June Issue 2007

By | News & Politics | Published 17 years ago

May 12, Karachi: It was a day that even Karachi with its legacy of bloodletting will not soon forget. Perhaps never before had militants armed with deadly weapons been given such carte blanche to murder their political opponents at will. Nor had the law-enforcement agencies so deliberately turned their backs on the carnage taking place around them.

The events of that fateful day were set in motion when the suspended chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, accepted an invitation to address the Karachi Bar Association on May 12. In response, Karachi’s ruling party, Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the Sindh government’s coalition partner, declared it would hold a rally on the same day in support of President Musharraf. In fact, the chief justice was asked to cancel his proposed trip. “No one will be allowed to do anything in Karachi. This country belongs to everyone, but Karachi belongs to us,” proclaimed Nawab Mirza, leader of the MQM in the National Assembly.

Official sources later revealed that when the chief justice remained undeterred, the provincial government called a meeting of senior officials and instructed them that even if the judge arrived in Karachi, he should at no cost be allowed to leave the airport and reach the Sindh High Court building, where he was scheduled to address members of the bar. Similarly, no one from the legal profession was to be allowed to reach the venue.

When Sindh Chief Secretary Shakil Durrani learnt of these plans, he wrote a letter to the officers concerned that such a course of action was not only in contempt of the High Court’s orders to provide safe passage to the visiting judge, but it could adversely impact the law and order situation.

According to Sindh government insiders, a meeting was subsequently convened, which was attended by the Sindh Advisor for Home Affairs, Waseem Akhtar, and other senior government officials including the provincial home secretary. An official source privy to this meeting revealed that when Shakil Durrani reiterated his position, one of his junior officers interrupted him to say that they should follow the instructions of the home adviser, adding, “Sir, you should be able to understand from where these orders have been issued.”

The consequences of this approach soon became clear. On May 12, with the police and security forces deployed for the occasion standing by as silent spectators, marauding gangs of activists belonging to the MQM blocked all the roads leading to the airport, torched vehicles and seized control of the city. When convoys of workers belonging to the opposition parties, on their way to the airport to welcome the visiting judge, tried to circumvent the barriers put up by the Sindh administration the night before, they were set upon by militants at several places. Gunmen brazenly displaying tri-color MQM flags tore off on motorbikes after firing G-3, Uzi and AK-47 rifles from the overhead bridges located at Shahrah-e-Faisal — the city’s main artery to the airport.

Those who managed to escape the gunmen were targeted by militants who had taken up positions on the rooftops of some of the apartment buildings along the thoroughfare. Many died where they fell. Assailed by gunfire from all directions, their companions were able to do little more than plead for help while the injured bled to death in front of their eyes. Ambulances, operated by private NGOs and local philanthropists, found it virtually impossible to reach the wounded. In fact, at least one Edhi ambulance driver who was attempting to take the wounded to the hospital was shot dead along with his passengers. Overall, there were armed ambushes at 16 different locations across the city with the major incidents taking place on Shahrah-e-Faisal.

Irshad Channa, a local with no affiliation to any political party but who wanted to see the “festivity” in the city which was all set to greet the judge, said that he joined the PPP and ANP-led rally near Sheraton hotel. According to him, when their motorcade reached near Aisha Bawany School on Shahrah-e-Faisal, they found the road blocked. “Suddenly, heavy firing broke out from all directions,” he recalled. “There was firing from the school, from the Sea Breeze apartments located across the road and from the flyover.”

Although the firing continued for over two hours, no one from the administration showed up to rescue the participants of the rally, many of whom were injured in the hail of bullets. “And this, despite the fact that there’s a Corps Commander’s office located right there, the ISI office is across the road and a police station is located hardly a stone’s throw away,” says Channa.

Mohammed Moosa, another Karachiite who was trapped near Malir Halt, also located on Shahrah-e-Faisal, stated that heavy firing started just a few yards away from the headquarters of the Frontier Corps (FC) police, but no one emerged from inside the building to help those under fire. At least 12 people were killed and scores of others injured at the Malir halt signal.

Across town, when members of the legal profession turned into the road leading to the Sindh High Court, they were intercepted by youth with pistols tucked into their jeans. These men, mainly belonging to the MQM and standing guard on the road, checked every individual’s identity to prevent members of the Sindh High Court bar from reaching their destination. Those lawyers who refused to comply were beaten black and blue. Many of those who managed to escape their assailants and make it to the court, later showed their injuries to the mediamen present to cover the scheduled event.

By late evening, when the guns had finally fallen silent and the smoke from the torched vehicles had dissipated in the skies over Karachi, the death toll stood at 42, and the number of injured was over 150.

In the following days, condemnation of the provincial government in general and the MQM in particular reached fever-pitch as the public and political parties alike held it responsible for what had transpired on May 12.

Sindh Advisor for Home Affairs Waseem Akhtar admitted that he had given instructions to the administration to block roads using containers, buses and trucks, but claimed he did so to prevent the two rallies from coming face to face which, in his view, could have resulted in even more fatalities. However, he offered no satisfactory explanation as to why the 15,000 policemen — including 3000 called in from interior Sindh — the FC or the para-military troops were either missing from the strife-torn areas or else took no action against the armed youth. According to him, the law-enforcement personnel had been asked to remain unarmed on the day in question.

However, some of the police officers deployed from interior Sindh said that when they reported for duty “to maintain law and order,” they were asked by their superiors to surrender their personal weapons, which they normally carry with them as protection against the scores of enemies they might have made in the course of their work.

Interestingly, the security plan originally drawn up by the Sindh Police had identified sensitive areas between the airport and the Sindh High Court, and suggested deployment of heavy contingents of the police in those areas to ensure safe passage for the judge and maintain law and order in the city. This included deploying a minimum of 150 policemen, led by at least one official of Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) rank at each of the flyovers and overhead bridges above Shahrah-e-Faisal.

This plan never saw the light of day. The police force was virtually missing all day, not only from the flyovers and overhead bridges, but from the entire route. At the few locations where they were present, they never left their positions nor in any way challenged the militants running amok. A television camera actually caught one police contingent napping by the road side.

The instructions given to the police administration in the city were only to block the roads leading to the airport and the Sindh High Court building. According to some senior police officials, the provincial government had obtained nearly 1,000 containers from Karachi Port Trust and confiscated several private trucks and buses for the purpose. At least 20 buses of the NED Engineering University and University of Karachi were hijacked to the same end.

Some of the scenes captured by the television networks, especially those by Aaj TV, and later uploaded on various websites, include some highly incriminating evidence against the government. In them, a Corolla and a Liana can be seen ferrying weapons to the militants at various locations; both vehicles, which are black, bear the distinctive green government number plates and have blue hooters on top. The remaining footage is equally chilling for another reason: it not only shows the extent to which the young men are armed and familiar with the art of using these weapons, but the assured manner in which they conduct themselves clearly indicates that they are well-trained in combat fighting.

Far from taking any responsibility, however, the Sindh police chief and the provincial home secretary later held a press conference in which they not only absolved themselves of the responsibility for the carnage but actually claimed credit for keeping the number of casualties down to a minimum. “If we had not blocked these roads and both the rallies had come face to face, there may have been hundreds of dead,” contended the acting Sindh inspector general. He also claimed that the police was handicapped because the visiting judge had not provided them any “map” indicating his route to the High Court building. Incidentally, there is only one main road that leads from the airport to the High Court building, the same road where the maximum number of people were shot in cold blood.

While the police and the FC made no effort to prevent these killings on the day in question, they have, despite the passage of several weeks, made no effort to identify and arrest those responsible. Earlier, the Sindh police had announced that they had installed CCTV cameras along Shahrah-e-Faisal, where most of the deaths took place. Despite that, they have not yet revealed the identities of those involved in the carnage.

Likewise, TV channels and print photographers covering the event captured images of those involved in the firing incidents. In, perhaps, what was the most publicised incident of that day, heavy firing took place in the vicinity of the Aaj TV office. The staff of the local television channel were seen making frantic calls to every one they knew in the government to come to their aid. But the police have not even bothered to view this footage, let alone apprehend anyone captured on it.

According to insiders, the 19 arrests the police claim to have made in connection with the violence are of individuals who were giving vent to their rage over the killings, and were either pelting stones at police vans or setting public property ablaze. None of those arrested were involved in the firing itself.

Some five years back, the federal government had launched a de-weaponisation drive in the country. Other than illegal weapons, the drive had sought to reclaim weapons of prohibited bore, such as AK-47 rifles, from people who had been issued licenses for them. Incidentally, all the weapons used on May 12 were of prohibited bore, but the police made no effort to confiscate them or apprehend those in possession of them.

Ironically for the police and other law- enforcing agencies, which were roundly condemned for their inaction, the MQM too, keen to pass the buck in an effort at damage control, has begun asking questions as to why they were “mysteriously” missing from the scene. “Where were the police and Rangers during the bloodbath? It’s very difficult to find the answer to this question given that the country’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan’s murder investigation is yet to be solved,” said MQM supremo Altaf Hussain in an open letter in the following days.

Similarly, Dr. Farooq Sattar, at a press conference in Islamabad, said that the inadequate deployment of Rangers in Karachi was to blame for the violence on May 12.

Farooq Sattar also blamed ANP and PPP activists of firing back at MQM workers and screened video clips “to prove” his allegations.

While the air remains murky with accusations flying thick and fast, there’s no police inquiry on the anvil, as the Sindh administration has refused to hold an independent judicial inquiry into the events of May 12. According to insiders, the government is balking at the prospect of any judicial inquiry as they are well aware that if a judicial commission is set up under the present circumstances, they will be unable to rein in an increasingly emboldened judiciary whose investigation may expose the real culprits. Meanwhile, the Sindh High Court has taken suo moto notice.

According to insiders, the federal government had allowed the city to bleed with MQM’s connivance because they knew well enough that the chief justice’s defiance had triggered a movement which could prove to be Islamabad’s nemesis, and for that reason he had to be stopped in his tracks.

These sources contend that the MQM expected that this time too, as in the ’80s or early ’90s, it could get away with murder. “What they did not realise is that this is a new era, where hundreds of TV camera crews and print journalists were on the roads and placed at vantage points to capture the events,” says a source. “They simply under-estimated the situation, and now that they are exposed to condemnation across the board, they are resorting to damage control strategies,” he explains.

However, some political observers aver that this time the MQM has damaged its image irretrievably. The events of May 12 have demonstrated that the party has yet to demonstrate tolerance for political views at variance with its own. Hundreds of people from different ethnicities, who had joined MQM when it was converted to Muttahida from Mohajir Qaumi Movement, have either tendered their resignations or slipped away from non-mohajir-dominated areas and gone into hiding after the killings; many Urdu-speaking people in Karachi are at pains to stress their distance from the MQM. Although the party may still believe that Karachi belongs to them, an increasing section of the city begs to differ.