LAHORE  -  Incidents of fake police encounters or extrajudicial killings have dropped drastically in the Punjab province, thanks to the judiciary and rights activists.

Only 43 suspects were killed by police in staged encounters in first six months of this year. The police, last year, had shot and killed at least 134 alleged criminals during the same period.

According to the police “performance” chart, at least 43 criminals were killed during 54 encounters from January to June 2018 while the police had killed no less than 134 suspects during in 129 staged encounters during the corresponding period of 2017.

Also, eight policemen died while fighting criminals during the first six months of this year as compared to 11 police who died during the same period in 2017. Similarly, at least 17 police were wounded during armed encounters with criminals from January to June this year. Last year, at least 30 policemen were wounded in the shootouts during the same period.

After more than 20 years, the Punjab province witnessed a record decline in the incidents of encounter killings. The recent drop in extrajudicial killings is being attributed to the strict monitoring of police “actions” by human rights activists and the country’s top judiciary.

Extrajudicial killings gained popularity in 1995 and then in 2008 when the Punjab Police indulged in the unlawful practice to flush out gangsters and militants from the province. Police often claim that they had to retaliate in self-defense when gangsters or criminals opened fire on them.

Most interestingly, no policeman reported wounded in the so-called armed encounters in which criminals were killed. Similarly, no criminal was reported injured or dead in the gun attacks on policemen.

As a matter fact, the Punjab Police almost suspended the decades-long policy of “fake encounters” after the country’s top court took strong notice of the murder of Naqeeb Ullah Mahsud, a young man who was killed in a fake police encounter early this year in Karachi.

As protests spread to different cities, extrajudicial killings in the country were back in the limelight again. Human-rights groups were also critical of “staged encounters” that are reportedly a common practice for the police in the country.

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.

Mahsud’s murder in police action had sparked outrage across Pakistan in January. In February, Chief Justice of Pakistan Justice Mian Saqib Nisar also took a suo motu notice of extrajudicial police encounters in Punjab. The chief justice ordered the Inspector General of Police to submit a report in a week on the total encounters conducted in the province and the people killed in the last year.

According to the latest police data, at least 1,325 suspected criminals were shot and killed by police across the Punjab province from 2014 to 2017. The shootings were staged and most of those killed in such so-called ‘armed encounters’ were wanted to the police in different crime cases. Many suspects were shot and killed by police after weeks-long investigations.

The practice of extrajudicial killings is quite common in this crime-infested Punjab province. At least 269 alleged criminals were killed in 239 “police encounters” last year across the Punjab province. In 2016, the police had killed 340 alleged criminals in 291 encounters. More than 450 suspects were shot dead by police during at least 359 shootouts across the province in 2015. Police sources describe 2015 as the year of “police encounters” in the history of Punjab Police.

The figures were almost double if compared to 2014 when at least 259 suspects were shot and killed in 267 armed encounters. The police had killed 360 alleged criminals in a total of 397 encounters reported across the province in 2012. However, in 2011, at least 127 alleged criminals were killed in shootouts with the law enforcing agency.

Early this year, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Chairman Imran Khan had stated that Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif was responsible for the killing of 870 people in fake police encounters during 1997-98. Addressing a public gathering in Lodhran, Imran Khan said that Shehbaz Sharif was not a superior servant (Khadim-e-Aala) but a superior murderer.

Khan had also demanded the Supreme Court of Pakistan to form a commission to investigate the killing of 870 people in fake police encounters during the tenure of Shehbaz Sharif in 1997-98. Believe it or not, more than 890 alleged gangsters were killed in at least 1100 police encounters in the province during the second tenure of Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif beginning in 2008.

The police adopted an ‘aggressive’ policy to eliminate hardened criminals in staged encounters despite strict warnings and notices by the superior judiciary. The rulers had encouraged extrajudicial killings (of most wanted gangsters) in the province, according to police sources.

Insiders say, the police in Punjab had set a criterion to eliminate hardened criminals and the scope of police shootings is amended from time to time. Once the provincial hierarchy or the top officers are given go-ahead, those falling in the ‘encounter criteria’ are immediately eliminated.

According to this so-called policy, 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 shoots a policeman or the criminal who kills the victim during house robbery attempt also fall in the same category and deserve to be eliminated in such a fake encounter. The police are also ‘empowered’ to decide the fate of the extortionists at their own.