Roots of Impunity

1. The Murder of Wali Khan Babar

On January 13, 2011, Wali Khan Babar, a 28-year-old correspondent for Geo TV, was driving home after covering another day of gang violence in Karachi. Babar was an unusual face on the airwaves: Popular and handsome, he was a Pashtun from Zhob in Baluchistan near the border with Afghanistan. For Geo, it was a rare boon to have a Pashtun in Karachi, and so the station planned to send him abroad for training to become an anchor.

Pashtuns, represented by the Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party, and Muhajirs, represented by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, have been enmeshed in violent attacks and counterattacks at a level not seen since the 1990s, and Babar was passionate about covering and stopping them. For a time, he was able to mingle easily among the competing forces. He reported on clashes, extortion, drug dealing, and land grabbing. He knew he was in treacherous water, but he was optimistic and, as he told one of his colleagues, he thought he could forge a truce between the ANP and MQM. But lately he was nervous. He told his boss that the MQM was after him. He told a Pashtun colleague that he thought people were following him home and watching his movements. “I get phone calls every day with threats,” said a Geo supervisor, “and unfortunately we didn’t realize the gravity of why he was saying that.”

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The day before, on January 12, 2011, Mohammad Shahrukh Khan, aka Mani, was ordered to follow Babar home, but he couldn’t find the reporter. Mani, a young Muhajir and MQM member, had worked in his father’s paan and confectionary shop until he got involved with the MQM’s Faisal Mota, a community organizer and squad leader. Once Mani joined the MQM he did various jobs—selling cigarettes, brokering, election campaigning. On January 13, he got another call from Mota, who told him to go back to Geo offices where another MQM comrade would give him a car to follow Babar.

Mani arrived outside the offices of Geo around Asr, the afternoon prayer. Two MQM guys named Zeeshan and Liaqat were already there and gave him the keys to a silver Suzuki, parked behind Babar’s car. They had put a 50-rupee credit on Mani’s mobile and told him to call when Babar pulled out. Around 8:30 p.m., Babar got in his car and began his drive home. Mani called Zeeshan: “He’s leaving.” He then called his boss, Faisal Mota, who kept him on the phone to narrate the exact route—through the Saddar area, by the lines for cricket, past the post office and the Esso station. And then suddenly there was Zeeshan. Babar was stuck in traffic in Liaquatabad, an exclusively Muhajir neighborhood, with Mani behind him. Zeeshan, wearing a cap, went in front of Mani up to Babar’s car, raised a black pistol, and fired six or seven times through the window. We know all this from Mani’s videotaped confession, which can be found online.

Mani panicked and fled. He called Faisal Mota. What’s going on? By the time he got to Faisal Mota’s house several MQM guys were already there—men with names like Waseem Commando and Shahid Commando. Zeeshan arrived soon after and then Mota walked in. Mota told Mani to relax and say not a word, but Mani left the next day for Lahore, where he stayed for two months. Upon his return to Karachi he went to Mota’s office in Gulshan. By now the police were on to them, and Mota ordered them to head to Hyderabad where Liaqat, another plotter, was in hiding. It was too late. Shortly after they left Mota’s office, Mani and four others saw the police moving in. A firefight broke out. Somehow Mota, the ringleader, got away.

On April 7, 2011, the police held a news conference announcing the arrest of Mani and four others. Twelve days later, stories began appearing in Pakistan Today with details of the murder culled from the suspects’ statements to a Joint Investigation Team. According to the team’s report, Mota had apparently received the assassination order around January 1 from Agha Murtaza, a South Africa-based MQM operative who investigators said has controlled several hit cells for years. Mota had convened a meeting at his house on January 7 and assigned different MQM members to monitor Babar at various locations, including the reporter’s residence and a Peshawari ice cream shop near the reporter’s house.

And so it seemed for a moment that in this city where more than 100 people are targeted for murder every month, many of them tortured and mutilated, that the judicial wheels were turning, investigations and arrests happening.

Except that simultaneously, someone was making every effort to thwart justice. A few weeks after Babar was murdered, one by one, a police informant, two police constables, and the brother of an investigating officer were found murdered. All of them were connected to the Babar investigation. The account in the Express Tribune was chilling: The first victim was a police informant who was found dead in a sack with a note in his pocket. The message said that head constable Arshad Kundi would be “next.” Kundi was the informant’s handler. The second victim was actually police constable Asif Rafiq, killed in a drive-by shooting by two men on a motorcycle. He was on the scene when Babar was murdered and had identified the plotters’ vehicle. The third to die was indeed Kundi, also shot in a drive-by motorcycle attack. The fourth was the young brother of a police chief, Shafiq Tanoli, who was part of the investigation team from Liaquatabad. It may just be coincidence, but around the same time, Pakistan Today journalist Tariq Habib, who had published details of the Joint Investigation Team report on the Babar killing, was fired without explanation, according to his colleagues at the Karachi Press Club. Habib received threats, was chased on the streets of Karachi, and was finally forced to change his residence, they told me.

On April 9, two days after the suspects were arrested in the Babar case, Zulfiqar Mirza, home minister of Sindh and senior vice president of the Pakistan People’s Party, announced that he was being forced out of his job due to pressure from MQM leader Altaf Hussain. In the ensuing weeks, Mirza unleashed his wrath against the MQM, saying that it was responsible for Babar’s murder and the subsequent killings, that Western governments were backing the party, and that Hussain had called President Asif Ali Zardari six times to have him removed. The ravings of an embittered politician? The truth? A political agenda? “Well, once you start speaking the truth there is no stopping, and Zulfiqar realized late that he was damaging the People’s Party,” a close friend and media mogul in Karachi said in explaining why the once voluble Mirza went completely silent by 2012. Others suggest it was because his son was elected to Parliament.

But the larger questions remain: Did the MQM really go to such lengths to staunch the investigation? If so, why?

Babar’s murder provides an unfortunate prism through which to study the state of the news media and the justice system, the nature of power and politics, and the often toxic effect of Western policy on Pakistanis.

History and demographics are never far from what causes murder in Karachi. The MQM was founded in 1984 by Hussain, a passionate student activist who championed the rights of Muhajirs—the Urdu-speaking migrants who left India during partition for the Muslim homeland—and went on to declare them a separate entity within Pakistan. He managed to build up one of the most powerful political-militant parties in the country, a party that was meant to be classless, of the people, and anti-feudal.

In a way it was. The Muhajirs have higher education levels and lower birth rates, but they also have no land to fall back on. The Sindhis have Sindh. The Pashtuns have Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The Punjabis have Punjab. The Baluch have Baluchistan. The Muhajirs in Sindh became urbanites with a siege mentality. Over the past three decades they have fought the Sindhis, the Pashtuns, the PPP, and the ANP; they have populated every institution in Karachi and, of course, have ties to the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI, and the Pakistani Army. Their drive is about survival and ownership of Karachi, the financial capital of Pakistan.

In the 1980s, Gen. Zia ul-Haq encouraged and bolstered the MQM to damage the PPP. After all, he had seized power in a military coup that overthrew the PPP and he had executed the PPP’s hero, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Turf wars exploded all over the city and by the 1990s the violence was so extreme that the streets of Karachi turned into dumping grounds for the mutilated dead. The MQM brutalized not only rival party militants but also anyone who criticized the party, including journalists. Benazir Bhutto tried to stop the violence with more brutality. Naseerullah Babar, her infamous home minister, raised an anti-terror force that broke into the MQM’s intelligence network and its cells and then committed hundreds of extrajudicial killings.

In 1999, when Gen. Pervez Musharraf took over in a military coup, he needed the MQM to build a coalition. So he resurrected it, brought it into the government, and watched it restore an even more effective and brutal militant wing. Once reconstituted, the MQM sought revenge. Just about every police station head of office who had been involved in the 1990s crackdown was killed, often in daylight, often by snipers. Fifty-two have been murdered to date, with one killed shortly before my visit in April 2012.

“They don’t forget these things,” said a senior newspaper editor who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We vet every word, every sentence written about the MQM,” he added. “I am responsible for 150 journalists working here. I have to be careful if a byline is given on a story. I have to look at the mood of the reporter because he faces the wrath. The MQM is the most organized militant group in this country.” That is a powerful statement in a place that is home to Lashkar-e-Taiba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Tehrik-e-Taliban, and all the rest of the militant groups. “At least if the Taliban threaten you, you can ask for help from the authorities,” the editor said, because the ISI will act as go-between. “With these guys? No.”

While many loathe the party, they also respect it. The MQM operates as a well-oiled machine unlike any other political party in the country, more like Hamas with organizational cells and high-tech efficiency. It’s built parks and overpasses to manage traffic. Karachi functions at a relatively high level given its population of 18 million. The party has also developed a system of controlling the media. The cable operators are now under its influence. “If we say at 8 p.m. we will air an interview with Afaq,” said a Geo TV editor, referring to Afaq Ahmed, the leader of a splinter Muhajir group that calls itself the real MQM, “the cable will be shut and will come back at 8:55.”

Today Altaf Hussain rules his party from exile in London and his absence seems only to enhance his status. Many told me that the Muhajir elite may hate the MQM but they will support it. Why? “They defend minorities. They defend women. They are efficient. Things never happen with the PPP. They are seen as lazy and unconcerned, feudals,” said a Karachi journalist and filmmaker who has written reports on the Pakistani media. And then he added, “At least with the MQM you can talk to them, even if they’ll kill you.”

You must go see Nine Zero, I’m told. That is the name of the MQM’s headquarters, and it’s a measure of Hussain’s cult-like stature. Nine Zero were the last two numbers of his home telephone when he still lived in Karachi. Nine Zero is in Azizabad, a middle-class neighborhood, though as you approach and pass through the security barricades you have the feeling you’re entering warlord territory. The day I arrived a red carpet was being laid from a dais down an aisle between dozens of carefully aligned chairs. The British high commissioner was coming for a ceremony. I was met by an escort with a handheld radio, and my driver was sent around the corner to wait.

Hussain’s poster is there saluting the room. Everything is neat, organized, and swift. The spokesman I’m meeting is Syed Faisal Ali Subzwari, the provincial minister for youth affairs in Sindh. He is impeccably dressed: tan suit, purple floral tie, hair flattened and swiped down on the sides. But the most remarkable thing about him is that he speaks in paragraphs. Non-stop. I tell him that everyone says the MQM murdered Wali Khan Babar. The first thing he lets me know is that he has high-level connections with the West, that he was in a meeting with a Western foundation when he heard about Babar’s murder, and that he immediately went to the hospital.

What follows is a carefully stitched-together defense. It begins with former Home Minister Mirza, the man who pointed the finger at MQM. “He was very friendly and still is friendly with Awami National Party’s notorious leaders in Karachi. He would say, ‘Taliban are running a parallel economy, extortion, robbery, kidnapping for ransom, arms money, drug money.’ These are the same businesses which the ANP leadership indulged into. They are partners in crime,” Subzwari says, conflating the Taliban with the ANP (a secular Pashtun party) and by implication the Pashtuns.

“One has to connect the dots. There is an ANP leadership who is notorious, who has benefited economically, commercially under the garb of politics. There was a home minister [Mirza] who is a xenophobe in his remarks against the Urdu-speaking community, when he said, at the house of the ANP chief, that the Urdu speakers, the immigrants who came from India to Pakistan, came here starved and naked. They had nothing with them. And this country has given it all to them. That was a xenophobic remark. That was a racist remark. It showed his inner bias towards us. Since the MQM are 85 percent coming from Urdu-speaking background, we took it very seriously.”

In the next breath, Subzwari brings up the extrajudicial killings of MQM in the 1990s. Then there’s the problem of an MQM motive. “MQM wants to eliminate Pashtuns. Oh really? Now there are hundreds of Pashtun journalists operating in Karachi. For an educated Pashtun, MQM is the only hope and largest representative in Karachi. … We are the only liberal party in Pakistan. The others represent ethnicity or family politics.” So the MQM had no motive, he says. “Wali Khan Babar wasn’t even covering a political beat; his was the civic beat and culture,” Subzwari claims, although that wasn’t true. He quickly adds, “On that fateful day, yes, he was used as a crime reporter where the ANP party and PPP were fighting over extortion money.” Actually, the MQM were heavily involved in that turf war, too.

Subzwari was careful to end our meeting with a reminder to me of the MQM’s liberal values. “MQM is the only party to raise concerns about the murders of Ahmadis in Lahore. MQM is the only party which said Talibanization is going on in Karachi. I asked for repatriation and a check on mass migration of Pashtuns from Swat and what happened? Osama bin Laden’s widow was in Karachi. Khalid Sheikh Mohammad was here. How many Pashtun extremists are here?” What is revealed in Subzwari’s speech is the psychology behind the MQM’s philosophy; party leaders harbor an underlying belief that unless they are the toughest guys on the block, they will be wiped out by demographics if not turf wars. They have positioned themselves as the defenders of women and minorities, and as a bulwark against jihadis. It was a dazzling, speedy performance. There was truth here and there. But he never really addressed the fact that the suspects belong to the MQM or that the witnesses who accused the MQM have been murdered. Subzwari had his eye on his watch. The British high commissioner was on his way.

The MQM has brilliantly and effectively courted the West. “They have managed to sell the idea to Western embassies that they are the last secular stand against extremism,” a prominent newspaper editor said. “At the worst times, when major crackdowns were happening, the militants got visas to Britain and the U.S.”

“Westerners don’t want to discuss the ANP-MQM turf war,” the editor went on to say. “The Pashtuns have come to Karachi. The shanty towns multiplied and that’s where the turf wars have accelerated. Taliban have found refuge in those ghettoes and it’s impossible for police to go in there. The Americans want violent Islam to be taken out by violent secularists and if human rights are violated, so what.”

Ahmed Rashid, author of Taliban and Descent Into Chaos, and a CPJ board member, said “there’s some kind of treaty between the MQM and the British government. Pakistanis are amazed and upset at the way the MQM and its leaders are tolerated in Britain when they’ve been involved in so much of the killing in Karachi over the years.” Muhammad Khan Buriro, the original prosecutor in the Babar case, put it this way: “Canada labeled them a terrorist organization. If a commonwealth country calls them a terrorist organization, why does Britain differ? Because the MQM promised to secure the British infrastructure in Pakistan. In any riots the British organizations, whether BP or others, will not be affected.” Even if this is an exaggerated claim, it is a widely held perception in Pakistan.

The British government does little to dispel the notion that it condones the MQM’s behavior. When I mentioned that Pakistanis believe the British have a sort of pact with the MQM, that they have given protection to men accused of running a militia in Karachi, embassy spokesman Jonathan Williams said the British engage with the MQM because it is a democratically elected party. As far as particular cases, such as MQM leader Hussain’s receiving asylum or an extended visa in England, Williams said, “We can’t comment on individual cases of asylum or visas in particular.” He apologized for what he called the limited nature of his reply.

Today the MQM is on the demographic defensive, and that is in part why the last few years have been filled with violence. According to a 1998 government census, Muhajirs made up 48 percent of the population of Karachi while Pashtuns constituted about 11 percent. Since the earthquake in 2005 and the continuing Pakistani army operations in the tribal areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Pashtuns have migrated in huge numbers to Karachi and shifted the balance. Estimates say the Pashtuns now make up more than 20 percent of the population.

The hundreds of killings recorded each year in Karachi are not random. The ANP was founded in 1986 on the nonviolent principles of Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the Pashtun leader who lived from 1890 to 1988 and led a movement against the British and then the Pakistani government. But now ANP-Karachi is adopting MQM tactics and has created a militant wing. It has made alliances with a splinter MQM faction—the MQM Haqiqi, or real MQM—and with the People’s Aman Committee, a Baluch organization. The factionalization, splinter groups, and temporary alliances are mind-boggling and have turned parts of Karachi into bloody ganglands. According to the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, 972 people were victims of targeted killings in just the first half of 2012.

“The local leaders of ANP promoted more violent and mafia-friendly leaders, less political,” said a news manager. “We will see more violence in Karachi and more pressure will come on the media.” Recently, he said, he was shouting in the newsroom because his journalists were not wearing bullet-resistant jackets. Reporters going home from riots in Lyari were stopped by MQM on one side and ANP on the other. “This is serious. If word goes down to workers that journalists can be targeted, anyone can shoot.”

The ANP, like the MQM, has resorted to cable-cutting as well. Sometimes the cable wars look like kids fighting over a toy in a playground. When Shahi Syed, the provincial head of the ANP, became senator and arrived back in Karachi, he expected Geo TV to give him full-time coverage. The ANP, after all, was announcing an alliance with MQM-Haqiqi. But there was a cricket final between Bangladesh and Pakistan, and Geo went with the program that would bring in more viewers: cricket. The next day, threats rained on Geo TV. The ANP cut the station’s cables, and burned trucks carrying the newspapers of its parent company, the Jang Group. Geo called ANP leaders, who came to the station’s offices with a message. “They told us, ‘We know your children go to school. Everyone goes to and from neighborhoods, and no one wants to become a Wali Khan Babar. But in this city, these things happen.’ It was a direct threat,” recalled one journalist. ANP officials did not respond to requests for comment.

That’s why everyone in Karachi will tell you, there is a method to the violence. It’s not random. If you kill your rivals in an ethnically diverse neighborhood, they leave, you win the elections, and you reap more extortion money. And this, one managing editor speculated, may have been what killed Wali Khan Babar. “My own feeling is that the MQM was thinking that if a Pashtun becomes so popular as a journalist in Karachi, it gives a face and voice to the Pashtuns in Karachi, an equal representation.” Another prominent journalist put it: “The newsrooms are heavily pro-MQM, and he was one of the few who clearly belonged to an emerging ethnic group. That could be enough.”

Pakistan’s leaders could stop the violence if they chose, a Karachi editor said, but political calculations have nearly always trumped their obligation to bring peace to streets. The ANP, the PPP, and the MQM were coalition partners under the outgoing government. So, the editor said, “if police arrested the MQM, the other Islamabad”—meaning Zardari’s men—“would call and say, ‘Release them.’”

The government has not only been beholden to coalition partners, it has counted on them to carry out its dirty tricks. In January 2012, Zardari’s government looked as if it might collapse over Memogate. Husain Haqqani, the country’s ambassador to the United States, had sent a memorandum to Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, asking for help to oust the Pakistani Chief of Army Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and the ISI director general at the time, Ahmad Shuja Pasha. The army assumed Zardari was behind it.

The Jang Group, including Geo and The News, was eviscerating Zardari. Mohammad Malick, former editor of The News and a well-known TV personality, told me that a sitting minister whom he would not name offered him 30 million rupees (about US$300,000) to stop bashing the government. “Then they started threatening me, telling me I was driving very fast and when you drive fast accidents happen. I started seeing white Corollas in my neighborhood,” he said, referring to the signature intelligence agency-issued cars. “I had an intelligence friend put my phone on surveillance. … A senator close to the president started getting friendly with me, inviting me to places outside the city. I said it doesn’t make sense—the road is not safe.” His intelligence source relayed that there were discussions to “fix” Malick, which would mean killing him. “In the meantime, civilian intelligence were making themselves visible chasing my car, my wife’s car. My kids were studying in Lahore, and there was suspicious stuff going on. Friendly civilians in government told me, ‘Get out and get out now.’”

Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, chief executive of the Jang Group, arranged to have Malick flown to Dubai. “But it’s a funny government,” said Malick, recalling a phone conversation with the former interior minister, Rehman Malik. “He called and said, ‘I’m sending four frontier constables to you.’ And I said, ‘Just call off the people you launched on me.’”

The traditional harassment of journalists by government institutions has evolved into something more personal, Malick said. “What’s happening is the line between the state and individuals has been smashed. Only on the army side is it institutional harassment—MI [Military Intelligence] or ISI institutional reaction. On the civilian side, it’s state functionaries using state resources and their clout to threaten you. It’s like a mafia state. Your only recourse is court, and courts are defiant. The media is way more powerful.” And, therefore, more dangerous.

Even before the May 2011 murder of Asia Times Online reporter Saleem Shahzad—a landmark killing widely believed to be the work of ISI agents—it was apparent that investigative journalism in Pakistan had become a game of Russian roulette. Journalists are squeezed on every side, threatened by the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the ISI, the MQM, Zardari loyalists, and a host of other state and non-state militants. Yet in the decade since Musharraf released the state’s grip on broadcast media, journalism in Pakistan has never been more vibrant. Today there are some 90 TV stations and more than 100 radio stations. “The days when papers were scared of taking on the army as an institution are gone,” said Malick. “But we can’t take a stand against individuals because we have no institutional support. No one is big enough to not be knocked off. Until someone is held accountable for killing a journalist, it won’t stop.”

Wali Khan Babar’s murder provoked outrage at the Karachi Press Club. Journalists for a time banded together, demanding government action. But once a case goes to court, the family is usually the one left to pursue it. As the journalist Najam Sethi explained, police have no forensic expertise and are under no internal pressure to pursue such cases. “If Zardari hadn’t pursued Benazir Bhutto’s case with the full force of a federal investigation agency and if Musharraf hadn’t been named as the accused, it would not have made it to the court stage,” he said. To date, the journalists union has not taken it upon itself to be the plaintiff in court on behalf of a fellow journalist. Babar’s brother is still pursuing the case in court and has testified before the judge.

I asked the journalists at the Karachi Press Club about the Babar investigation. They smiled and shifted in their chairs. “Everyone points a finger at the MQM, but the prosecutors and judges are also under threat,” said one. “Ten lawyers were killed in the last two months following sectarian killings. And actually the judge and prosecutor are under threat, and the previous prosecutors fled to the U.S.”

I eventually tracked down those two prosecutors in Texas, where they were keeping such a low profile that they barely had access to the Internet. They fled Karachi in December 2011 and flew to Houston, where they had friends. Ten days after their arrival, a Pakistani attorney who worked for the “agencies” turned up in Houston inquiring about them. The prosecutors panicked, convinced the lawyer was after them, and called a distant friend in a small town. “We said, ‘Please, for the sake of God, take us in. We can’t trust anyone,’ ” Muhammad Khan Buriro, one of the prosecutors, told me.

The prosecutors had worked very closely with the press in Karachi. This was, after all, the new civilian-led Pakistan and there was faith in the idea of transparency. Their experience in Karachi explains much of how justice works in Pakistan, and what must be done to chip away at impunity. Here is their story.

Born and raised in Sindh in the 1980s, Buriro and fellow prosecutor Mobashir Mirza joined the PPP student wing at university during the turbulent anti-Zia days and never left the party. In 2007, under Musharraf, they traveled with ousted Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry as the lawyers’ movement to restore him swept across the country. When the PPP won elections in the wake of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, the two were appointed prosecutors in the anti-terrorism court in Karachi.

Immediately they faced some of the toughest cases, prosecuting Islamic terrorists who taunted them in court: “Don’t you care about your life?” “You want to see your families dead?” They pleaded with the government for more protection. They worked in pitiful offices with no copy machines, no computers, no phones, not even light bulbs, and certainly no protection. In 2010 they brought Time magazine to their rundown offices and explained that the government was obviously more interested in fighting terrorism through military means—and often through extrajudicial killings—than through the courts.

Nevertheless, they managed to prosecute many cases and, perhaps as important, to cultivate a transparent relationship with the Karachi press corps. “We invited all the journalists to the anti-terrorism court along with their cameras. Before us, journalists were prohibited, but we were political activists for the restoration of democracy as well as the judiciary,” Buriro told me when I met them in New York.

The prosecutors were put to the test in 2011 with the highly publicized murder trial of six members of the Pakistan Rangers, a paramilitary security force overseen by the Interior Ministry. It was, perhaps, the prosecutors’ most successful case, but it was one that had severe consequences for their future. On June 8, 2011, just a month after the U.S. raid in Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden, six Rangers in Karachi were captured on video shooting Syed Sarfaraz Shah, an unarmed civilian, at close range as he pleaded for his life in a public park named after Benazir Bhutto in the Clifton neighborhood. The video shows a civilian dragging Shah in front of the Rangers who then shoot him. It shows them all standing around as Shah begs for help, bleeding into unconsciousness. Shah later died of his wounds.

The video was broadcast on Pakistani television stations and went viral, causing an outcry throughout Pakistan. Chief Justice Chaudhry said he couldn’t sleep. He called the director general of the Rangers and the inspector general of police and removed them from their posts. “They were reluctant to register the case against the Rangers,” Buriro said. Interior Minister Malik, whose ministry oversaw the Rangers, issued a quick statement defending the men and saying that the young Shah had been armed with a pistol and was caught trying to rob someone.

The case nevertheless was transferred from the High Court to the anti-terrorism court, and the prosecutor general assigned it to Buriro and Mirza. By then the Karachi press corps had taken to the streets to demand justice because Shah was the brother of a colleague, Samaa TV crime reporter Syed Salik Shah. What’s more, the man who caught the episode on video was also a journalist, Abdul Salam Soomro, a cameraman for Awaz Television. He was now under threat and being pressured to pronounce his video a fake. Forced to leave Awaz, he went into hiding, moving from one house to the next.

At that moment, Imtiaz Faran, the president of the Karachi Press Club, invited the two prosecutors to discuss the case. “The journalists were convinced they’d never get justice from the court, that the prosecutors could never stand against the version of events the government was presenting,” Buriro recalled. “They told us if we did this in the courts we would face dire consequences.”

Here is Buriro’s version of what happened: “Syed Salik Shah was working as a crime reporter for Samaa TV, exposing illegal activities of the police and Rangers. All these parks have a certain area where you park your car.” As Karachiites will tell you, the car parks are divided among various extortionists—including Rangers and political parties—who make money charging fees. “Salik was trying to investigate and report that. His brother, Syed Sarfaraz Shah, happened to go to the park in the evening when an agent of the Rangers was collecting these illegal parking fees. When Shah interfered with the agent—asking him, why are you taking illegal fees?—a dispute erupted and the agent called over the Rangers.” In Shah’s pocket, they found the business card of his journalist brother, the prosecutor said.

The Rangers shot Shah without warning, Buriro said, and to cover their tracks filed what is known as a First Information Report. The report stated that the Rangers encountered Shah “committing dacoity”—stealing—“and possessing illicit arms without any license or authority.”

A Joint Investigation Team, composed of civilian and military intelligence bodies, concluded in its report that the Rangers were innocent, that Shah was a thief, and that the case should be referred back to the regular courts. “The investigating officer of the case pressured me in the presence of journalists to submit the same in court, but I vehemently opposed the application in open court and it was dismissed,” Buriro said. The director inspector general, accompanied by an entourage of senior police officials, soon arrived at the prosecutor’s office to press the demand. “Why don’t you submit this report to the court?’ Buriro recalled the official as shouting. “I replied: ‘I will never submit this report because I have to follow the law. I am not your subordinate. This report has been made to save the Rangers in this case.’” The director inspector general “then threatened the court reporters from Dunya TV and Dawn. And he told me, ‘You will no longer be in your position. You are going against the government and the agencies so be careful or you will face dire consequences in future.’”

Buriro decided just to do his job. He examined 20 witnesses including Soomro, who had filmed the murder. Buriro produced the video in open court. He cross-examined the defendants’ witness, an ISI colonel. The prosecutors withstood anonymous phone threats; they turned down bribes to let the case return to the regular courts, where it would fade away. The security apparatus was especially furious that uniformed men were being tried in the anti-terrorism court. “During the process of the case I was threatened by the naval agencies. I was threatened by the ISI,” Buriro said. The prosecutors were excoriated for not damaging evidence in the case as instructed.

The year 2011 was a bad one for military officials. They’d taken a blow not only from the United States but also from the Pakistani public, their prowess put in question by a foreign army’s ability to invade undetected and kill Osama bin Laden. It was too much in the wake of Abbottabad to have uniformed officers on trial before civilian prosecutors affiliated with the PPP. It was a matter of ghairat—honor.

Despite the intimidation, the ISI threats, and Interior Minister Malik’s declarations of the Rangers’ innocence, the prosecutors won the case. The judge sentenced one Ranger to death, and the others, including the civilian who had dragged Shah before the Rangers, to life in prison. That’s when the government and the agencies ratcheted up the pressure on Buriro and Mirza.

“The army and agency believe any discussion of anti-terrorism should be with them, not the civilian government,” Ayesha Haroon, former editor of The News, said in an interview before her death in 2013. “It’s the strength of civilian government that we had public prosecutors who with a free media could take cases like the Rangers and support them to go forward. But then we have the pushback that comes from the army and establishment. There’s always this battle, but slowly it is moving in the right direction. They managed to prosecute the Rangers.”

The trial concluded on August 12, 2011. The defense appealed. And on August 17, Buriro and Mirza flew to the United States with the permission of the Pakistani government. As prosecutors in the anti-terrorism court, they’d been selected by the U.S. Consulate in Karachi to attend a program convened by the Defense Institute of International Legal Studies at the Newport, R.I., naval station. The course fell under the rubric of the Kerry-Lugar Act’s training and capacity-building; the Pakistanis sent military and intelligence officers as well. Even in the United States, Buriro said, he came under pressure from Pakistani military officers not to give a briefing on the Rangers case because it would “cause defamation and seriously damage the reputation of Pakistan.” He went ahead with the briefing anyway.

Much of the physical and psychological intimidation of journalists and judicial officials is precipitated by the perception that they are either working with the United States against Pakistan’s interests or exposing the ISI-jihadi networks. The experience of Buriro and Mirza was no exception. On the prosecutors’ return to Karachi, the agencies began hounding them. “In the Karachi bar association we were interrogated by the ISI officers many times: ‘Why did we go to America for training? What type of training? Why did we give a briefing on the Rangers case in America? Why were you invited? All others were uniformed persons from other countries,’” Buriro said.

Buriro and Mirza were trouble for the army and the intelligence. They understood the relationship between the jihadis and the agencies, and they knew how uninterested the establishment was in prosecuting terrorists.

“The agencies are not interested in convictions of extremist guys,” Buriro said.

Every week, the prosecutors would get a visit from ISI and military intelligence officers to discuss the terrorism cases, to find out how many were being tried, how many pending. “And always they’d say, ‘Why are you going after good Muslims?’ or ‘What is the case against [Lashkar-e-Janghvi leader] Akram Lahori? He is working for Islam. Why are you working against him?’ We replied that the government gave us the case. They should withdraw it.”

The MQM behaves with a little more subtlety but not much. As soon as Buriro and Mirza returned to Karachi, they began work on the Wali Khan Babar case. 

Buriro believes that Babar’s reporting got him in trouble—coverage of extortion, targeted killings, electricity theft, land-grabbing, riots. “In Gulestan-e-Jauhar area, for example, which is dominated by the MQM, people were using electricity without meters, not paying the electric company, and MQM was charging the fee and collecting the money on their own behalf,” Buriro said. “When this story was reported and was aired, the MQM threatened Wali Khan Babar. In his last days he reported on the feud in Pehlwan Goth over land-grabbing between MQM and PPP. The investigation revealed that the MQM had tried to murder Wali Khan several times.”

As soon as Buriro inherited the case, he began getting anonymous threatening phone calls. Still, he studied the case thoroughly. “I concluded that the police did not investigate the case properly. If an offender or defendant gives a statement before the police in an interrogation, that statement is not admissible before the court of law. It has to be before a judicial magistrate. The police had violated and damaged the entire case.”

In part, Buriro doesn’t blame them. The police officers are afraid. Those who took park in the crackdown against the MQM in the 1990s have almost all been murdered in retaliation. As interior minister, Rehman Malik frequently visited MQM headquarters and publicly admired Altaf Hussain. The message inevitably trickles down to the entire police body. Those who want to do their jobs are thwarted or, as in the case of the constables investigating Babar’s case, killed.

Buriro nevertheless called the investigating officer to find out why he’d left so many legal lacunae in the case. “It’s very weak,” Buriro said. “All the [officers] investigating terrorism are less educated, less qualified, not knowing the law well.” The obstacles facing these officers are twofold. On one hand are practical problems such as inadequate criminal justice training, insufficient funding for forensics, deficient security. And then there are the power politics: The civilian government gets its arm twisted by the groups with which it has formed alliances, like the religious parties, which back the jihadis, or the MQM, which has its own militant wing.

“When I inquired to the investigating officer about the fate of the case, he was reluctant to reply properly. So off the record, he told me, ‘I’m helpless,’” Buriro said. “We were now a threat because we the prosecutors, according to the anti-terrorism act, are empowered to call anyone as a witness whom we deem fit and proper. According to the anti-terrorism court, if any [officer] is conducting defective investigations, he is liable to be convicted by the court.”

Ironically, the prosecutors were warned of the danger they were facing by MQM “informants”—the clerks in their own anti-terrorism court. “The clerks told us, ‘Please don’t touch the case if you want to stay alive. For the sake of God, if you want to see your families don’t touch this case. Every court copy is sent to Nine Zero,’” Buriro recalled. The judges and prosecutors understand that everything going on in the courts is reported to the MQM. It’s another form of intimidation. The institutional protection for the MQM goes right to the top. As one human rights lawyer told me: “The ISI tacitly supports the MQM. Once Wali Khan was murdered, the MQM has its links with the ISI. MQM has the whole police in their hands. It’s infiltrated institutions in Karachi. They have a kind of power to instill fear. Those who’ve been accused of this murder will be tried and acquitted, saying there’s not sufficient evidence.”

Which may be one of the many reasons Buriro and Mirza were fired just a few weeks after their return from the United States. “When we were removed, we approached the prosecutor general of Sindh to find out why we were condemned unheard, why we were sacked without any justification,” Buriro told me. “He told us, ‘Keep your mouths mum. It is better for you.’” The agencies were not only threatening Buriro and Mirza but their families as well. Their children were interrogated “to exert mental stress on us,” Buriro recalled. The prosecutors kept looking to the judicial system for protection, but it was in vain. As the two prepared to file an appeal with the bar association, their superiors told them to drop the matter. With little left to lose, Buriro, Mirza, and colleagues called a news conference. They spoke out against the agencies and blamed the PPP government for failing to protect its own.

This seemed to make matters worse. The ISI ordered them to appear at the offices of the head of Sindh intelligence at noon on December 22, 2011. The prosecutors were nervous and sought advice from their journalist friends. “They told us, ‘They will try to make you their own agent. If you refuse, they will harm you. So many people have been murdered mysteriously in Pakistan, so many have been taken hostage by agencies.’ They told us to leave the country immediately,” Buriro said.

At 6 a.m. on December 22, they left Karachi and headed for the United States. Today there is a new prosecutor in the Wali Khan Babar case—and a new murder. On November 11, 2012, two gunmen aboard a motorcycle killed Haider Ali, the only remaining eyewitness in the case, near his home in the Soldier Bazaar area of Karachi. He was meant to testify in court two days later. He was also meant to be underground and protected. Abdul Maroof, the new prosecutor, complained to journalists that police had not provided proper protection and that the criminal networks were so powerful they had no problem eliminating a witness days before his testimony. 

(Photo by AP)

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