Karachi is at siege by an array of criminals such as the Taliban and from splinter groups with political support. Over 2,200 people were victims of homicide in the city last year – the highest number in nearly two decades. Yet relatively only a few of those killings were successfully investigated and prosecuted. Ali Sher Jakhrani, a legal advisor to the police, says that over the last few years, about 23% of murder investigations led to a conviction. A 2011 report by Pakistan’s Human Right Commission put the number as low as 10%. The upsurge of violence in the city has led the Karachi branch of Pakistan’s Supreme Court to scrutinise the city’s police. Chaudry Aslam, who heads the anti-extremism unit of Karachi’s criminal investigation department, blames the low conviction rate on the judiciary’s unwillingness to accept testimony by police officials. Pakistani law does not place any restrictions on police testimony as evidence. In the 2009 case of Barkat Ali, Justice Arshad Khan of the Sindh High Court ruled that evidence offered by police “may be treated as good as evidence of any other independent witness.” But experts say that judges often disregard police testimony because of the reputation of Karachi’s police force for corruption and subservience to political powers. In 2010, Transparency International ranked Pakistan’s police as the most corrupt institution in the country.
“In Britain, the courts rely on police testimonies because they know the police must have completed the due investigation, but in Pakistan, the reputation of the police makes the judges wary of their word,” says Advocate Atif Rasool, an expert on Pakistani criminal law.Another reason for the low conviction rate is the unavailability of witnesses.
“Section 103 of Code of Criminal Procedure directs us to produce witnesses if a crime is committed in a densely populated area,” says Aslam. “When we fail, we are asked by the courts to prosecute the witnesses for not cooperating with the police.”However experts say that many witnesses in criminal cases in Pakistan often refuse to cooperate - because of well-founded fears of reprisals, or concerns at a lengthy court proceeding. 80 per cent of 60 senior Karachi police investigators surveyed by The Express Tribune said that witnesses fear reprisals from militant organisations or want to avoid being drawn into a difficult trial. Shahadat Awan is the lead prosecutor in the province of Sindh, of which Karachi is the capital city. He contends that a witness protection program is urgently needed, but says that witnesses’ reluctance to testify is only one of the reasons for the poor conviction rate. Others, he says, are education and training.
“Most of our officers are barely educated in law but are up against seasoned barristers. How can they ever investigate and prepare a case that would stand ground against experienced lawyers?” he asks.Only three of 60 senior officers surveyed by the The Express Tribune had graduate degrees in law. More than one-third, 21, had only a high school certificate at most. One of the senior investigative officers noted that the 14 month training for junior level investigative officers focuses more on physical exercises than laws and investigative procedures. He further adds that in his 23 years of service, most of the officers had little understanding of what they were doing.
“Like when we classify cases [in cold files] which can’t be resolved due to a lack of evidence, we do it by a now defunct law,” said the officer, who like other officers interviewed, requested not to be named.Farooq Awan is a lead officer based in Karachi’s busy Saddar neighbourhood. He suggests that lifting the requirement to produce witnesses could help increase the conviction rate.
“Unlike in drug arrests where courts do accept the testimonies of Anti-Narcotics forces as sole evidence, the police in Karachi don’t enjoy any such credence and so these criminals are released on bail, sometimes in 24 hours.”Awan says that almost100-150 weapons are seized daily in Karachi, yet most of those arrested are released due to the stringent evidence rules. Karachi’s former police chief, Fayyaz Ahmed Laghari, told the high court in February that his department has only 250 investigation officers in a city of 17 million people. According to reports by groups including the Asia Society and Human Rights Watch of Pakistan, the government has failed to carry out reforms and has instead used the police to victimise opponents or avenge personal vendettas. Police insiders say that many officers are conscientious and honest, but are overwhelmed by difficult conditions. Most work 12 hours a day, six days a week, for pay of less wages that barely cover food and housing. Yet, history reveals that Pakistan’s government is capable of reform. The country’s Motorway Police is well equipped and widely known for its integrity and professionalism. It was ranked among the 13 most corruption-free governmental organisation of the world by Transparency International in 2011. Observers see some kind of progress. A recent court order to allow police officials directly approach cellular companies for telephone records, which was previously done via intelligence agencies and took months, was appreciated by many. According to 43 of the 60 officers interviewed by The Express Tribune, another step in the right direction would be to increase the time period to submit investigation report to the courts to one month. It is currently set at 17 days. They say, at any given time, officers are investigating as many as five cases simultaneously, and so they argue that in major cases like homicides and bombings, the window should be extended. Read more by Azhar here or follow him on Twitter @Ali_AzharFateh