The suspended Karachi senior superintendent of police (SSP), Rao Anwar, has been on the run since killing 27-year-old Naqeebullah Mehsud on January 13 in what was later revealed as a “fake encounter,” a South Asian term for questionable slayings by police.

Last month, the chief justice of Pakistan, Justice Mian Saqib Nisar, took suo motu (unilateral) action against the killing, and Anwar was declared an absconder after refusing to show up at the hearing.

On February 7, an Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) directed the investigation officer of the Mehsud case to find Rao Anwar by February 16 “at all costs,” as a Pashtun-led protest continues in Islamabad.

As the protest simmers in the Pakistani capital amid the hunt for the suspended SSP, extrajudicial killings in the country are back in the limelight. Human-rights groups have long been critical of “staged encounters” that are reportedly a common practice for the police in Pakistan.

According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, more than 2,000 people were killed in fake encounters in 2015. HRCP statistics further confirm that 1,226 people were killed in 784 police encounters in 2016 and 2017 combined.

According to data shared with Asia Times in Karachi’s Malir area, where Rao Anwar was posted as SSP, more than 500 people have been killed in encounters over the past eight years. Most of these are local Pashtun, who are the demographically dominant group in the region.

“All police officers who are dedicated to encounters have the blessings of those they report to. Fake encounters are a common practice,” a police officer who has worked in the area revealed. “There are clear instructions to the officers to eliminate those criminals in encounters who can’t be imprisoned for too long and are likely to escape the law.”

‘Encounter specialists’

Another official from Sindh Police said sections of the police were used as proxies by various political parties.

“All these ‘encounter specialists’ are affiliated with one party and often target the activists of the political rivals under the garb of countering crime in the city. Rao Anwar killed many activists of the MQM [Muttahida Qaumi Movement] on the same pretext,” the official said.

Pakistan’s fake encounters are similar to those in India. Both countries inherited a British system of police hierarchies and structures and in essence remain unaccountable to the people. This has led to a culture of impunity in both countries.

Waqas Hassan, a Lahore-based district police officer who has conducted research on the impact of encounters on a city’s crime rate, said the ploy was counterproductive to a strategy to bring down the crime rate.

“Even though it has long been peddled in the police as a means to control the crime rate, the research conducted since 2011 shows that there has been absolutely no impact on the crime rate owing to encounters,” he told Asia Times.

Hassan is currently working on data from 2004 onward and maintains that the statistics don’t depict much change in the impact of encounter killings on the crime rate.

Last Wednesday, former police inspector Abid Boxer was arrested in Dubai through Interpol. Abid had been accused in several murder and land-grabbing cases, and was a leading proponent of fake police encounters a decade ago.

According to several government officials, Abid was well connected in political circles in Pakistan’s Punjab state  and had the backing of top police officers. It was only after losing support from the political and police elite that Abid fled the country in 2007.

Sindh Police ‘revamped’

Meanwhile, as the hunt for Rao Anwar continues, Sindh Police spokesman Sohail Jokhio said the Mehsud murder case had resulted in a revamp for the institution. While he refused to comment on the case, citing a Supreme Court judgment, he said the reaction to the killing and the protests had forced a rethink in the Sindh police force.

“Of course not every police official is complicit in the encounter culture. If that were the case, and all police officials were doing what Rao Anwar did, then it’s not something that could’ve been hidden from the media for long,” he said.

“The criticism that has been going on in the media and social media in the aftermath of Naqeebullah Mehsud’s killing is actually a learning curve for all of us,” he said. “But let me assure you that there are proper checks and there is thorough accountability for all police officers and all encounters are thoroughly investigated.”

He insisted that the “black sheep” within the force had been identified and eliminated.

“This week the inspector general of police addressed a conference that featured the province’s DIGs [deputy inspectors general] and told everyone clearly that no form of corruption would be tolerated in the police.”

Jokhio conceded that it now was a lot harder to get away with fake encounters for police officials.

“The time has changed now. Media and social media have made everyone aware of what is going on. That is what has prompted the IGP to inaugurate the complaint cell, where any and every police official is accountable to the public,” he said.