Having captured killing on tape, cameraman fears for his life

Abdul Salam Somroo is in danger. He is the Awaz TV cameraman who took the June 9 video footage of the pointblank murder of a young man, Sarfaraz Shah, in southern Karachi. That’s the same part of the city where militants beheaded American Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002. Only when Somroo got back to the offices of the Sindhi-language TV station and played back his full tape did he realize he had the most explosive footage he had ever recorded. Explosive, and dangerous.

And Soomro is in very real danger. He finds himself the key witness in the murder case being brought against the five rangers accused of shooting Shah. If the case makes it to trial, the rangers could face execution or life imprisonment.

Soomro’s footage showed the unarmed boy surrounded by six Sindh rangers–a paramilitary force deployed to combat Karachi’s rampant violence–pleading for his life before he was shot. After the first shot, Shah begged for help, asking to be taken to the hospital. After another, fatal, round was fired, the men in uniform only got into their vehicle, leaving behind Shah, and Soomoro, who had happened on the incident almost by chance. 

All this happened at Benazir Bhutto Park, named after the slain former prime minister, hardly half a kilometer from her family residence, the very well-guarded Bilawal House. Somroo had been working in the park on another story when the rangers called him over to take video of their apprehension of what they called a “suspected criminal.” With some time to spare, he obliged them.

For the shooters, it was just a brutal act. They didn’t seem to care that they had left Soomro, who had captured every single moment, every bit of their abusive language, their indifference to Shah’s pleas and their role in his death.

The first frames show an officer in plainclothes pulling Shah by his hair. As Soomro continued to roll tape, he saw one of them point his rifle at Shah. He kept rolling, never thinking that they would shoot. The young man started pleading as one of the men shouted “Maro, maro”–shoot him, shoot him. After the first shot, into his left leg, the boy screamed. He begged the men to take him to a hospital. The second shot was the fatal one. One of the men can be heard saying, “Let’s go.”

Perhaps realizing what had happened only later, the rangers soon issued a press release that they had killed a “criminal” in an encounter at the park. A few hours later, the “encounter” was broadcast and soon picked up by most other channels–Pakistan has more than 30 all news cable stations.

The rangers panicked, trying to defuse the situation with a string of contradictory statements. But the footage was so telling that both the ruling and opposition parties issued condemnations and human rights activists forced the government to order inquiry.

The Karachi Union of Journalists said Soomro was receiving threats, and is being “pressured to say it was a fake.” Understandably, Soomro is not making public statements.

The next day, June 10, the Supreme Court ordered the government to remove Sindh police Inspector-General Fayaz Leghari as well as the Director-General of the Sindh branch of the Pakistan rangers, Major-General Ijaz Chaudhry, within three days. Both officials have been “posted out,” the Interior Ministry said Tuesday, but that doesn’t mean they have been fired–only moved to another assignment. The court also ordered that the case be brought to trial within 30 days.

Those 30 days will be a very dangerous month for Soomro, who is sure to be called as a witness. Even though the ruling Pakistan Peoples’ Party has promised parliament “that every possible protection will be given to the concerned media persons who were present at time of incident and took footage,” Soomro worries about who will provide for his and his family’s security, before and after the trial. He is asking Awaz TV for help, but he’s not sure that it will be enough to counter the determination of those who might want to silence him even if it is forthcoming.

It is a very real cause for concern.