The killing of a family by the Counter-Terrorism Department of the Punjab Police has caused a wave of horror and revulsion throughout the country, not just because it illustrated how heavy a cost the USA’s so-called War on Terror can extract from ordinary citizens, but also because it showed what could be the cost of allowing police personnel, who might think that they have a license to kill.

The persistence of the police allegation that Zeeshan, the family friend, was a terrorist indicates a particular mindset which seems to justify the most egregious violations of human rights on the ground that the War on Terror takes precedence. This line of reasoning assumes as settled the question of whether this war is Pakistan’s or not. That he was killed may have been the only way of punishing a terrorist, but the killing of the rest cannot be justified. The whole purpose of the War on Terror is to ensure the rule of the Constitution, the rule of law, which has as one of its constituent parts the right of all to a fair trial.

One problem is that the War on Terror must be fought primarily by the police. The police has a number of functions, and one of them is to identify criminals and gather evidence against them, providing this to a prosecution service which actually tries the cases in court. The police inevitably develops a prejudice in favour of its findings. The police moves from ordinary crimes to the political, from the relatively clear motive of greed to the murkier ones of politics. And in the case of the War on Terror, to religion, to belief systems.

As a result, policemen find themselves out of their depth. Though the Salman Taseer case is not linked to the War on Terror, it is instructive in that it demonstrated the pressures that policemen faced in reconciling their duty with their beliefs. However, for what it is worth, it is the police which has a modicum of expertise and information in political cases, which makes it virtually inevitable that its political masters will seek their help in fighting the War on Terror. Problematically, Pakistan’s police force are unarmed. This would not be a problem if the police had not used firearms to act as judge, jury and executioner.

The dubious quality of the criminal courts are often used by the police to justify the practice of fake encounters, but there has been a spillover into the War on Terror. Too often, suspects are not brought to trial, but killed without conviction. Too often, suspects are found guilty in the investigation, and that finding is considered sufficient to let the police kill the suspect. If he had been brought to trial, he would probably have won an acquittal provided he had a sufficiently clever mouthpiece. However, anyone agreeing with the police officials concerned is also guilty of usurping the functions of a court, which alone can determine guilt or innocence, based on the evidence presented before it. A large number of acquittals take place because the police has been suborned, and they do not gather the evidence honestly and comprehensively. Many occur because of incompetence in gathering evidence. One problem has always been that police has been the most misused of government departments, by all regimes, political and military alike. One result is that progress in the police has not been made to depend on detective ability or excellence in preparing cases, but the willingness to persecute the rivals of their political masters.

In short, though the police is not supposed to be armed, if it is given arms, it tends to use them. The Sahiwal incident was thus a tragedy waiting to happen. It is purely a coincidence, but the incident occurred close to Sahiwal, which neighbours Pakpattan district, where there was a problem with the police, which seemed to come into conflict with the PM’s wife’s first husband. That clash involved the district police, which is so far removed from the Counter-Terrorism Department that their chains of command intersect at the level of the IGP, or operationally at the level of the CTD officer posted in the police range, who does not report to the range DIG, but coordinates with him. The work of the CTD depends on the district police for the initial information. In fact, one reason for using policemen originally from the district police for counter-terrorism work is that they are so well-informed. The district police may have heard of privacy, but it does not show it.

The incident has all the signs of an operation gone wrong, followed by a botched cover-up. Perhaps the family friend, Zeeshan, may have been a terrorist, or have links to Daesh, but that does not serve the death sentence, not unless a capital crime has been committed. While policemen observe extremists of all kinds, not just militants, they only intervene when a crime has been committed. Then normal police routine takes over: the procedure for dealing with a murder remains the same, whether the motive is to create terror for political purposes, or because of an old enmity. There is pressure on the police from its political masters to prevent outrages, and for this the police rely on other crimes, such as possession of illegal arms, or that old chestnut, conspiracy. In this case, it appears that failure to stop at a checkpost led to the firing, and to everything going wrong.

After the firing led to the crash of the vehicles, the policemen involved went about eliminating witnesses. The post mortems tell a grisly tale of efficiency: one headshot each eliminated all adults. There seems to have been hesitation about killing children, and they were pulled out of the wreck. The elimination of the family’s eldest daughter shows how possible witnesses were eliminated. Then there comes the episode of the washing of the crime scene. That was carried out in the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. While the police was not accused to that murder, it was accused of having helped President Pervez Musharraf in it.

That murder has remained unsolved. It is an irony that that too involved the War on Terror, for the perpetrators were said to be militants. There was no conviction, and while Musharraf still stands accused of that crime, his absence abroad has meant that the trial could not be completed. Similarly, the chances are that with a good lawyer, the policemen accused of the Sahiwal murders will be able to get acquittals. Once that happens, these police officials will have the door opened to reinstatement in service. That the victims’ family is having pressure applied to make them compound the case is another old tactic, with the weight of the institution behind the efforts.

Because of the lack of justice, this incident is likely to create more militants, not so much from the victims’ families, as from those who perceive this incident as another example of state viciousness.

The problem of deaths in police custody is an old one, older than the War on Terror. If senior officers are involved, the chances of acquittal and reinstatement increase. In the present case, the Additional IGP in charge of the Counter-Terrorism Department has been involved. The only hope for the victims is that the police’s political masters have not been involved. As the Model Town firing incident shows, such involvement not only protects the politicians, but helps the guilty policemen get off.

The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.

The dubious quality of the criminal courts are often

used by the police to justify the practice of fake encounters, but there has been a spillover into the War on Terror. Too often, suspects are not brought to trial,

but killed without conviction.