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June 14, 2011

Extra-judicial killings in Pakistan

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali

Disappearance of innocent citizens, extra-judicial and target killings are not uncommon in Pakistan but last Wednesday’s brutal killing of young Sarfraz Shah by para-military Rangers in Karachi has shocked the nation.  The trigger-happy Rangers mercilessly sprayed the unarmed young man with bullets point blank as a result he sustained injuries and fell down crying for his life. He was begging that he should be moved to hospital but was left to bleed to death. Initially security forces claimed that Sarfraz Shah opened fire at the Rangers and he was killed in the encounter. However, the horrific killing was captured on video camera by a local TV crew. The video clip shown on TV networks belied the encounter claim.

Sarfraz Shah’s brutal killing came a week after an investigative journalist, Syed Saleem Shahzad’s bullet riddle body was found in a canal. He was abducted on May 27 from a high security area of Islamabad. Human Right’s Watch (HRW) has accused the Pakistani intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), of involvement in the abduction and murder of Shahzad.

The execution-style killing of Sarfraz Shah is not an isolated incident. It brings to mind last month’s incident in Kharotabad, Quetta, where five Chechens, including three women, approaching a para-military Frontier Corps check post were gunned down by the security personnel. An army Colonel took part in the shooting of the unarmed Chechens. While an inquiry is still under way in that case, subsequent investigation appeared to belie police claims that the Chechens were suicide bombers.

According to the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC), in the past eight months, over 120 persons are thought to have been killed extra-judicially following abduction and disappearance by the State. The ALRC estimates that thousands of people are reported to have been subjected to enforced disappearance in recent years, in particular in resource-rich Balochistan.

The ALRC report of May 24 said despite the scale of the problem of extra-judicial killings in Pakistan, and despite the fact that the country now has a civilian government, since the ouster of President General Pervez Musharraf, the authorities have not taken any meaningful steps to address this grave problem.

“Many of the disappeared and subsequently killed persons were arrested in the presence of the police. In most cases, when complaints concerning these persons’ disappearance are made by relatives of human rights defenders, the police refuse to lodge an FIR, because of the involvement of state intelligence agencies and their collusion with or subservience to this powerful entity in Pakistan, which appears to operate above the law and with total impunity for even the gravest rights abuses,” the report added.

The ALRC said that in Balochistan, journalists, teachers, political activists, students and human rights defenders are being targeted in particular.

According to cases documented, during the first four months of 2011, as many 25 journalists, writers, human rights defenders, students, and political activists have been killed extra-judicially. 24 of the victims were arrested or abducted, disappeared and then killed. For example, prominent human rights defender and journalist, Mr. Siddique Eido and his friend, Mr. Yousaf Nazar Baloch, were allegedly arrested by the Frontier Corp and police on December 21, 2010. Their mutilated bodies were found on April 28 having been dumped next to the Makran coastal highway near Ormara, Balochistan province. The other victim, human rights defender Mr. Naeem Sabir Baloch, the district coordinator of Human Right Commission of Pakistan, was killed outside his house by unknown persons. He was working to compile a list of victims of forced disappearance, intended for the Supreme Court of Pakistan and High Court of Balochistan.

Furthermore, on May 13, 2011, the AHRC announced that the bodies of five disappeared persons, including a prominent leader of the Baloch Student Organization, were found in different locations in Balochistan. All bore signs of torture and bullet wounds. Their families claim they had been abducted by members of the law enforcement agencies, with three of them having been disappeared since August 2010.

On February 8, 2011 the Asian Human Rights Commission said: “Disappearances in Pakistan have become a routine matter and it has been accepted by the authorities as a normal practice of the law enforcement agencies, including the army and its intelligence agencies. The major political parties, who are in sizeable numbers in the parliament, are also silent on the issue of enforced disappearances and torture in military detention cells…….A new trend has been reported in forced disappearances and that is the extrajudicial killings of the victims. Through this method it is easy for the abductors to wash away all evidence of the disappearance--no question of FIRs, legal process or placing blame.”

Army operation behind smoke screen

The extra-judicial killings are reported at a time when Pakistan's mercenary Army is conducting massive operations against the ‘militants’ in the tribal region behind a smoke screen. No journalists are permitted inside the war zone. According to HRCP, security forces did not allow journalists and the civil society to freely visit the conflict-hit regions. The threat of abduction and target killing in parts of Balochistan and FATA made them virtual no-go areas. Reports about the fighting and casualties of the so-called Taliban and army as well as civilian victims are primarily based on the information, misinformation and propaganda released by government or military spokesmen.

About 150,000 Pakistani army troops have been involved in operations in Swat and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the Afghanistan border, including Bajur and South Waziristan. A major operation was launched in Swat in November 2007. Another operation in Bajur commenced in August 2008. South Waziristan operation began in October 2009.

Thousands of militants have been reported killed and thousands others have been apprehended in the military operations in the tribal region. The army has neither released the names of those arrested nor the killed militants. After any encounter or raid there is a terse statement by the Army Public Relations Department giving the number of casualties without any name. Since the region is a no-go area for the media, the army claims cannot be confirmed.

Not surprisingly, fearful of retaliation, the Pakistani media rarely reports on human rights abuses in the unpopular military operations against its own people in FATA, Swat and Northern areas for which the Pakistani military has received $ 8.881 billion between 2002 and 2010, according the US Congressional Research Service.

The Pakistani army has been accused of extrajudicial killings in 2009-2010 in its operation in Swat Valley. Pakistani forces have been carrying out operations against the Taliban in Swat since May 2008. A recent Human Rights group report provides an insight into the US-backed brutal Army operations in the volatile region.

Extra-judicial killings in Swat

The Lahore-based Human Rights Commission of Pakistan provided a list of 249 suspected extra-judicial killings from July 30, 2009, to March 22, 2010, saying most of the bodies were found in Swat. It said independent journalists and locals widely believed security forces were behind them.

Human Rights Watch said the Army was targeting civilians who had voiced support for the Taliban when they controlled Swat or were suspected of providing them food or shelter. "People are taken away, and sometimes they turn up a few days or weeks later having been tortured. Sometimes they disappear. Sometimes their body is dumped with a bullet in the head," Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said.

Al Jazeera reported last October that an amateur video posted on an organization called the International Pashtuns' Association posted the video on Facebook appears to show Pakistani troops killing six young men. The blurry video, which runs for more than 5 minutes, shows men in Pakistani military uniforms lining up blindfolded young men with their hands tied behind their backs before gunning them down. The International Pashtuns' Association says that  the incident took place during the military's crackdown on the Pakistani Taliban in the Swat valley in the summer of 2009.

As the soldiers prepare to fire, one of them asks the commander: "One by one, or together?" "Together" is the reply. The conversation is in Urdu, the language used by the Pakistani military.

The authenticity of the video cannot be independently confirmed and the Pakistani government have said it was fabricated. But Human rights groups say the video fits in with "credible allegations" they have received about the conduct of Pakistani troops.

Amnesty International told Al Jazeera that while it could not confirm the authenticity of the video, but that it has "received credible reports of suspected insurgents being summarily executed by the Pakistani security forces in Pakistan's swat valley."

"There have also been a number of sightings of mass graves in the region, with notes attached to the dead bodies, warning local people not to join the Taliban otherwise they would meet the same fate," said Maya Pastakia, Amnesty's specialist in Afghan and Pakistan. 

U.S.'s extra-judicial killings in Pakistan

Tellingly, the US, a global champion of human rights, has virtually turned a blind eye towards Pakistan’s mercenary army’s grave human rights violations. Perhaps, there is a reason for that. The US is itself involved in extra-judicial killings in Pakistan through drone attacks.

As many as 24 people were killed in a US drone attack in Shawal tehsil of North Waziristan last Wednesday.  A US drone fired at last five missiles on a house situated in the Zawai Narai area, close to the Pak-Afghan border. Wednesday’s strike came two days after US missiles killed 18 people in neighboring South Waziristan. Thirteen attacks have been reported in the tribal belt since the US operation in Abbottabad. Since the beginning of 2011, the U.S. has launched 37 drone strikes, killing 284 people, including women and children, according to media reports.

During United States President George W. Bush’s tenure as Commander in Chief, the U.S. military initiated unmanned aerial vehicles, otherwise known as drones, to carry out attacks against militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Since entering office in 2009, President Barack Obama has escalated drone attacks in Pakistan.  According to New America Foundation drone database 248 strikes were launched in northwest Pakistan, including 37 in 2011, from 2004 to the present.

What is the end result of extra-judicial killings through drone attacks? The Times London reported in March 2010, US drone strikes in Pakistan tribal areas boost support for Taleban. The Times said: “Drones are the Obama Administration’s weapon of choice for killing militants in the tribal areas. The pilotless Reapers and Predators have chalked up a long list of insurgent deaths, accounting for scores of leaders from al-Qaeda and the Taleban since their deployment in 2004.  The effects of the campaign, however, are beginning to veer dramatically off course as the strikes intensify, according to tribesmen. “Before the drone attacks began the Taleban weren’t so obvious among us and the militancy wasn’t as strong,” Amir said. “But now every home in North Waziristan seems to have one or two Taleban living in it. The youth are joining them. Feelings against the US and Government are rising because of the attacks. Al-Qaeda has been badly affected by drones — but it has benefited too.”

The Times went on to say that for Waziris and other Pashtun tribes living in the shadow of the drones, it is not just the missiles they fear. “The Taleban have grown increasingly convinced that spies are in the midst of the local people, planting transmitter chips — patray, as the locals call them — to guide the drones on to their targets. Although no chips have yet been discovered, after every raid witnesses say that the Taleban react with rage, abducting, torturing and killing anyone suspected of planting a chip.”

To borrow Central Asia affairs expert Joshua Foust, the end result of this incessant drone war against militant leadership is that the leadership itself is far more radical and far less willing to negotiate an end to their insurgency than they were in 2004. While the drones could be called a stunning success in going after al Qaeda, they’ve also been used for years to go after the Pakistani Taliban—and in both cases the men who replaced the dead commanders were more vicious and less amenable to overtures from governments to discuss an end to the violence.

“Even within the insurgency in Northwest Pakistan, we cannot conclusively say that drones have had a major effect on operations, considering how much worse the area has gotten as strike frequency increased. (we cannot draw anything more than a correlation on this front). Al Qaeda’s expeditionary reach may have been curtailed, but it seems to have been at the cost of vast swaths of Pakistan… and even Afghanistan. Have we been shooting ourselves in the foot,” Joshua concludes.

Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of America.