Relatives of a family killed by counter-terrorism officers
Relatives of a family killed by counter-terrorism officers, mourn following the news of family's death, outside their home in Lahore, Pakistan, last week. Image Credit: AP

Tears filling up his large, terrified, grief-stricken eyes, blood on his face, nine-year-old Mohammad Umair Khalil, spoke, and Pakistan went into a state of shock, anger and sorrow. Speaking to media, the child said that police killed his father, Mohammad Khalil, his mother, Nabila, his sister, Areeba, 13, and their family friend, Zeeshan. He, along with his sisters, Muniba, 5, and Hadia, 4, other than sustaining minor injuries were unharmed. Apparently.

The killing of four people on January 19, in an operation carried out, reportedly, on an incorrect intelligence report, a one-sided firing of the Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) on the G T Road near Sahiwal in Punjab, Pakistan, is not merely another incident of police brutality in a country where the rule of law is overshadowed by the rule of the powerful, it is also a manifestation of the glaring flaws in the system that in its fundamental and overall purpose is mandated to protect the people.

Amidst the outrage over the horrific incident, Prime Minister Imran Khan, “shocked to see traumatised children who saw their parents getting shot” tweeted: “While the CTD has done a great job in fight against terrorism, everyone must be accountable before the law. As soon as JIT report comes, swift action will be taken. The govt’s priority is protection of all its citizens.”

Cosmetic change

Unlike in most incidents of police brutality where efforts are made for obfuscation of the truth, and immediate and factual reports are a rarity, under the supervision of Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar, a Joint Investigation Team, presented its report on January 22. The CTD has been held responsible for killing three innocent, unarmed people while targeting the alleged Daesh terrorist Zeeshan (the veracity of the claim of Zeeshan’s links to Daesh is still questionable). Additional IG Operations Punjab, AIG CTD, DIG CTD, SSP CTD and DSP CTD Sahiwal region have been removed or suspended. Further investigation is in process.

What has been promised many times, and has remained on the level of nothing more than a cosmetic change, now the need for the immediate consideration and implementation is more imperative than ever for police reforms. The Sahiwal incident is not a rare occurrence: it is symptomatic of the deeper malaise that manifests itself in various ways in the flawed system of governance in Pakistan. A police system that in its fundamental ethos still carries effects of its colonial roots is devoid of real empowerment because of the self-serving machinations of the political elite of Pakistan.

Under Prime Minister Khan, as per his avowal over the years and after coming into power in August 2018, Pakistan government will, hopefully, initiate a system to wrest the power from a nexus of politicians and bureaucracy, and state institutions, including the police, will be autonomous and strengthened. A top to bottom overhauling and a steel resolve to review, devise and implement much-needed reforms will change the police force that despite its huge services and immense sacrifices remain, on the whole, under-performing, under-achieving and feared rather than respected.

Reforms in policing

No amount of sophisticated training and equipping with latest technology and ammunition, as in the case of the CTD, will bring any real excellence in performance unless the underlying system undergoes a complete change, both on the apparent and on its fundamental ethos. A legal policing system already under-resourced and overworked is further weakened by illegitimate political interference, ensuring the domination of the political elite on areas of public governance that must be devoid of any structural or institutional flaws. Police accountability is almost non-existent, and ergo the need for immediate and wide-ranging right-based police reforms. From the lodging of an FIR to a fair trial and a fair sentence based on the merits of the case, the entire system of justice in Pakistan is in need of a body of reforms that in its foundation must have a uniform and an invariable premise: safety of life and dispensation of justice.

It is imperative to initiate reforms in policing that is tainted by a culture of arrests without the due process, detention without any legal cover, torture of the accused to extract a confession, brutality on suspects, partiality and yielding to political, monetary or other pressure, intentional inattention to due process, lack of modern methods of evidence-collection and forensic analysis, and exploitation of power. The awful practice of “encounter” killings that is a pretext to cover much that is wrong with the system of governance in Pakistan exploited with impunity by politicians who hold the real power must be stopped without any whataboutery.

Revamping of the system

What acts as further enfeeblement of the system: glorification through cinema and television of encounter killings, validation of vigilantism, a call for public hangings spurred by an act of injustice, and an uneven justice system in which various factors weigh in. Expectation and demand for justice is a fundamental human right; what it cannot be is arbitrary, changeable and as-and-who-it-suits. Justice must be a given, and it must be beyond political self-centered exploitation and public, by-the-case, emotional manipulation.

Police in Pakistan like in any country of the world is mandated, upholding law beyond reproach, to provide safety to the public, to ensure prevention of crime, and a full and fair investigation of crimes. Punishing individuals in the police is a short-term solution and a mere Band-Aid for a graver disease that has a strict hierarchical order; what needs to be checked is the parameters and guidelines of the authority of those who give the order. What is needed is a comprehensive and long-term revamping of the system.

Now it is up to Prime Minister Khan to ensure through implementation of workable, substantial police reforms that his party Pakistan-Tehreek-e-Insaf in power is a strict adherent to its fundamental credo of making Pakistan a just and an equal country, where safety of life is a given, and so is justice.

May the pain of Umair, Muniba and Hadia who saw their parents and sister dying sprayed with bullets in front of their eyes be not in vain. Pakistan owes it these children and many more like them to change its system of law and justice. Right away. Before tears of any more children are watched in a video, before another family is destroyed forever.