Too scared to testify…
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.