rity con­cerns. No mea­sures to pro­tect ATC per­son­nel have been pro­posed, how­ever.

Wit­ness tes­ti­monies com­prise only part of a case — other ev­i­dence is gath­ered dur­ing thor­ough po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tions and crim­i­nals are ul­ti­mately con­victed through court pro­ceed­ings. Un­for­tu­nately, both these pro­cesses are deeply flawed in Karachi, as they are else­where in the coun­try.

Se­ri­ous prob­lems in polic­ing arise from the fact that the city’s po­lice depart­ment is woe­fully un­der­staffed: un­til ear­lier this year, only 32,524 of­fi­cers were polic­ing this city of more than 18 mil­lion (of these, 12,000 of­fi­cers were de­ployed on spe­cial du­ties, in­clud­ing 8,000 of­fi­cers tasked with pro­tect­ing gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and VIPs).

These low num­bers — ap­prox­i­mately one of­fi­cer for ev­ery 900 peo­ple — are com­pounded by poor ca­pac­ity and lack of train­ing. Ex­plain­ing low con­vic­tion rates for tar­get killers and other crim­i­nals, ATC judges and pros­e­cu­tors com­plain of rou­tine er­rors, omis­sions, and de­lays in the reg­is­tra­tion of po­lice cases and ev­i­dence-gath­er­ing: FIRs are of­ten in­com­plete, ev­i­dence is fre­quently dis­crepant or tam­pered with, con­fes­sions and wit­ness state­ments are im­prop­erly recorded, and most use­ful in­for­ma­tion is ob­tained af­ter sus­pects are tor­tured, mak­ing their state­ments in­ad­mis­si­ble in court.

The politi­ci­sa­tion of Karachi’s po­lice force is likely to pre­vent these ev­i­dence-gath­er­ing ef­forts from im­prov­ing and will also un­der­mine the re­li­a­bil­ity of any wit­ness-pro­tec­tion pro­gramme that is im­ple­mented. Who can for­get the Sindh IG’s com­ment last year that more than 40 per cent of Karachi’s po­lice force has been re­cruited on po­lit­i­cal grounds?

One can hardly ex­pect po­lit­i­cal ap­pointees to gather sound ev­i­dence against tar­get killers, crim­i­nals, ex­tor­tion­ists and land grab­bers work­ing on be­half of their own pa­tron po­lit­i­cal party, and they are even less likely to en­sure the safety of wit­nesses.

More ur­gently than wit­ness pro­tec­tion, the Sindh gov­ern­ment should ad­dress the fact that since the re­peal of the Po­lice Or­der 2002, the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment is re­quired to au­tho­rise ap­point­ments to po­si­tions higher than deputy su­per­in­ten­dent, a clause that has fu­elled politi­ci­sa­tion.

ATCs are sim­i­larly politi­cised and se­verely un­der-re­sourced, mean­ing that they are in no po­si­tion to counter the po­lice force’s many fail­ings. As judges and state pros­e­cu­tors work on tem­po­rary con­tracts for low wages and with­out se­cu­rity guar­an­tees, they can­not be expected to en­force the strin­gent re­quire­ments of an ef­fec­tive wit­ness-pro­tec­tion pro­gramme.

In Septem­ber, Rehman Ma­lik con­ceded that 1,363 peo­ple have been killed in tar­geted at­tacks in Karachi in the past five years.

Many dis­missed this statis­tic as a gross un­der­es­ti­mate point­ing to far higher non-of­fi­cial es­ti­mates (ac­cord­ing to the Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion of Pak­istan, 740 peo­ple were killed in the first five months of this year alone, and vi­o­lence has only es­ca­lated since then). Gov­ern­ment, po­lice and UN crime sta­tis­tics have iden­ti­fied Karachi as the city with the high­est homi­cide rate of the world’s 13 largest cities — shock­ingly, no other city’s homi­cide rate comes within 25 per cent of Karachi’s.

In this con­text, calls for wit­ness pro­tec­tion are too lit­tle, too late. Such a pro­gramme could only help if the ad­min­is­tra­tion and po­lit­i­cal stake­hold­ers im­ple­mented it in tan­dem with all the other ini­tia­tives for cur­tail­ing ur­ban vi­o­lence that have been floated in re­cent years.

Ul­ti­mately, though, the only so­lu­tion to Karachi’s in­ces­sant ethno-po­lit­i­cal and crim­i­nal vi­o­lence is po­lit­i­cal ne­go­ti­a­tion. Un­til main­stream po­lit­i­cal par­ties with a stake in the city are will­ing to par­tic­i­pate in a rep­re­sen­ta­tive, power-shar­ing ar­range­ment, there can be no so­lace for the city’s res­i­dents in half-hearted and still­born mea­sures like end­less con­sul­ta­tions on wit­ness-pro­tec­tion pro­grammes.

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