July Issue 2010

By | News & Politics | Published 14 years ago

Old fears resurfaced in the doctors’ community when a doctor was gunned down on May 10 this year in Karachi’s SITE area. It brought back chilling memories of the 74 Shia doctors who were murdered in cold blood between the early ’90s and 2002. And their fears were not unfounded. Four more doctors were subsequently targeted.

The first target, Dr Syed Haider Abbas, 54, was on his way home from Metroline Hospital when two men on a motorbike shot and killed him on the spot. But this was no ‘street crime gone wrong.’ The motive behind this one lay in the decade-old problem of sectarian hatred. A father of two, Dr Haider Abbas was working as an E.N.T. specialist at Metroline Hospital, in the Metroville area of Karachi. He had moved back to Karachi in May 2008 after living abroad for 10 years. Inspector Azeem Zaman of the Site-A Police Station, where the FIR was filed, maintains that an investigation is underway and “to call it a sectarian killing would be tantamount to drawing a hasty conclusion.”

However, the victim’s family is convinced that Haider Abbas’s murder is sectarian in nature. Abbas’s sister-in-law, Batool Raza, says that if it were a robbery or a mobile-snatching case, the victim’s belongings would have been missing. “My brother-in-law’s wallet and mobile phone were intact and both items were handed over to his family by police officials at the site. He was killed on the spot without any altercation with the killers. At least that’s what the police told my family,” she says.

According to Batool, the sole reason why Dr Abbas left, back in 1997, was the wave of sectarianism in the country. Dr Abbas was repeatedly denied jobs in various hospitals on the grounds that his name would create “security problems for the administration” as several doctors belonging to the Shia sect were being gunned down outside their clinics and hospitals. Dr Abbas was not known to be politically or religiously affiliated with any group. According to Batool, “He was quiet and polite, and usually kept a low profile.” But when has character deterred sectarian terrorists from targeting innocent Shias?

Dr Abbas’s murder was followed by the target killing of four other doctors in June, bringing the total to five in the last two months. The trend became clearer as two of them — Dr Junaid Hussain and Dr Hassan Raza Bokhari — were killed in Karachi within a span of 36 hours at the beginning of the month. Dr Hussain was shot dead in New Karachi as he was leaving work at night to go home, and Dr Bokhari, 32, was killed in the wee hours of the morning outside the National Medical Centre as he was leaving for home after completing his night duty. As the wave of targeted killing continued, another doctor, Zahid Hussain, was killed near his own private clinic in Landhi on June 17.

Terming the killings sectarian in nature, Dr Habib Soomro, secretary general of the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA), said that, once again, doctors were being targeted because they are “easy targets” and can be located in their clinics and hospitals.

“These killings indicate that some elements are trying to terrorise doctors,” says Dr Samrina Hashmi, former general secretary of the PMA. Targeting prominent people creates “terror, anarchy and lawlessness — and that is what such elements want,” says Dr Hashmi.

From the early ’90s to 2000, 67 doctors were killed by sectarian terrorists who ran amok on the streets of Karachi. Among them were some Sunni doctors, who, by virtue of their names, were mistaken for Shias. The following year saw an incremental rise in the killings, with seven doctors being killed in one year. Shia doctors were advised to change their clinic timings and their routes to places of work. Some even moved around with bodyguards and hordes of them left Pakistan and settled abroad. What is worse is that these are not sporadic killings; it is an organised crime perpetuated by structured groups.

Incidentally, Professor Adibul Hassan Rizvi, the pioneering spirit behind one of Karachi’s finest medical institutes, the Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation (SIUT), is also said to be on the sectarian hit list. He was offered police protection by the government, which he politely declined.

According to a Newsline report in 2001, informed sources allege that either Sipah-e-Sahaba or its militant wing Lashkar-e-Jhangvi are involved in many of the sectarian killings. The report quoted a now assassinated MMA leader as saying that intelligence agencies and some members of the police force were propping up these violent groups. Even Dr Soomro of the PMA accuses the banned Islamist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) of being behind the killings of many Shias between 1997 — 2003 and says there is the possibility of their involvement in the present surge of killings. “Who knows? They may be on the prowl again,” says Dr Soomro.

Dr Tipu Sultan, principal of Bahria University, seconds Dr Soomro’s view that LeJ was, indeed, behind the murders. “Targeting doctors, especially general practitioners, is very easy,” says Dr Tipu, “as they are like sitting ducks and can easily be located in their clinics and outside hospitals. But to kill scores of doctors from a particular community means that there is an organised group behind it. We were informed in 2002 that the accused in every case had been from LeJ, but we have yet to be informed about what happened after those arrests.”

Government apathy aside, did the doctors’ community step in to save the lives of the Shia doctors?

“The doctors were not united in their efforts, when Shia doctors were being murdered on a daily basis,” says Dr Soomro. The mass killings would have raised a furore among doctors anywhere else in the world “but here, they didn’t. Consequently, many Shia doctors opted to quietly leave the country to save their lives.”

When asked if the PMA has approached the government recently to ensure that Shia doctors are protected, Dr Soomro says that the PMA is not powerful enough to dictate terms to the state. But “in the past, when such incidents were taking place on a daily basis, we asked the government to issue arms licenses to the doctors and some 23 doctors submitted their NIC cards to get the licenses, but nothing happened.” Protest rallies were also staged in order pressurise the government to trace the criminals. Dr Soomro says that the Sindh Governor in Pervez Musharraf’s regime, Mohammed Mian Soomro, was also in contact with them. “FIRs were registered, reports were compiled and commissions were set up to investigate the murders, but nothing concrete came out of it. The cases are still pending in the courts and the murderers are roaming free.”

A former Citizens-Police Liaison Committee (CPLC) chief, Sharfuddin Memon, says that the involvement of “Taliban-like forces” working to create mayhem in Karachi cannot be ruled out. “And even if these forces are made defunct, they form splinter groups that then continue with their mission.” Apart from that, Memon says that the police department’s investigation and forensic units lack the necessary equipment, which makes it difficult to follow up on the cases. “However, the weakest end of the investigation is the prosecution, which fails to collect and provide the relevant evidence,” says Memon. “Consequently most of the criminals are exonerated, which emboldens them to continue in the same vein.”

The Sindh Home Department has now set up a Doctors Protection Cell, which is headed by Senior Superintendent of Police, Khurram Waris. But unless the police is provided the requisite facilities, and the judiciary the necessary evidence to proceed with the cases, the perpetrators of these heinous hate crimes will continue to stalk and strike more Shia doctors and deprive this country of some of its finest medical brains.

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