No one killed Naqeebullah

Editorial Board
Tuesday, Jan 24, 2023

Who killed Naqeebullah Mehsud? This is one question that will haunt this country forever. Five years back, four young men – Naqeebullah Mehsud, Sabir, Nazir Jan and Ishaq – were gunned down by the police in Karachi on the pretext of being members of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. The encounter was called 'staged' by rights activists and a police inquiry team had termed it ‘fake’ after an investigation. In the middle of the case sat former SSP Rao Anwar, an infamous cop implicated over the years in the extrajudicial killings of nearly 500 people. Long known by the moniker of ‘encounter specialist’, he had managed to survive multiple suspensions and years of suspicion that he was involved in extrajudicial killings. This was part of the reason the Naqeebullah Mehsud case had drawn this much attention, some hoping it may prove to be a turning point for the justice system. Now, five years later, the case has ended with an anti-terrorism court (ATC) in Karachi on Monday acquitting all accused, including Anwar who has post-acquittal too insisted that Naqeebullah was a terrorist.

The Naqeebullah case had highlighted a spectrum of injustices and discriminations: from the impunity law enforcement holds over violence to the cynical use of the ‘terrorist’ label to not only discriminate but target a whole ethnic community (Pashtuns, in this case) to the privilege proximity to power affords those tasked with maintaining the law. Naqeebullah’s family will likely appeal the acquittal but it was the responsibility of the state to ensure that those accused of his murder should have been prosecuted properly. The ATC has pointed to lack of evidence provided by the prosecution in the case. One wonders how much longer the prosecution needed to put together a case in such a high-profile murder. Unfortunately, now the family of a victim will have to run from pillar to post in a system that already does not inspire much confidence.

The reaction to Monday’s acquittals has been swift and angry – lawyers, civil society members and activists going so far as to say that this was not a wholly unexpected outcome, what with little hope and expectation from a system that shies away from prosecuting ‘it’s own’, and with witnesses in many cases easily backtracking. As important as it is to hold accountable those who were responsible for Naqeebullah’s death, there needs to be a genuine accounting of how law enforcement has essentially taken the law into its own hands on far too many occasions – even after this particular case. Even the emergence of full-fledged civil rights movements have not led to any form of soul-searching by law-enforcement authorities. Over the years, extrajudicial killings have become the tool of choice of a system where police investigations are shoddy, prosecutors cannot be relied upon to build strong cases, and witnesses are afraid to speak in court. The answer to this is not for the police to go rogue but for the government to remedy the flaws in our system. As for who killed Naqeebullah Mehsud, we may easily add collective apathy to the list of the acquitted.