February issue 2010
Interview: Waseem Ahmed
“Criminals have entered every political party”
– Waseem Ahmed, Capital City Police Officer, Karachi
Q: What are the causes for the recent surge of violence in Karachi?
A: One of the major security challenges in Karachi is that it is awash with weapons. And there is an urgent need to launch a campaign to seize all illegal weapons in the city. There is a law in place — Surrender of Illicit Weapons Act 1991 — under which offenders will get a 15-day notice to surrender their illicit weapons or face life imprisonment. However, this act is not being implemented. Instead, possessors of illegal weapons are tried under the normal law, which stipulates a maximum punishment of three years for this offence. Judges also take a lenient view of this crime and grant bail to the accused merely on personal surety.
Another factor which has aggravated this problem is the generosity with which the federal and provincial governments dole out arms licenses for both prohibited and unprohibited bore weapons. On the one hand, we allow a free flow of both illegal and licensed weapons; on the other, we expect a decline in violence and crime. It is a huge contradiction. I have already written a letter to the government, requesting a curb in the flow of arms and ammunition.
Q: What was the government’s reaction to your letter?
A: The PPP and the MQM are in a coalition government. Until both these parties agree on the issue, nothing can be done. When Prime Minister Gilani visited Karachi, I raised this issue with him; he promised to look into it.
Q: What efforts are the police making to seize illegal weapons?
A: Their performance has not been very impressive. In 2009, the police seized, on average, 16 weapons a day, bringing the total number of seized weapons to more than 5,000 in a year. In 2008, this average was just 14 weapons a day. I am extremely disturbed by this result and have issued orders to all officers to double their efforts. For 2010, we have set a target of seizing at least 32 illicit weapons a day in Karachi.
We have to look at the problem of policing in Karachi objectively. We are under-staffed. In a mega city like Karachi, with a population of 16 million, the total strength of the police force is just 34,000, which means there is one policeman for around 500 citizens. In the 1950s, this ratio was one to 250. Other Asian countries have a similar ratio of one official per 250 citizens. Even out of this total strength of 34,000, around 5,000 are deployed to guard national and provincial assembly members, ministers, advisors, government officials, religious leaders, politicians and even journalists. Many of them also demand a vehicle for escort purposes. We need to revamp the police department and double the size of the force.
Q: What factors sparked the latest bout of violence in Karachi?
A: The tit-for-tat killings were triggered by the murder of an Urdu-speaking boy, who was apparently in love with a Baloch woman. The murder took place on January 7, and led to more than 32 killings in just four days.
The problem is that there are anti-social elements and criminals present in the rank and files of every political party. The police arrest them, but they influence the neutrality of the police through their political clout. If we really want effective policing, the police should [be allowed to remain] neutral and there should be no political influence [wielded on them]. Unless we have a commitment from political parties [to ensure] the neutrality of the police, the situation will remain challenging.
Q: Lyari is being described as the hub of criminal gangs and mafias. Why have the police failed to take any action against them?
A: It would be highly unjust to say that Lyari is the hub of criminals. Lyari is, no doubt, an under-developed and poverty-ridden neighbourhood — it is flush with drugs, gambling dens and weapons. But it would be wrong to say that the police do not have a writ over there or that they have failed to take any action. The police killed the notorious gangster Rehman Dakait in 2009. This speaks volumes about our commitment.
The recent violence was the result of the enmity between Urdu-speaking and Baloch criminals, in which militants of both parties (MQM and PPP) were also dragged in. There is a lot of political interference, not just when dealing with criminals in Lyari but also in other parts of the city. We are not getting a free hand.
To repeat what I said earlier, the roots of ethnic violence lie in the fact that criminals have entered every political party. Whenever these criminals are arrested, political parties come to their rescue. This practice needs to be denounced.
Q: How do you explain the failure of the police in controlling the violence following the bombing of the Muharram 10 procession?
A: I was standing at Tibet Centre when the explosion occurred at 4:13 p.m. at Light House. The exact location where the bombing occurred and the last building, the Plastic Market that was damaged in the violence, cover a patch of less than half a kilometre. The [Muharram] procession was moving at that time and our men were deployed not just on both sides of the road, but also on the rooftops. When the angry youngsters were setting ablaze shops and buildings, we didn’t use force because the procession was passing through this patch. Had we used force, it could have resulted in a terrifying situation. Imagine the reaction [of the participants of the procession] if an alam had fallen or there was a stampede. I will not forward any conspiracy theory for this violence. It was the reaction of some of the participants of the Muharram procession. The young people were really charged.
The shops and buildings which were set ablaze contained highly inflammable items like perfumes, batteries, plastic goods and cigarette lighters. The problem was the weak fire-fighting response. I made two calls to the chief secretary and the nazim, assuring them of full security for the fire brigade vehicles, but they came late. What’s more, precious time was wasted when the fire-fighting trucks went for refills. The problem is that this city does not have a good fire-fighting capacity.
Q: Have you taken any action against those people who set ablaze public and private property?
A: At least 50 of them have been identified through the camera footage and out of them 32 have been arrested. Twelve of them have already been sent to jail. Most of the weapons looted from the two shops have also been recovered. We wanted to take them to the anti-terrorism court, but the respected judge told us it was a lower court case. So we are pursuing these cases over there. Those who have been arrested have no past criminal record. They were participants of the procession.
Q: So despite all the criticism of the police, you appear to be satisfied with your boys’ performance.
A: I am proud of my men and officers. In the last two years, following the suicide attack on Mohtarama Benazir Bhutto’s procession [on October 18, 2007], there have been no terrorist acts in Karachi. It is not that the terrorists did not plan anything. It was the police that countered them. In 2009, we arrested 67 terrorists and killed six, while 25 police officials laid down their lives. I can promise the people of Karachi that we won’t let them down.
Amir Zia is a senior Pakistani journalist, currently working as the Chief Editor of HUM News. He has worked for leading media organisations, including Reuters, AP, Gulf News, The News, Samaa TV and Newsline.