LAHORE - A large number of 'gangsters' have been killed in police encounters in Punjab, but the crime rate in the country's most populous province has not down as yet. In fact, armed robberies, killings, and rape are on the rise, a phenomenon which is simply mind boggling.

Statistics gathered by The Nation show that during the last four years (from 2011 to 2014), the provincial police killed as many as 1,016 alleged gangsters in encounters, of which many were alleged to be fake. During the same period the police reported as many as 1.6 million crimes. In other words, almost 400,000 crimes are being reported every year in the province. According to official statistics, over 100,000 robberies were reported in the province in 2014.

At least 276 alleged criminals were killed in 'staged encounters' in 2014, over 253 in 2013, 360 in 2012, and 127 in 2011. On the other hand, the police registered 389,554 cases of crimes last year, 390,932 in 2013, and 395,006 in 2012, while 392,870 in 2011. During the second tenure of Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif beginning in 2008, more than 890 alleged gangsters had been killed in at least 1100 police encounters in the province. The police have been pursuing an aggressive policy to eliminate hardened criminals.

Independent observers say that the ruling party in Punjab – the PML-N – played a key role in the 2007-09 movement for the restoration of judiciary. But at the same time extrajudicial killings are on the rise, a situation which raises many a question about the effectiveness of the country's judicial system. An aide to the prime minister was recently reported to have said that the government was setting up military courts because they are expected to be more effective and result-oriented compared to the existing courts.

At least 252 police encounters took place across Punjab in 2010, which left 186 criminals dead. In 2009, 285 encounters were reported in which 236 alleged criminals were killed. The police shot dead 259 criminals during 299 encounters, mostly staged, in 2008. Similarly, no less than 209 encounters were reported all over the Punjab in 2007 in which 247 criminals lost their lives. The police encounters registered an alarming increase in 2014 as compared to 2013. Out of total 389,554 incidents of crimes registered in 2014, the police reported 96,500 cases of crimes against property including 2302 of dacoity, 19610 of robbery, 14247 of burglary, 2123 of theft, 20310 of motor-vehicle theft, 6352 motor-vehicle snatching, 6705 of cattle theft and 24413 of other nature.

According to the encounter criteria, those gangsters found involved in robbery-cum-rape incidents and those who kill the victim even after accepting ransom, are aggressively eliminated. Similarly, the gangster who kill a police officer during a genuine encounter or the criminal who murders the victim on offering resistance during a robbery attempt also fall in the same category in the police book and deserve to be eliminated. The police are also ‘empowered’ to decide the fate of the extortionists at their own, according to insiders.

Some police officers argue that the formula of extra-judicial killings badly failed to improve the sense of security among the public. A few were of the view that the aggressive policing had left the hardened criminals with no other option but to leave the gangland or the province to save their lives. They also said that the incidents of bank robberies, kidnappings for ransom, and house robberies registered a slight decrease since the police ‘purged’ the society of several gangs of criminals during the shootouts.

The police in Punjab have set a criterion to flush out the desperate criminals and its scope is amended from time to time. Once the provincial hierarchy or the top officers give go-ahead, those falling in the ‘encounter criteria’ are immediately 'dealt with'.  

On the orders of the Lahore High Court, a 10-member special vigilance and monitoring board under the supervision of a DIG-rank officer had been established in the police department to take up issues regarding fake police encounters a couple of years ago.

However, it is not clear whether the special vigilance and monitoring board exists any more.  Police sources say most of the officers serving on key slots favour fake police encounters and argue that it is the best solution to bring down the crime rate. “If robbers commit gang-rape during house robbery at gunpoint, should we spare them,” a police officer asked during an informal chat.  According to him, the desperate criminals must be eliminated because they often got acquitted from the courts due to legal complications and lack of evidence.

However, a seasoned officer was of the view that “fake encounters only create vacuum and a new gangster emerges to fill the gap after each fake encounter.”